There is a phenomenon that occurs with enough frequency in cinema that it might some day merit its own film studies class. I am, of course, thinking of that portentous breed of upper division course stitched together from the dross and shavings of previous lesson plans and festooned with such grandstanding titles as “The History of the Mustache in Cinema” or “Eisenstein’s ‘The Battleship Potemkin’: Why We Yawn.” The course description of my class would read something like “The grating practice of alluding to the titles of historically-based character’s creative work in lieu of credible dialogue.” Example: In “Backbeat,” a bio-pic based on erstwhile artist Stuart Stutcliffe’s days with pre-fab four Beatles’ days gigging Germany’s Reeperbahn,” the Ringo Starr character’s dialogue is spotted with song titles Lennon-McCartney had yet to pen. After a grueling set: “It’s been a hard day’s night.” Been working hard? “Eight days a week.” It’s a marvel the screenwriters didn’t have Ringo do something as distasteful as strolling into a Hamburg synagogue and saying “Hey, Jude.” One would think that the (no fewer than) three screenwriters could take a sad line and make it better.
Admittedly, drubbing a forgotten flick may seem a rather twee preoccupation for a writer, especially since its the heads of other writers that I’m ultimately hammering. Indeed, I can usually tolerate a single overtly self-conscious reference (I mean, it happens to me every time I introduce myself), but as Diana Ross might have said in her star turn as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “God Bless the child that’s got its own.”
“Title blight,” as I’ve decided to call it, borrows from the world of literature as well and is equally effective at constipating a movie. In Alan Rudolph’s exploration of 1920s Parisian expatriate life “The Moderns,” poetess and salon granddame Gertrude Stein reproaches freshman novelist Ernest Hemingway with the pithy “The sun also sets, Hemingway” a riff on the title of his breakthrough novel “The Sun Also Rises,” itself borrowed from Ecclesiastes 1:5: “the sun also ariseth” (who knows where the biblical scribe cribbed his notes, but then, shouldn’t it have been the “Son also rises?”). The fine arts are also pillaged for dialogue, as when in “The Taste of Yellow,” an actor playing Vincent Van Gogh is asked what has caught his eye as he glowers out a moonlit window. “Starry, starry night,” he replies, which is particularly grating since the phrase is the title of the Don McLean song inspired by the artist, not the actual name of his painting “A Starry Night.” I cringe doubly.
Why, I implore, must my colleagues in the screen trade demean the biz with such bilge? Why, you might ask, do I care? The short answer is “because.” The long answer, besides my natural aversion to hackery (or perhaps fear of committing it myself), is that I would rather write coupon copy than see my own bio-pic end in the mode of, say, Polanski’s “Chinatown,” with a character morbidly intoning “Forget it, Howell, it’s Nomaville.”