We rarely give them a second thought, their simplistic or complicated nature a given in modern moviemaking. But there was a time, decades back, when the titles for a film were just that – words on celluloid, a way of recognizing cast and crew without adding or detracting from the overall cinematic experience. There were no fancy forays into subject/subjective commentary, no attempt at establishing tone or mood. Even as the studios recognized a need for a more interactive introduction, they were reluctant to let the titles ‘take over.’ Today, a movie without an intricate preface is practically unheard of. We expect the prologue to match the presentation. Yet without the pioneering efforts of someone like Saul Bass (famous for helping Hitchcock set up his seminal masterworks with amazing credit sequences), we never have the creepshow slash of Se7en, or the mad mouse dioramas of Dinner for Schmucks.
Now, web based enterprise The Submarine Channel has released a DVD, Forget the Film, Watch the Titles! filled with modern examples of the new school. These opening titles, for film, TV, video games, and the occasional corporate presentation, illustrate the changing face of the production preamble. In some cases, the beginning is better than anything the item itself has to offer (Splice? Breadcrumbs?) and argue for a level of artistic achievement that no director or actor can match. In other instances, the choices challenge the perception that all medium is collaborative. Even some of the accompanying interviews suggest that title designers defiantly push the boundaries of their form as a means of making a name for themselves, outside the immediate needs of the project they are supporting.
The key word here is “complement” – no, not ‘compliment,’ which means to praise or flatter, but the alternate spelling which is used to signify counterbalance, an offset, or something which sits alongside an/or supports. For almost everyone here, Nic Benns and Miki Kato from Momoco (Copelia) to Laurent Brett (Les Chevaliers du Ciel, L’Ennemi Intime), Rogier Hendriks and Kasper Verweij of Onesize (OFFF 2009, Playgrounds 2009) to Darius Ghanai (Good Bye Lenin! , Palermo Shooting), the chance to set the stage for the upcoming idea is intoxicating. Even when working alongside a filmmaker or firm, it’s the old ‘first impression’ adage exaggerated and emphasized. These people recognize their need to impress, the next job almost always coming from a reaction to their previous work or reputation.
While a film featuring a pair of scientists playing God (and having sex with their biological experiment) may not play, it’s hard to deny Splice‘s brilliant David Cronenberg inspired visuals by Kook Ewo. Similarly, something like De Griezelbus (The Horror Trip) might seem like a typical terror romp, but Balder Westein’s animated credits sure suggest we’ll be scared. Howard Nourmand is also excellent at exceeding expectations. One would look at names like Bottoms Up, The Dog Problem, or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and think “dull and derivative.” But from the slowly evolving currency theme of the Oliver Stone pic to the salesmanship shown for a vanity style “Scott Caan” project (Dog), we can’t wait to see what lingers inside. That’s the beauty of seeing these sequences without the benefit of the project itself. We can free associate on what awaits our attention, and then see how closely our conclusions match the reality.
Of course, the bigger question is – why celebrate such a secondary element to the overall entertainment experience involved. Do we continue to think well of Psycho or Vertigo solely because of Bass’ amazing openings, or is there more to the concept than credits? Similarly, do bad films with signature start-ups remain immune to such a suggestion? Can the work of the artist stand alongside a lesser example of same. There is no contextual comparison, no attempt to match the intriguing work of Superfad on 13 with the final product or how the cartoony “Pussycat” come-on for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers contrasts the biopic’s darker turns. Indeed, Submarine makes us take each piece exclusive of what it represents, hoping that the results stand firmly on their own.
Luckily, most of them do. Brett’s Chevaliers does a nice job of channeling both science fiction and action film fact, while Captive’s Pocko/Magma is cut-out animation at its most charming. Deubal’s Ca Se Soigne reminds one of an abstract exhibition in motion, while Tournee takes this love of unusual illustration to titillating ends. Something like Moog manages to be both comedic and contemplative, while the docu-drama Cargo: Innocence Lost forges a foreword that’s as shocking and disconcerting as the subject – human trafficking – itself. One of the most memorable efforts, Trekant, finds a simplistic and satisfying way of illustrating the love life struggles of a virgin who discovers the joys of threesomes. Similarly, the aforementioned post-digital culture event – OFFF – gets a brilliant breakdown of all 38 of its corporate sponsors.
Indeed, the best thing about Forget the Film, Watch the Titles! is that it argues for a level of creative achievement far outside the middling mediocrity we’re used to, cinematically speaking. Even if many of the movies never made it out of their foreign markets and those we do recognize are still slightly outside of the norm, what resonates beyond is the inherent beauty in individual expression. These are not group think ideas or pieces prepared by and for committees. Instead, thinkers with their finger on a pulse far outside the usual are linked, employing the vision in their often unhinged head to bring new life to a rather dull subject. Several decades ago, no one could imagine using smash cuts, scrawled writing, and lots of disturbing imagery to open a typical Hollywood thriller. What Forget the Film reminds us is that, sometimes, the system needs shaking up. Otherwise, it’s all just ordinary – and who wants to sit through that?