Welcome to Noticed, cafemadrid’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve seen everywhere? Allow us to explain.
What it is: Movies with “chapter titles” – text that appears alone, rather than over images, throughout the movie, between scenes. They break the movie into segments and give each segment a name.
Where it is: They are everywherebut lately they’ve been popping up mostly (though not entirely) in prestigious, arty films. no, The power of the dog, The French shipping, The Norman, The Last Duel, The Green Knight, Not alrightand The worst person in the world they all use intertitles between the movie’s chapters, and that list is by no means exhaustive.
Why you see it everywhere: The shortest answer to why we see it so often may have to do with poetry. But for the real answer, we have to go back in time.
Once upon a time, before they made noise, you had to read a lot of text to watch a movie. If language or literacy got in the way, you’d still get the gist of it – a pianist in the theater could help, plus plenty of contextual clues. But between scenes, or even just shots, on-screen text (let’s call them “intertitles”) would describe what was going on. A character’s mouth would move, and then intertitles would appear to tell you what she just said.
When silent movies began to give way to sound in the late 1920s, those functional intertitles were no longer needed to fill in the dialogue, although they were still used to provide context. For example the western from 1930 The Great Path, John Wayne’s first starring role, uses sound. But the titles are meant to tell you what’s on the minds of the people in the scene: ‘Prairie Schooners Rolling West. Praying for peace – but ready for battle.” Or, “They have not returned, those who died; they remain, and yet they go forward. Their spirit guides.” Not strictly necessary, but intended to be enlightening.
Now when you see a film with functional contextual intertitles, it’s a self-conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker, an aesthetic inclination that can be used skillfully or, in more amateurish hands, just a little silly.
In recent decades, the intertitle is back, with a twist. Modern intertitles are rarely intended to be purely informative. They are performative, self-aware and suggestive. They direct your attention or create tension.
It’s easy to attribute these to directors with high ambitions, who want to make their films feel “literary” and use standard chapters to evoke a book. (Some of these, including: The power of the dog and The Green Knightare indeed adaptations of books.) That answer seems plausible, but a bit simplistic – mainly because most books have dozens of chapters and movies usually have much less, and also because I don’t really know about directors secretly circulating their films for a to be a novel.
But there are better answers.
While it never went away completely (nothing ever happens in Hollywood), most people remember the intertitle that came back to life with Pulp FictionQuentin Tarantino’s 1994 breakout, which breaks down the nonlinear story with slightly cryptic text headings, creating chapters:
It’s easy to see how these differ from old-fashioned intertitles. They don’t tell you what a character has said. But they also don’t give context or tell you how to interpret what you’re watching. They don’t add any information, exactly – they point you to information coming up: a character, a symbol. When a gold watch now appears, sit a little straighter.
This is a clever way to use chapter titles: as a way to take you out of the story for a while and refocus your attention in a way that is fertile for the mood the filmmaker is trying to build. For example, consider how Stanley Kubrick uses them in: The shining, his seminal 1980 horror film. The Stephen King novel on which the film is based has chapter titles and they are usually descriptive: “The Interview,” “Phonebooth,” and so on. In the film, the intertitles instead mark the passage of time in a way that begins to feel eerie and erratic, in a way that writer Roger Luckhurst describes as “telescope.”[ing] time and turn[ing] the screw.” First it’s “A month later”, then “Tuesday”, then “Saturday, then “Wednesday”, “Monday, “4:00 pm”. At first glance, these just tell us that time is passing, but they do so much more, making us feel like we’re counting down to something ominous and terrifying.
In this way the intertitles become part of the story, an extra layer of intrigue to fold into the whole. And many directors have used them this way before and after Tarantino and Kubrick, from Wong Kar Wai and Lars Von Trier to both Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas. They appear in everything from Moonlight until Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They are by no means a Hollywood affectation; Directors from all over the world have used them to tell their stories.
And their refocusing of attention can bend toward different goals. In The worst person in the worldFor example, there are 12 “chapters” with titles like “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus” and “Bad Timing” and “Epilogue”. The effect is that the film feels like a series of short stories linked together about the same character, Julie. And because the movie is essentially about deciding to be the author of your own story, the intertitles add to the overall shape.
Or there are the intertitles of the Norman, which at first glance resemble your standard informational titles – “Some Years Later”, “Land of the Rus”, and so on. Yet the Norman is designed to feel like a legend drifting back to us through the mists of time, with no feints toward modernity. For example, the intertitles are rendered in Norse runes and they feel like a nod to old theatrical traditions, as if we were watching an opera or a very old form of folk theatre, rather than a movie. They invite us to forget about every action blockbuster we’ve seen and be transported to a pre-modern era.
Perhaps the most surprising series of intertitles appear in no, Jordan Peele’s latest, which crosses horror and otherworldly sci-fi with elements of westerns. The intertitles divide the film into chapters, each named after a creature—a horse, or a chimpanzee, or a…well, I won’t give it away—that’s a big part of the action. None of the titles are named after humans, which is in part intended to focus your attention on that non-human character when they appear on screen.
But no is also partly about a very early film, made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, and the descendants of the black jockey who rides the horse. History has forgotten the name of the human rider, but remembered the name of the horse (Annie G.); no‘s chapter titles reflect that sobering historical fact.
These kinds of intertitles are less about telling the action and more about creating an effect. Poets are adept at naming their work, often with the aim of choosing a title that expands the meaning of the poem in some way: adding an entendre, giving you something to look for, telling you there’s something in it. the poem comes so you hold your breath and wait for it. The headings of new chapters often do the same and indicate what you are waiting for as you read. Modern intertitles, which are used to distinguish chapters, are similar. Since sound and modern viewing habits (you understand leaps in time) render them superfluous to literally parsing the action, they have been purposely placed there by the filmmaker, who has a reason in mind.
All of these examples point to something interesting: intertitles that divide a movie into chapters help remind you that you’re watching a movie. They self-consciously interrupt the artifice of realism or authenticity, the illusion that a film can be running that makes you feel for a moment that you are living in medieval Europe or spying on the life of your friend Julie. Suddenly you are not looking at images; you read text, and that reminds you that this movie is something made by an artist who intends you to have a specific rhythmic emotional experience. It’s a way to show you the movie again.