Perfunctory titles

‘Horrible Bosses’ poster. Image:

It’s hardly a ‘blockbuster’ announcement that the films churned out of Hollywood often lack imagination both in terms of setting and plot, but what is of note is that this process has become something that the writers and distributors don’t even deign to mask anymore. The franchise series including Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie and morepoke fun at the generic nature of creaking genre pieces, albeit as part of a meta-genre that in itself is so generic that the formula has been seamlessly repeated for countless stock types of movie. Two recent releases, however, have been given titles almost as laughably generic as the above parodies, but unfortunately, without the rudimentary hint of satire that they contain.

Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses are examples of recent movie titles that expose the sheer lack of imagination behind the projects themselves. It may very well be the case that either film contains funny moments, as you would expect from writers being paid vast sums to churn out jokes, but it is clear that these jokes are merely an inevitable consequence of the Hollywood production line; a means to the end of fulfilling a movie to be sold. It is clear because the titles of the movies expose the amount of thought and ambition behind the projects – they describe settings, not content. Indeed, it is painfully obvious that the makers of these films just came to the conclusion that people would like to see a film about a bad teacher or dislikeable bosses, and have filled out a movie from there.

Marcel Duchamp famously opined that “the title of a painting is another colour on the artist’s palette”, that the title of a work is more than just a label, but something that can and should add something wholly of its own. The makers of Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses lose out by lazily neglecting to exploit this: the films are about bad teachers and horrible bosses, so why bother thinking up titles that describe the films beyond their stick settings?

Fortunately, not all movies are based on such shaky foundations, and there are great examples of wonderful movies with ingenious and fantastic titles to match: Apocolypse Now is an eye-catching title for a movie saturated in ironic deployments of biblical language in the propaganda surrounding the war in Vietnam, and more widely against Communism, while also referencing, again ironically, the contemporary insistent chant of the anti-war movement, ‘Peace Now’. Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a fantastically absurd title that speaks to the central black humour of the picture; the absurdity of the reality that two superpowers were pointing nuclear weapons at each other, while pointing to the ironic truth that the fear of nuclear warfare led to an obsession with the bomb that hog-tied foreign policy for generations.

More recently, Chris Morris’s Four Lions provided a great example of an evocative title loaded with subtle signifiers. It hints at the genuine camaraderie and sense of identity among the bravely drawn characters, but also at the confused nature of their beliefs that lead them to a bomb plot against the nation they, as the ‘four lions’,  also identify with.

When movies are named perfunctorily, based simply on their central premise, it is an indicator that the content of the work could be equally lazy and forgettable. Take comfort, though, in the knowledge that while you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its title, if you see a movie, or anything else, with an intriguing, loaded title, you might well be treated to a work which intrigues you just as much!

by David Jackson


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