In a word, movies create impact with their titles

November 26, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

"Junior," the title of the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger film in which the Terminator is with child, says just enough to get people interested.

It is one of a slew of one-word movie titles that have lately flooded marquees, including "Malice," "Fearless," "Blink," "Wolf," "Sirens," "Blankman," "Ghost," "Speed," "Red," "White" and "Blue."

Concise, ominous titles like "Predator" attract moviegoers by capturing and compounding a film's intended essence. Or they are so purposely vague that they suggest different things to different people, thereby luring a broader audience.

"A one-word title has to carry an enormous burden; it has to communicate a whole bunch of things," says Garth Jowett, professor of communications at the University of Houston and author of "Film: The Democratic Art."

Such titles make a visceral impression rather than an intellectual one, by evoking "emotions in people rather than getting them to think," Dr. Jowett says.

Besides, lengthy titles can short circuit the contemporary brain, says Joseph Urgo, an associate professor of humanities at Bryant College in Rhode Island.

"We are in an era that is resisting complexity -- that is, if you can't say it in very small bits, you don't have anything worth listening to," he says.

Single-word film titles have always thrown a dramatic punch. Certain classic movies -- "Casablanca," "Frankenstein," "If . . ." and "Z," to name a handful -- are as memorable for their titles' resonant brevity as for the movies themselves.

Sundry directors are also partial to dramatic, one-word titles; note Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "Notorious" or Woody Allen's "Sleeper" and "Bananas."

Steven Spielberg's great thriller, "Jaws," released in 1975, inspired a new era of one-word-title mania, Dr. Jowett says. The stature of "Jaws," drawn from Peter Benchley's book of the same name, can perhaps be measured by its rhyming spin-offs, "Claws," for instance, and such follow-up (and briefly titled) critter flicks as "Piranha" and "Bug."

These days, place names redolent with history and atmosphere, like "Matewan," "Gettysburg," "Philadelphia," "Barcelona" and "Tombstone," are especially big. So are monikers such as "Rudy," "Andre" and "Dave."

Whether the movie's namesake is a regular guy, a regular seal, or in the case of "Dave," a regular megalomaniac, moviegoers by the millions have the privilege of being on a first-name basis with him, her or it.

Several movie buffs suggest the popularity of one-word titles hinges on sheer practicality: "Backbeat," "Hairspray" and "Parenthood" simply fit better on crowded multiplex marquees. Even longer titles, such as "Sleepless in Seattle" or "Natural Born Killers," are streamlined into "Sleepless" and "Killers" for the sake of space.

Then, there is the explanation offered by Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, who weighed in on this topic by way of the Internet: "My theory is that producers are playing the percentages on the Oscars," he says. "Of the 66 best-picture awards, 15 have gone to pictures with one-word titles. . . . That's about one in four -- probably much

higher than the proportion of one-word titles among movies in general."

Anyone want to bet on "Junior"?

ONE-WORD WINNERS

K? These one-word titles were awarded Oscars for best picture:

* "Wings" (1927-28)

* "Cimarron" (1930-31)

* "Cavalcade" (1932-33)

* "Rebecca" (1940)

* "Casablanca" (1943)

* "Hamlet" (1948)

* "Marty" (1955)

* "Gigi" (1958)

* "Oliver!" (1968)

* "Patton" (1970)

* "Rocky" (1976)

* "Ghandi" (1982)

* "Amadeus" (1984)

* "Platoon" (1986)

* "Unforgiven" (1992)

* Some would include the 1959 best-picture winner, "Ben-Hur," in the above list.

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