10. The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Sissy Sextuplington
By turns uproarious, scandalous, and emotionally-moving, this kaleidoscopic novel tells the multi-generational story of the Apis clan, from their humble beginnings starting a clandestine honey-service in the catacombs of Ellis Island in the 1890s, to their triumphant crest in the honey-boom of the Buzzing Twenties, to their decline and rebirth from their own ashes/wax over the course of the 20th century. This sting stuns!
9. Cacanisius’ Crossing by Caomh-Caolan FitzSimmons-Hughes
How wonderful that this “lost classic” has been recovered anew! FitzSimmons-Hughes of course wrote the novel over a series of decades; each section was written in the language of the European country he was living in self-imposed exile in at the time. Cacanisius’ Crossing was then translated into Irish Gaelic, and has finally been translated into English. The 1085-page story details the last five minutes in the life of its central character. Kaleidoscopically stunning.
8. Dovetail by Samuel Samold
In this dystopian romance-thriller, society is split into two groups: those who have earned their genetically-grafted tails, and those who must go “SansTail.” Will plucky Becky Fang pass the Trials of Wattle and earn her place in the dominant tribe (along with dreamboat Crispin’s affection)—or will she follow the strange mysteries of the secret resistance force, The Cloacal Tunnel? A compelling stunner.
7. The Kite Runner 2 by Khaled Hosseini
The whole book club bawled. Again.
6. Jimmy Hat Johannson and the Crystal Creeper Caper (A Charleston ‘Nights’ Mystery) by Edwin Turner
I feel a little weird putting my own NaNoWriMo novel on here—not the least because it hasn’t come out yet (FS&G in hardback in the US, March 2016; Penguin in the UK, Australia, Canada, and NZ in May 2016; Japanese and Latvian translations TBD)—but it’s really, really good. I even let a friend look over it to check for any bad writing (there wasn’t any) before I sent it to the Wylie Agency. The plot: Jimmy Hat Johansson is just a good ole boy from a backwoods burg…but a summer job with his Uncle Ray’s lawn business plunges him headfirst into a world of sinister intrigue–housewife murderesses, a corrupt sheriff, and a crystal meth syndicate!
5. The Lumberjack’s Apprentice by Knob Hayden
Knob Hayden’s remarkable journey comes to life in this remarkable collection of stories (The Lumberjack’s Apprentice is a novel-in-stories). Remarkably, this book was Hayden’s thesis for an experimental MFA program offered by the EGS (via Transylvania University, Kentucky). Each short story is a remarkable entry in this angry young man’s tour-de-force-of-truth. Hayden is only 24, but he’s hardly tender—six days as a lumberjack’s apprentice will roughen any soft palms! Our hero also tries his hand as a busboy, a mail clerk at Monsanto, and a cabin boy. This guy has definitely read Jesus’ Son!
4. Working On My Screenplay by Angela Criss
Kudos to Penguin for this achievement. This is a book of tweets from people who have included the phrase “working on my screenplay” in their tweet, interspersed with sketches of kittens. Sure, you might criticize it as lazy, not particularly insightful, barely interesting, the sort of joke that others like John Cage played decades ago, a gimmick, cruel, boring, or smug. But it’s art and it’s subversive and it provides much-needed metacommentary and it can be yours for only 10 bucks!
3. Too Many Cooks: The Novelization by Jonathan Franzen
Stunningly remarkable work from Franzen, who slowly teases out the Adult Swim’s immediate cult-classic 11-minute video to 475 pages in this sweeping multigenerational epic. Stunning to think that Mr. Franzen never even watched the short film!
2. Brooklyn Novel Title TK by Daktoa Rugburn
Wyoming Strongniece has no idea what to do after college—an internship at a Fortune 500 company offered by one of her father’s friends? An experimental MFA program offered by the EGS? Should she work the summer at her favorite bar, making artisanal cocktails for the surly locals, and continue to support her suicidal roommate Hershey as she tries to launch her acting career? Or maybe—just maybe—she can have it all. A dazzling debut sure to stun and reward.
1. The Sector of Attention by Moses Kingson
In vivid prose, Kingson’s unforgettable 27th novel explores the nadirs and acmes of the human soul. A swirling kaleidoscope of epiphanies and soul-searching, this kaleidoscopic stunner makes us reexamine all we thought we knew about WWII. I can’t wait to actually read it.
In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin inventoried his thirteen virtues:
Eat not to fulness; drink not to elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e., waste nothing.
Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary action.
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Avoid extremes, forbear resenting injuries as much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
D.H. Lawrence revised them—for himself, of course—in Studies in Classic American Literature:
Eat and carouse with Bacchus, or munch dry bread with Jesus, but don’t sit down without one of the gods.
Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.
Know that you are responsible to the gods inside you and to the men in whom the gods are manifest. Recognize your superiors and your inferiors, according to the gods. This is
the root of all order.
Resolve to abide by your own deepest promptings, and to sacrifice the smaller thing to the greater. Kill when you must, and be killed the same: the must coming from the gods inside you, or from the men in whom you recognize the Holy Ghost.
Demand nothing; accept what you see fit. Don’t waste your pride or squander your emotion.
Lose no time with ideals; serve the Holy Ghost; never serve mankind.
To be sincere is to remember that I am I, and that the other man is not me.
The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgement is never just.
Beware of absolutes. There are many gods.
Don’t be too clean. It impoverishes the blood.
The soul has many motions, many gods come and go. Try and find your deepest issue, in every confusion, and abide by that. Obey the man in whom you recognize the Holy Ghost; command when your honour comes to command.
Never ‘use’ venery at all. Follow your passional impulse, if it be answered in the other being; but never have any motive in mind, neither offspring nor health nor even pleasure, nor even service. Only know that ‘venery’ is of the great gods. An offering-up of yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else.
See all men and women according to the Holy Ghost that is within them. Never yield before the barren.
- Charles Weedon Westover killed himself on February 8th, 1990.
- He was 55.
- He shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
- Between the eye and the ear.
- The right eye and the right ear.
- The temple.
- Charles Weedon Westover was better known by his stage name, Del Shannon.
- The name printed on his death certificate is “Charles Weedon Westover” though.
- CWW found success as Del Shannon, performing and recording the song “Runaway.”
- The 7″ 45rpm recording of “Runaway” became a number one Billboard hit in the United States of America in February of 1961.
- “Runaway” was the number one hit in America for four weeks.
- It was later a number one hit in the United Kingdom.
- And Australia.
- But it was not a number one hit in 1967, when CWW as Del Shannon rerecorded it as “Runaway ’67.”
- In fact, “Runaway ’67” failed to chart.
- CWW, under the name Del Shannon, wrote “Runaway” with Max Crook.
- Crook played the strange, dark, jaunty, bipolar solo in “Runaway.”
- Crook played the solo on a musical instrument of his own invention, a type of early electronic synthesizer he called the Musitron.
- Crook’s Musitron was a modified version of an earlier synthesizer, the clavioline (similar, of course, to an ondioline).
- Perhaps Crook’s most significant modification was adding reverb to his organ via a custom-built echo chamber that incorporated garden gate springs.
- Crook’s solo is the haunting spirit of a haunting song.
- Or maybe the haunting spirit is actually CWW/DS’s falsetto, which cracks through the piano and baritone sax approximately 45 seconds into the song, announcing that the narrator wah-wah-wah-wah-wonders why why why why why why she ran away.
- The lyric is simple but also dark, portentous, loaded with a primal anxiety that hints at outright menace.
- Why a “runaway”?
- Why did she run away?
- And why does the narrator want her there with him, walking in the rain?
- (To end this misery).
- CWW continued recording and performing as Del Shannon for the rest of his life.
- His final performance was in Fargo, ND, not a week before his suicide.
- Of course he sang “Runaway” there.
- It was his biggest hit.
- None of his other songs came even close.
- He did the alcoholic thing, the drug addict thing, and then the AA thing.
- He was, by all accounts, a life-long manic depressive.
- And many claimed a kind man.
- A generous man.
- He played “Runaway” on the David Letterman Show in 1986, shouting the song but hitting the falsetto.
- (Back in 1961, Harry Balk, who produced “Runaway,” had to speed up the recording–from an A minor to a B flat–to match CWW’s vocal–he was nervous and flat).
- Shirley Westover, his wife of 31 years, had left him the year before his Letterman appearance.
- CWW remarried in 1987. He married a neighbor’s daughter, Bonnie Tyson (also known as LeAnne Gutierrez), who was half his age at the time of the marriage.
- Bonnie found CWW’s body.
- Slumped in a rocking chair, wearing his bathrobe but not his hair piece.
- He was working on music with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne around the time of his death.
- And clearly a Wilbury in spirit.
- CWW has no grave.
“Titles for Unwritten Articles, Essays, and Stories”
from Samuel Butler’s Note-Books
- The Art of Quarrelling.
- Christian Death-beds.
- The Book of Babes and Sucklings.
- Literary Struldbrugs.
- The Life of the World to Come.
- The Limits of Good Faith.
- Art, Money and Religion.
- The Third Class Excursion Train, or Steam-boat, as the Church of the Future.
- The Utter Speculation involved in much of the good advice that is commonly given—as never to sell a reversion, etc.
- Tracts for Children, warning them against the virtues of their elders.
- Making Ready for Death as a Means of Prolonging Life. An Essay concerning Human Misunderstanding. So McCulloch [a fellow art-student at Heatherley’s, a very fine draughtsman] used to say that he drew a great many lines and saved the best of them. Illusion, mistake, action taken in the dark—these are among the main sources of our progress.
- The Elements of Immorality for the Use of Earnest Schoolmasters.
- Family Prayers: A series of perfectly plain and sensible ones asking for what people really do want without any kind of humbug.
- A Penitential Psalm as David would have written it if he had been reading Herbert Spencer.
- A Few Little Crows which I have to pick with various people.
- The Scylla of Atheism and the Charybdis of Christianity.
- The Battle of the Prigs and Blackguards.
- That Good may Come.
- The Marriage of Inconvenience.
- The Judicious Separation.
- Fooling Around.
- The Diseases and Ordinary Causes of Mortality among Friendships.
- The finding a lot of old photographs at Herculaneum or Thebes; and they should turn out to be of no interest.
- On the points of resemblance and difference between the dropping off of leaves from a tree and the dropping off of guests from a dinner or a concert.
- The Sense of Touch: An essay showing that all the senses resolve themselves ultimately into a sense of touch, and that eating is touch carried to the bitter end. So there is but one sense—touch—and the amœba has it. When I look upon the foraminifera I look upon myself.
- The China Shepherdess with Lamb on public-house chimney-pieces in England as against the Virgin with Child in Italy.
- For a Medical pamphlet: Cant as a means of Prolonging Life.
- For an Art book: The Complete Pot-boiler; or what to paint and how to paint it, with illustrations reproduced from contemporary exhibitions and explanatory notes.
- For a Picture: St. Francis preaching to Silenus. Fra Angelico and Rubens might collaborate to produce this picture.
- The Happy Mistress. Fifteen mistresses apply for three cooks and the mistress who thought herself nobody is chosen by the beautiful and accomplished cook.
- The Complete Drunkard. He would not give money to sober people, he said they would only eat it and send their children to school with it.
- The Contented Porpoise. It knew it was to be stuffed and set up in a glass case after death, and looked forward to this as to a life of endless happiness.
- The Flying Balance. The ghost of an old cashier haunts a ledger, so that the books always refuse to balance by the sum of, say, £1.15.11. No matter how many accountants are called in, year after year the same error always turns up; sometimes they think they have it right and it turns out there was a mistake, so the old error reappears. At last a son and heir is born, and at some festivities the old cashier’s name is mentioned with honour. This lays his ghost. Next morning the books are found correct and remain so.
- A Dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael on the night that Isaac came down from the mountain with his father. The rebellious Ishmael tries to stir up Isaac, and that good young man explains the righteousness of the transaction—without much effect.
- Bad Habits: on the dropping them gradually, as one leaves off requiring them, on the evolution principle.
- A Story about a Freethinking Father who has an illegitimate son which he considers the proper thing; he finds this son taking to immoral ways, e.g. he turns Christian, becomes a clergyman and insists on marrying.
- For a Ballad: Two sets of rooms in some alms-houses at Cobham near Gravesend have an inscription stating that they belong to “the Hundred of Hoo in the Isle of Grain.” These words would make a lovely refrain for a ballad.
- A story about a man who suffered from atrophy of the purse, or atrophy of the opinions; but whatever the disease some plausible Latin, or imitation-Latin name must be found for it and also some cure.
- A Fairy Story modelled on the Ugly Duckling of Hans Andersen about a bumptious boy whom all the nice boys hated. He finds out that he was really at last caressed by the Huxleys and Tyndalls as one of themselves.
- A Collection of the letters of people who have committed suicide; and also of people who only threaten to do so. The first may be got abundantly from reports of coroners’ inquests, the second would be harder to come by.
- The Structure and Comparative Anatomy of Fads, Fancies and Theories; showing, moreover, that men and women exist only as the organs and tools of the ideas that dominate them; it is the fad that is alone living.
- An Astronomical Speculation: Each fixed star has a separate god whose body is his own particular solar system, and these gods know each other, move about among each other as we do, laugh at each other and criticise one another’s work. Write some of their discourses with and about one another.
French for author, this term denotes a film director who makes the same film again and again and again.
A detailed list of the books from which the author plundered all his or her good ideas.
The rhetorical device of circumlocution can be seen by the reader or made evident to the reader when a writer chooses to compose phrases, clauses, or sentences that are inordinately complex, exaggerated, long-winded, or otherwise unnecessarily verbose in order to demonstrate, convey, show, or express an idea, image, or meaning that might have been demonstrated, conveyed, shown, or expressed via the use of shorter, simpler, more direct phrases, clauses, or sentences that demonstrate brevity.
Inexperienced writers, especially composition students, are advised to use circumlocution to pad their writing and meet the assigned word count.
A grammarian who holds strong opinions and judgments about prescriptivists.
Telling without showing. Exposition can be extremely useful to the reader, who will slight the author who successfully employs it.
FREE INDIRECT STYLE
James Wood Approved!™
A comforting, nebulous fantasy.
A biography composed entirely of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies.
The funny dirty bits that make you feel clever.
Trade-specific diction employed (preferably clumsily) to confuse the average reader and offend the expert reader.
Early 21st-century reading device, often mistaken as a harbinger of literary doom.
An adverb that most often means figuratively.
The most enduring—and therefore most true—kind of story.
A writer’s ability to just chill and not know. (Also useful for lazy frauds).
OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW
A comforting, nebulous fantasy.
A grammarian who holds strong opinions and judgments about descriptivists.
The story-teller’s scheme. Make it up as you go along. Steal as necessary.
A comforting, nebulous fantasy.
An adjective used to describe a literary work that is not quite as good as anything by W.G. Sebald.
A work often mistaken as more serious or more important or more literary than a comedy.
A comforting, nebulous fantasy.
A specific type of lucidity that authors sometimes use.
The emotional byproduct of attempting to maintain comforting, nebulous fantasies.
A stop-gap for bouts of Weltschmerz.
Zyzzyva is a real word, and this fact should give us all some small measure of hope..
As you, savvy reader, are undoubtedly already aware, The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the rest of the summer (to show off its website redesign, I guess).
Here’s a reading list of short fiction from the archives (admittedly, some of the stuff I wanted to put on here is still behind a paywall).
Some of the stories on the list are classics, some are pieces I’ve shared on this blog before, some are excerpts from longer works, and a few are stories I have yet to read myself.
From William T. Vollmann’s forthcoming collection, Last Stories and Other Stories.
- Flann O’Brien
- Mark Twain
- Daniel Defoe
- Iceberg Slim
- Edith Van Dyne
- Acton Bell
- Victoria Lucas
- S.E. Hinton
- George Eliot
- George Sand
- George Orwell
- Toni Morrison
- Anne Rice
- Ford Madox Ford
- Robert Galbraith
- Paul Celan
- Lewis Carroll
- Franklin W. Dixon
- Lemony Snickett
- O. Henry
- Richard Bachman
- John le Carré
- Italo Svevo
Sure–okay, sure, you’ve seen this before (or maybe not), I know I have (I’ve even posted it before). But today is D. Barthelme’s birthday (he’s dead of course), and I’ve read or reread (or, more accurately read) most of his stuff (sans The King, which I’ve been saving) over the past year. Anyway, this here list comes via Kevin Moffett who got it off DB’s former student, Padgett Powell, when he (that is Moffett) was finishing up at my alma mater, the University of Gators (where Powell continues to teach today, having replaced Harry Crews, RIP). Anyway (again with that transition!), check out Moffett’s original share-piece at The Believer; he describes Gainesville’s Friends of the Library Sale, which was always fun. I got a copy of John Barth’s Chimera there (on the list, natch), among other books, but I didn’t get any Barthelme. I’ve read 31 of the 81 books on the list (this includes fantastically awarding myself the “Samuel Beckett entire” entry but hell man I think it’s been counted as one work here (at least by Moffett?), which maybe it should be but no I haven’t read all of Beckett but hell I’ve read a lot, if not enough, but anyway (again!)–31).
- 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.