- In Kyoto, in the hot summer rain, sweating in a poncho, fighting with my girlfriend in front of a golden temple.
- At 17, experiencing the most intense jealousy of my life, watching a classmate weep in front of The Pietà, thinking, feeling, Why can’t I feel that?
- On the way to work, sleepy, maybe a bit hungover, breaking down in tears at “Space Oddity,” concern for Major Tom, his family. Swearing off music in the early morning. News radio ever since.
- Religion is just a set of aesthetic possibilities, conditions, and experiences.
- In Cork, drinking beer on a roof in the summer sun, a wasp landed on my very eye.
- In the last year of college, writing and recording dozens of songs with friends, editing the songs into a cohesive thing, calling the thing an album, sharing it with friends, with never even once the intention of doing anything else with that music, with no dreams of anyone else hearing it, live or recorded. An album made entirely for ourselves.
- Listening to it a dozen years later, conceding that it was actually maybe very good.
- Vomiting in foreign cities.
- Wary of my own susceptibility to sentimentalism, to sentimentality, to my awful tendency to experience catharsis through a fast food commercial on television.
- Never able to feel transcendent peace in nature, despite Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, etc.—because just at the moment that the affect of transcendent peace manifests (the verb is inadequate), my awareness of the affect and the process of the affect and my feeling of the feeling of the affect spoils it all.
- Crashing into a road sign on an off ramp, walking away from the wreck, lying down on the slanted concrete abutment in the shade of a roaring overpass, feeling the best feeling, unspoiled.
- My child born—that nothing was more original, real, terrifying, beautiful.
- In dreams, sometimes: A whole other life, full, brimming, rich, real. He who wakes me wounds me, I think Nietzsche wrote. Or was it Bernhard? Or am I imagining the phrase?
- Never not jealous of a hawk in flight.
- My mother falling asleep, I kept reading until I too fell asleep.
- Vomiting into the trashcan in my classroom.
- My brother, balling up wrapping paper, hurling at me. My explosive rage.
- The snakes, the rats, the roaches I’ve killed.
- Workshopping a story in class. How I hated everyone.
- Friends jumping on my bed the afternoon of my wedding. (How did they get in?). Vomiting in the bed.
- Reading a certain novel, its plot, its construction essentially destroying a hundred or more of my own pages, my own outline, my own idea.
- A Modigliani in the New Orleans Museum of Art: Her neck was everything I remembered of the visit.
- My electric guitar, literally rusty from salt air and disuse.
- Irony as an aesthetic experience—or a defense against aesthetic experience?
- Painting the same scene in watercolors, dozens of times, with my daughter—the loquat tree, the grass, the sky. Her paintings surpassed mine so quickly.
- The rat that scuttled over my feet by the river in Chiang Mai. My horror and laughter.
- Removing dead rats from a shed as an aesthetic experience.
- All experiences are aesthetic experiences.
- Does maturity necessitate that we turn down the volume on these aesthetic experiences? That we manage the affect? That we blunt the feeling of the feeling?
- Seeing The Pietà again at 27 and moved by the memory of the classmate’s aesthetic response a decade earlier.
- The tourists crowding out Mona Lisa, I shuffled into some other room full of heavy, dark, black paintings—Caravaggios?—the names didn’t matter, the authority didn’t matter, I was 15 I think, I relaxed, I could look, I was alone, or I felt alone, it was lovely.
- My office: Prints by Goya, Picasso, Tintoretto, Leonardo. A painting by my grandmother, a dog resting, a bird and a bone nearby. Students come by to look at the giant Bosch reproduction, which I wish were more giant, more real.
- At the Dali Museum. Shock at how small some of the paintings were.
- Is there an aesthetic experience outside of sharing?
- Endlessly copying figures from comic books.
- Photographing food and sharing it on social media as a kind of thanksgiving prayer.
- Seeing the Bacon collection at MoMA, feeling a feeling that I still don’t have a name for.
- Rising early on Saturday mornings to watch a show where a man (or was it a woman?) guided me (and others, I suppose) through the rudiments of sketching animals. My grandmother made me sausages.
- My daughter’s thorough indifference to a Dürer etching in our local museum I wanted her to see. Her pleading to go to the gardens to paint with watercolors, to paint the fountain, the flowers.
- Sometimes in my dreams I write something, or paint something, or create wonderful, strange music.
- At eleven years old, sitting for a friend’s mother, who painted my portrait in watercolor. She didn’t draft in pencil, she worked so quickly. I was jealous and grateful.
- One of the reasons I love the internet so much is that it allows me to look at paintings. But looking at a painting on a screen is not the same as looking at paintings in the real.
- As a teenager, attempting wax dripping paintings in the style of Pollock, starting small fires in my bedroom, covering the scorched carpet with books, clothes, my parents sometimes not discovering the marks for weeks. Trying to explain them, but unwilling to share the paintings.
- A wish for anything that disrupts the feeling of feeling the feeling.
A brief disclaimer: I’ve never worked in feature film marketing, nor do I plan to. I don’t pretend to speak from any expertise here. I experience a gut-level reaction to words, an almost physical sensation. The reaction is especially strong to words or phrases spoken out loud, and is at times so severe I’ve wondered if I suffer from a minor form of synesthesia.
I’m constantly making mental note of the film titles that compel or repel me, and this year I’ve decided to type up a list. I’ll reiterate here and throughout the list that I do not intend to comment on the quality of the films themselves. This list is an attempt to comment on the titles on an aesthetic level alone.
Blue Caprice – I heard this title long before I ever knew what the film was and the two words were instantly drilled into my head. It’s a title vague and evocative enough to fire my imagination, but specific enough to make me wonder what the title refers to. Add to that the pleasure of the sound it makes: “Blue Caprice” is just a phrase that feels good when you say it or hear it. (as a side note: the title does in fact refer to the color and model of a notorious car driven by the beltway sniper. It’s worth pointing out that a very competent team of marketing people at Chevrolet probably spent weeks deciding on the name “Caprice” for its 1965 début; the Caprice went on to become one of the most popular cars in America. So it would be impossible to not count its success as a car title when considering its success as a film title in 2013).
Elysium – This is exactly the title studios should want for a big tent pole movie. It’s simple, one word, you can print it big on a poster/billboard/bus-wrap and it looks cool. Mention it to yr friends and they will know what yr talking about. It’s a brilliant single word title, sounds pleasing to the ear and feels good coming out of yr mouth.
In a World – What’s brilliant about this is that people who catch the reference immediately will know what they’re in for with the film, and people who don’t will still feel a sense of familiarity on an unconscious level, since they’ve undoubtedly heard these three words at the start of countless movie trailers.
The Conjuring – Great title for a horror movie. Doesn’t tell you anything about the plot but sounds definitively creepy and evocative.
Upstream Color – I’ve seen this film four times and I still have no idea what the title means. In all likelihood it’s a reference I’m not smart enough to catch, but it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever the case, it certainly sounds like it means something and upon hearing it I was instantly intrigued.
Simon Killer – Two words, each fairly innocuous. Call the movie Simon and it’s a yawn. Call it Killer and we’ve all heard it a thousand times in every language. But putting them together sparks something appealing.
Gravity – Another one word title, this time it’s a word we’ve all used before. Its use here as a title conveys the scope and importance of the film, but also its simplicity and relatability. The concept of gravity as a physical force affects every human on earth. And while the film offers a singular experience, the title suggests that it’s also one we can all understand.
The Iceman – Just sounds cool.
No One Lives – I cannot verify whether anyone in this movie actually does or does not live. Regardless, it’s a bold and eye-catching claim.
Only God Forgives – How this is not already the name of a successful Wu-Tang Clan solo record I’ll never know. It also should have already been the name of some pulpy novel by Jim Thompson or John D. MacDonald. I love the idea that Nicolas Winding-Refn thinks in such a perfect Venn diagrams of American pop-culture.
Short Term 12 – I don’t want to bash on indies that don’t have dozens of high-paid marketing execs to design their titles and ad-campaigns. I’ve been told by many trusted friends that this movie is one of the best things that happened in 2013. But the title Short Term 12 is atrocious. I’d say it’s this year’s Margin Call. What the hell is a short term 12? I still haven’t seen it so I can’t tell you for sure. I could guess but nothing I can come up with makes the movie sound appealing. I can’t understand such a cold, institutional title for what was apparently a life-affirming character drama.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – I don’t need to add to the pile here. And it’s not Lee’s fault that his last name ends with an S, but that’s just the cherry on top of everything that makes this title suck so bad.
The Way Way Back – I’ve had a hard time articulating why I hate this so much. It’s one of those titles that makes me feel like I just threw up in my mouth. Or makes me think of a 43-year-old white guy wearing a Run-DMC t-shirt. Neither makes me want to pay 15 dollars.
Girl Most Likely – To do what? What is likely about her? Why is this the title of anything? Is the entire movie a question about what she is likely to do? This tells me nothing and offers only confusion.
Fruitvale Station – I understand there is a real train station called Fruitvale and that this film is the story of something very tragic that happened there. It’s clear why they chose this title but it doesn’t make me not hate it. Back in the festival circuit it was called simply Fruitvale. But Fruitvale sounds like the name of a cheap online game, like Candycrush or Farmville. Adding the word Station helps a little but not nearly enough. One way to solve the problem would have been an overlong title like The Shooting at Fruitvale Station, because at least then the title offers some reason to see the movie at all. It’s about a shooting, not a fun, fruity, train station. I think what they were going for here is actually the same effect that I mentioned earlier with regards to Blue Caprice or the same title method going back to something like United 93. The problem is those two true stories just happen to sound good and the word Fruitvale just plain sucks.
Stoker – I loved this movie but I didn’t know going in whether it was a horror movie or not. Are there vampires in it? Why is it called Stoker? This is a huge problem because these are questions most people just weren’t curious about answering and subsequently no one saw this movie. Stoker may be a great sounding word but it apparently wasn’t enough to catch anyone’s attention.
Berberian Sound Studio – Awesome movie. Total mess of a title. No one knows how to say it, and even if you do get it right, it still sounds dumb.
Cutie and the Boxer – I hate everything about this. The word Cutie is instantly cloying and just kills me. Beyond that, it sounds like a comic strip from the 1950s. Everything about it repels me.
Drug War – Was Crime Movie already taken or something? I doubt you could program a computer to come up with a more generic title.
Here Comes the Devil – I’ll file this under the Let the Right One In category of “Titles That Sound Like Game Shows.” I can just see the studio audience shouting in unison “HERE… COMES.. THE… DEVILLLLL!” Not really the best vibe for an apparently gnarly horror movie.
Charlie Countryman – Used to be called The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which goes along with my least favorite title equation, The [Life/Death] of [Character I Don't Know at All Yet]. It’s their own bad luck that Charlie Countryman is a horrible phrase. There was no saving this at all.
Labor Day – When I first heard it I assumed this was the third in the New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day trilogy of Hollywood bullshit. Apparently it’s some kind of serious, touching, coming of age story. But how would this bland bullshit title tell me that at all?
Oldboy – To be clear: I am not ganging up on the flop of the year here. I’m talking about the remake of the cult classic Korean revenge thriller, both based on a Japanese manga and all three titled Oldboy. What I mean here is, analytically, why is this action/thriller starring Josh Brolin, directed by Spike Lee called Oldboy? Obviously they are hoping to appeal to a broader audience than simply manga readers or Korean film experts. So I see no reason to adhere to the source material as far as the title is concerned. The word Oldboy is almost devoid of any connotative meaning which would actually make people interested in this as a film experience. In a vacuum, the word Oldboy means almost nothing–this guy is an old friend or a rascal of some sort I guess. This would be like titling the Great Gatsby movie Old Sport. I can’t imagine anyone paying to see a massive summer tentpole starring Leonardo DiCaprio called Old Sport, and by that logic, the failure of Oldboy doesn’t seem surprising at all.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – I don’t know for sure, but the story this film is based on may be the originator of this awful title equation [ed. note---it is]. But being the first doesn’t get you off the hook. Of course I take particular issue with the designation of this being about Mr. Mitty’s “secret life”. Of course what it implies is that this guy’s actual life is very boring, otherwise we wouldn’t need to hear about his “secret” life. I recognize that this is the part of the story, but all I can see are giant billboards with Ben Stiller’s face and the words Boring Guy underneath.
Benjamin Davis Collins is a screenwriter. You can read the titles of some of his screenplays here; he rounded up good/bad movie titles at Biblioklept in 2011. Check out a short film he wrote called This Must Be the Only Fantasy.
- A Serbian Film
- American Movie
- From Russia with Love
- Good Morning Vietnam
- Hotel Rwanda
- Once Upon a Time in Mexico
- Do the Right Thing
- 25th Hour
- Malcolm X
- Red Hook Summer
- She’s Gotta Have It
- Summer of Sam
- School Daze
- Mo’ Better Blues
- Jungle Fever
- Miracle at St. Anna
- Get on the Bus
- Girl 6
- She Hate Me
I was lucky enough this past Friday the 13th to pick up two Borges volumes, lovely twins with tactile covers, running over 500 pages each—they swallow a lot of Borges books I already own (although curiously leave out entire collections). I found a heartfelt note from mother to son in one the nonfiction collection, where she explains the difficulty she had with the book. I have my own Borges anxieties. Two from the collections: first, from the fiction and then the start of a list from the nonfiction.
Today, a dollar store calendar my grandmother gave me tells me, is National Day of Encouragement, which is totally a real thing. So here is a National Day of Encouragement Reading List, which is also totally a real thing. Much encouragement to you, citizens!
- King Lear, William Shakespeare
- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
- “Before the Law,” Franz Kafka
- Candide, Voltaire
- First Love and Other Sorrows, Harold Brodkey
- “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch
- “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
- “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe
- The Awakening, Kate Chopin
- Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
- Correction, Thomas Bernhard
- Butterfly Stories, William Vollmann
- “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy
- 2666, Roberto Bolaño
- “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
- From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
- The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus
- The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
- “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot
- Hamlet, William Shakespeare
- The Pearl, John Steinbeck
- Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño
- Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
- The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
- “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Flannery O’Connor
- Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard
- The Plague, Albert Camus
- “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
- Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
- A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
- “Good Old Neon,” David Foster Wallace
- 1984, George Orwell
- Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
- John Barth’s beret
- Zora Neale Hurston’s fedora
- Mark Twain’s bowtie
- David Foster Wallace’s bandanna
- Tom Wolfe’s white suit
- Carson McCuller’s cigarettes
- Wiillaim Faulkner’s pipe
- Jonathan Franzen’s spectacles
- Flannery O’Connor’s crutches
- Walt Whitman’s hat (cocked, natch)
- Oscar Wilde’s fur coat
- Thomas Pynchon’s paper bag
Novels with cinematic structure:
Hemingway, In Our Time
[Horace] McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes [The Erasers]
[Georges] Bernanos, M. Ouine
V Woolf, Between the Acts
Philip Toynbee, Tea with Mrs. Goodman
des Forêts, Les Mendiants
his first novel—multiple pov [points of view]
Reverzy, Le Passage
[John] Dos Passos
Firbank, Caprice; Vainglory; and [Inclinations] (trilogy)
Jap[anese] writer [Yasunari Kawabata] (N.B. visual sense, suppleness of changing scenes)—Snow Country, etc.
Dickens (cf. Eisenstein)—
There are people who thought with camera eye (a unified p-o-v that displaces itself) before the camera
“new novelists”: Claude Simon, Le Palace
Claude Ollier, La Mis-en-Scène
(all based on organization of a decor (N[orth] Africa)
–From an entry dated 6/26/66 Paris in Susan Sontag’s notebook, published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. (I’ve maintained the bracketed editorial intrusions of the published text, even with they did not seem necessary).
Best films (not in order)
- Bresson, Pickpocket
- Kubrick, 2001
- Vidor, The Big Parade
- Visconti, Ossessione
- Kurosawa, High and Low
- Syberberg, Hitler
- Godard, 2 ou 3 Choses . . .
- Rossellini, Louis XIV
- Renoir, La Regle du Jeu
- Ozu, Tokyo Story
- Dreyer, Gertrud
- Eisenstein, Potemkin
- Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel
- Lang, Dr. Mabuse
- Anonioni, L’Eclisse
- Bresson, Un Condamne a Mort . . .
- Grance, Napoleon
- Vertov, The Man with the Movie Camera
- Feuillade, Judex
- Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
- Godard, Vivre Sa Vie
- Bellocchio, Pugni in Tasca
- Carne, Les Enfants du Pradis
- Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai
- Tati, Playtime
- Truffaut, L’Enfant Savage
- Rivette, L’Amour Fou
- Eisenstein, Strike
- Von Stroheim, Greed
- Straub, . . . Anna Magadalena Bach
- Taviani bros, Padre Padrone
- Renais, Muriel
- Becker, Le Trou
- Cocteau, La Belle et la Bete
- Bergman, Persona
- Fassbinder, . . . Petra von Kant
- Griffith, Intolerance
- Godard, Contempt
- Marker, La Jete
- Conner, Crossroads
- Fassbinder, Chinese Rouleette
- Renoir, La Grande Illusion
- Opuls, The Earrings of Madame de . . .
- Kheifits, The Lady with the Little Dog
- Godard, Les Carabiners
- Bresson, Lancelot du Lac
- Ford, The Searchers
- Bertolucci, Prima della Rivoluzione
- Pasolini, Teorema
- Sagan, Madchen in Uniform
[The list continues up to number 228, where SS abandons it].
—From a 1977 entry in one of Susan Sontag’s notebooks. The list is published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980.
- Guy Debord
- Sylvia Plath
- David Foster Wallace
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Gérard de Nerval
- Tadeusz Borowski
- Spalding Gray
- Virginia Woolf
- Thomas Disch
- Vachel Lindsay
- Ernest Hemingway
- Yasunari Kawabata
- Paul Celan
- Heinrich von Kleist
- John Kennedy Toole
- Sarah Kane
- Breece D’J Pancake
- Gilles Deleuze
- Robert E. Howard
- Richard Brautigan
- Anne Sexton
- Stefan Zweig
- John Berryman
- Walter Benjamin
- Primo Levi
- Jerzy Kosinski
- Hart Crane
- Yukio Mishima
- A Serious Man
- The Big Lebowski
- Miller’s Crossing
- Barton Fink
- Blood Simple
- No Country for Old Men
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- The Man Who Wasn’t There
- Raising Arizona
- Burn After Reading
- True Grit
- The Hudsucker Proxy
- The Ladykillers
- Intolerable Cruelty
- Quincey, de
- X, Malcolm
- Mosses from an Old Manse
- Emily Dickinson (oeuvre)
- Go Down, Moses
- J R
- Huckleberry Finn
- Invisible Man
- Blood Meridian
- Leaves of Grass
- The Scarlet Letter
- A Mercy
- Grapes of Wrath
- Death Comes for the Archbishop
- The Pale King
- “Made in America”
- “Pine Barrens”
- “The Test Dream”
- “Whoever Did This”
- “Long Term Parking”
- “Kennedy and Heidi”
- “Rat Pack”
- The Wizard of Oz
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Wild at Heart
- Return to Oz
- Oz the Great and Powerful
- The Wiz