Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Life Itself

The title search

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture title duplication do you find most annoying?”

At the thrift store up the street from my house, there’s a shelf that an enterprising employee has stocked with a selection of used books designed to make you look twice: The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Tiger’s Wife, A Reliable Wife, American Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and probably some others I’ve forgotten. It’s funny to see them lined up in a row, but there’s a reason this formula is so popular: with an average of just three words, it gives us the germ of a story—at least in terms of its central relationship—and adds a touch of color to distinguish itself from its peers. As with the premises of most bestsellers, the result is both familiar and a little strange, telling us that we’re going to be told the story of a marriage, which is always somewhat interesting, but with a distinctive twist or backdrop. It’s perhaps for analogous reasons that the three most notable mainstream thrillers of the past decade are titled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train, the last of which is still awaiting its inevitable adaptation by David Fincher. Girl, in the context of suspense, has connotations of its own: when used to refer to an adult woman, it conveys the idea that she looks harmless, but she isn’t as innocent as she seems. (And I’m far from immune from this kind of thing: if there’s one noun that challenges Girl when it comes to its omnipresence in modern thriller titles, it’s Thief.)

When you look at the huge range of words available in any language, it can feel strange to reflect that the number of marketable titles often feels like a limited pool. Whenever I’m about to write a new story, I check Amazon and the Internet Science Fiction Database to make sure that the title hasn’t been used before, and in many cases, I’m out of luck. (Occasionally, as with “Cryptids,” I’ll grab a title that I’m surprised has yet to be claimed, and it always feels like snagging a prime domain name or Twitter handle.) Titles stick to the same handful of variations for a lot of reasons, sometimes to deliberately evoke or copy a predecessor, sometimes—as with erotica—to enable keyword searches, and sometimes because we’ve agreed as a culture that certain words are more evocative than others. As David Haglund of Slate once observed, everyone seems to think that tacking American onto the start of a title lends it a certain gravitas. For many movies, titles are designed to avoid certain implications, while inadvertently creating new clichés of their own. Studios love subtitles that allow them to avoid the numerals conventionally attached to a sequel or prequel, which is why we see so many franchise installments with a colon followed by Origins, Revolution, Resurrection, or Genesis, or sequels that offer us the Rise of, the Age of, the Dawn of, or the Revenge of something or other. I loved both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a problem that their titles could easily have been interchanged.


Then, of course, there are the cases in which a title is simply reappropriated by another work: Twilight, The Host, Running Scared, Bad Company, Fair Game. This sort of thing can lead to its share of confusion, some of it amusing. Recently, while watching the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, my wife was puzzled by a sequence revolving around the movie Crash, only to belatedly realize that it was referring to the one by David Cronenberg, not Paul Haggis. From a legal perspective, there’s no particular reason why a title shouldn’t be reused: titles can’t be copyrighted, although you could be sued for unfair competition if enough money were on the line. Hence the inadvisability of publishing your own fantasy series called Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time, although Wheel of Thrones is still ripe for the taking. (In Hollywood, disputes over titles are sometimes used as a bullying tactic, as in the otherwise inexplicable case of The Butler, which inspired Warner Bros. to file for arbitration because it had released a silent film of the same name in 1916. There’s also the odd but persistent rumor that Bruce Willis agreed to star in Live Free or Die Hard on condition that he be given the rights to the title Tears of the Sun—which raises the question if it was worth the trouble. Such cases, which are based on tenuous legal reasoning at best, always remind me of David Mamet’s line from State and Main, which knows as much as any film about how movie people think: “I don’t need a cause. I just need a lawyer.”)

Which just reminds us that titles are like any other part of the creative process, except more so. We feel that our choices have a talismanic quality, even if their true impact on success or failure is minimal, and it’s only magnified by the fact that we only have a handful of words with which to make an impression. No title alone can guarantee a blockbuster, but we persist in thinking that it can, which may be why we return consistently to the same words or phrases. But it’s worth keeping an observation by Jorge Luis Borges in mind:

Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.

And that’s as true today as it ever was—it’s hard to think of a less interesting title than Breaking Bad. Still, the search continues, and sometimes, it pays off. Years ago, a writer and his editor were struggling to come up with a title for a debut novel, considering and discarding such contenders as The Stillness in the Water, The Silence of the Deep, and Leviathan Rising. Ultimately, they came up with over a hundred possibilities, none of them any good, and it was only twenty minutes before they were set to go to the printer that the editor finally gave up and said: “Okay, we’ll call the thing Jaws.”

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2015 at 8:53 am

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

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