The Death of Titles

I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Tower Heist, Cowboys and Aliens—why can’t anyone think up a decent title anymore?

This week Fox premieres a new half-hour sitcom starring Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran titled I Hate My Teenage Daughter. Early semiotic analysis indicates it’s about two women who hate their teenage daughters. As such, the premise is unlikely to surprise viewers of CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, which—spoiler alert—follows the lives of two broke girls.* Indeed, the two shows are but the latest in a cavalcade of Hollywood products outfitted not with a title but a blunt abbreviation of a concept. Ads for these releases paper bus stops and billboards, resembling, in their flagrance, whacky American hits in crude translation: Tower Heist, Our Idiot Brother, Bridesmaids, Stepbrothers, Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys and Aliens, Alien vs. Predator, The Social Network. *

Whatever happened to pungent, enigmatic titles like Three Days of the Condor or Cheers? A hint may be found by trolling the website of one of Hollywood’s competitors, YouTube, whose clips are just as brazenly titled. The hallmark of a YouTube name, after all, is literalism. Hence, such titular gems as “The Sneezing Baby Panda,” “Talking Twin Babies,” “Very Angry Cat—Funny,” or the cryptic “Monkey Smells Finger and Falls Out of Tree.” YouTube is only one purveyor of an unvarnished, proudly concrete tone that’s the lingua franca of the Internet. Google searches, by necessity, are strictly the facts and just the facts. If one were searching for the sneezing panda clip, one would, quite reasonably, type “sneezing baby panda.” As a result, many online articles now eschew the barrier of a stylized title to aid search results.

These are practical developments, and yet they lean on—and help cement—some rotten assumptions about narrative. To call a clip about a sneezing baby panda “The Sneezing Baby Panda” is to decisively restrict its meaning. For this reason, YouTube clips are reliable conversation-stoppers: The video is packaged as a discrete bit of information (we will click on the link, a baby panda will sneeze, we will laugh) rather than, say, an experience (the meaning of which cannot be predetermined). There is nothing to say about the clip, and the name confirms it.

Such a reductive cultural frame, apt enough for a 50-second pratfall, now constrains many feature-length films. Snakes on a Plane presents itself as a YouTube video, differing only in length, not in scope. It is to be consumed like data, with no pesky bones of ambiguity to stick in the throat.

All of this was first noticed by the German critic Walter Benjamin, whose essay “The Storyteller” charts the decline of storytelling against an increased access to, and fiendish hankering for, information. In the essay, Benjamin sets the figure of the storyteller (rooted in experience, offering counsel) in opposition to the deluge of information (instant, ephemeral, verifiable). “Every morning brings us the news of the globe,” Benjamin writes, “and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanations. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”

After reading Benjamin, one awakens to find an “information age” abloom with near-parodic fulfillment of his prophecy. Information-aggregators (whether Wall Street investors or Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs) comprise our wealthiest class. Data point has become a trendy colloquialism, as if every story is a puffed-up soufflé that must be efficiently distilled to the nutrients of its information. In this sense, as the faith in information outpaces an interest in narrative, the title is but the latest rampart of style to be marauded by the forces of market efficiency. Calling Snakes on a Plane anything but is pretentious by a logic that views narrative as inefficient and self-indulgent: a fanciful scenic route to the speedier highway of information.

This view, while gleefully abetted by the Internet, long precedes it, as indicated by Benjamin’s elegiac tone (the essay was published in 1936). In one sense, the title is just the latest territory annexed by the High Concept, which insists a film be reducible to a sentence: A cop finds himself trapped in a building with terrorists. If a bus goes below 50 mph it will blow up. In this context, the death of the title makes eminent sense. If the movie is just the handmaiden of its concept, why not call it such and, in a sense, confirm the film’s subservience to its conceit?

And yet the trend signifies an important shift in the tactics of the pitch. In the 1980s, the very concept of High Concept releases was kept strictly “behind-the-scenes,” the province of industry insiders. Top Gun, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer knew, was really Two Hot Pilots; the cynical courtesy of not naming the movie Two Hot Pilots, while thin, placed an essential scrim between the movie’s producers and its audience, the hustlers and the customers. Today, however, the shorthand of the pitch room has metastasized to the marquee. What’s produced, in other words, are not movies but feature-length pitches, and the viewer, in the multiplex, is flattered into mistaking his stadium seat for a producer’s chair, all the while forking over $15 for the pleasure.

In this way, the trend confers a tacit insider status on its consumers—a happy tendency of a culture increasingly unable to distinguish between entertainment news and entertainment. ESPN, for example, now devotes as much airtime to the niceties of C.C. Sabathia’s five-year contract extension as it does to his fastball (while fans, via fantasy leagues, are encouraged to identify with the horse-trading owners more than with the players themselves). Likewise, Entertainment Weekly and E! cover box-office revenue and marketing strategies to the near exclusion of content, so that the former has largely supplanted the latter as the true forum of our entertainment. (This is not even wading into the rich, murky ecology of reality TV and gossip magazines). For some time, the American public has found a greater diversion in what’s “behind the music” than in the music itself.

Marx famously argued that culture itself was an opiate: a succulent ruse that distracts from the reality of injustice under capitalism. The reality of things, below the drug of entertainment, he called structure. In an information-addled world, the feast of distraction has moved, with discomfiting irony, to tales about the structure itself. Capitalism, in its protean genius, has camouflaged itself as Marxism: The stories we are told center, more and more, on how stories are sold. In this way, I Hate My Teenage Daughter isn’t really about two women who hate their daughters. It’s about whether such a show will be a hit.

Corrections, Nov. 29, 2011: This article originally misstated the title of the movie Cowboys and Aliens and the network that broadcasts 2 Broke Girls. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)