The Anti-Intertitle Rant

The script I’m writing now has title cards.
I hate title cards.
By title cards, I mean text put up on the screen (within the image or in a black screen by itself) as a storytelling element of the movie. Not subtitles, not credits, not dialogue in a silent film, but anything else. Title cards, or intertitles, or interstitial titles if you must (and why shouldn’t you?) are a pet hate of mine for two reasons.


One, I’m against audiences having to read when they’re watching a film. Two, these title cards are mostly unnecessary and often, therefore, insulting.
I’m not against reading in general. There are many fine books, poems, instruction manuals, calendars, bus timetables, insurance policies, insides of wedding rings and websites. The process of absorbing information through the written word is beautiful, and inspires beauty in the writing itself. But it is different from watching a film. Film is a visual and aural medium; the beauty should be in storytelling through image and sound. Text is not only an unwelcome interruption, it has far less impact than a purely cinematic statement, hence a picture’s worth valued at “a thousand words”.
The most common and most irritating use of screen text is to tell us where something is happening. You know, Jason Bourne says “Guess I gotta go to Paris”—cut to a flyover of the Eiffel Tower superimposed with the words “Paris, France”. Tom Cruise gets sent to Prague on an Impossible Mission; cut to a cobbled street overlaid with the word “Prague”. You won’t believe this unless you’ve seen the film, but Transformers actually offers the title card “Qatar—the Middle East”… twice.
It is never necessary to provide the location of a scene through screen text. Not ever. If the information is important, it will find its way to us somehow. If you don’t believe me, watch any film with multiple locations but no explanatory text—The Insider is a good example, or Inception—and tell me how often you felt like you were missing information.
The answer is never. You were never confused, you were never lacking enough information to know what was happening.
Even worse is when the filmmakers tell us both where and when something is happening. Movies based on true stories are the worst offenders, as they attach importance to the real-life progression of events—which is nice, but irrelevant in a drama. Does it really help to know the exact date and time of an editorial meeting in Zodiac? No, only that it follows the previous scene and precedes the next. Besides, who the hell can actually absorb all the detail in these intertitles to the point where it aids their understanding of the story?
Did you read any of that shit in Zodiac? Neither did I. Didn’t matter.
Let’s take a look at some movies with shitty title cards.
The otherwise unassailable Skyfall seems to be hungover with text after the title sequence, bringing us back into the story with a shot of the British Secret Service Headquarters and the words “London—MI6”. This is a film that trots the globe from Istanbul to Shanghai, from Macau to Scotland, but reserves its first place-holder for a building we have not only seen in every Bond movie since 1995, but which we have also seen less than five minutes ago in the same movie. If you were in any doubt as to the building’s significance, you could certainly piece it together from the next few shots, which reveal a character we know to be the head of MI6, in her office, doing MI6 stuff.
Later on, Skyfall gives us a “Macau” title card only seconds after a massive close-up of an embossed casino chip that reads “Macau”.
Some movies, including the Bournes, give the screen text its own goddamn sound effect. The words appear as if being typed, which is a strange artistic choice in itself, and are often accompanied by a sort of chirping or beep-beep-beeping because somebody in the post production team believes that computer keyboards make that noise.
Even the establishing shots, such a televisual conceit, are a waste of celluloid. I admit I’ve never been to Madrid, and wouldn’t recognise it from the brief flyover in The Bourne Ultimatum—but I don’t need the text on screen either, because the story already made it clear where we were headed.
One of my readers suggested using title cards in the script I’m working on, and I resisted.
Then I remembered that sometimes they work.
Mainly I thought of The Shining, where the word “Wednesday” against a black screen can make everyone shit themselves. The Shining is a great example of how to use title cards. The information is simple: “A Month Later”, “4 p.m.” and so on. By dividing the narrative into ever-decreasing chunks of time, they seem to both expand and contract time itself. Are we slowing down, approaching the final burst of terror with dread? Is the horror so vivid that it seems to play out in slow motion? The sudden, stark appearance of each card marks our progress and thus becomes a tool of suspense.
Sometimes they don’t work, or just kind of work, which is arguably worse. (500) Days of Summer jumps about in time, and locates each sequence with an on-screen counter: now we’re on Day 251; now we’re back at Day 37. Fine—we can tell which way we’re moving in the narrative—but it’s also more complex than it sounds, forcing your brain to work on an unnecessary calculation when it should be enjoying a story. The days-on-rotation counter in The Hurt Locker is similarly useless—the movie bleeds suspense based on the fact that our characters could die at any moment, so a countdown adds nothing. It’s not detrimental, either, just there.
These are really chapter titles, less provision of information, more division of narrative. Tarantino has fun with them; Pasolini, in Saló: 120 Days of Sodom, predictably does not. The argument for chapter titles is essentially the argument for chapters: if you’re going to split up the film, you might as well give each part a name. Why split up the film, though, using a convention of literature? I would say it’s most often used where parts of the narrative are left out, or presented in non-chronological order. A new chapter title is therefore part of an essential dialogue between the movie and the viewer.
This is more along the lines of what I’m doing in my script. My chapter titles are, of course, top secret at this time. Are they necessary? Perhaps not, but my reader would tell you they were missed in their absence, which is a good argument for their inclusion. They are, hopefully, a tool of suspense. They are very simple. I think they work.
Where do I stand on forewords? Those blocks of explanatory text giving us the background before, say, Gladiator, The Untouchables or Star Wars? It may surprise you to know that I despise them and refuse to read them. If the history is so important, include it in the movie. The prologue in The Lord of the Rings takes care of business in a beautiful montage, one of the film’s high points. There’s a voiceover, but that’s more cinematic than an on-screen pamphlet, and besides, the voice belongs to Cate Blanchett.
The blurb at the beginning of Gladiator tells us something like “In Ancient Rome, some shit’s about to go down” which we already knew from the film’s title. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is a nice tone-setter, but the nonsense that scrolls into infinity is a pretty pointless justification for the plot of Star Wars; pointless because the audience don’t need to be persuaded that the events they’ve paid to see are important—they know they’re important because they form the content of the film.
And postscripts? Isn’t it good to know what happens to the characters after the credits roll?
Nope. Not even when it’s funny (A Fish Called Wanda)—why end your comedy film with a text-based joke? Not even when it’s poignant (American Graffiti)—that poignancy should be (and in the case of Graffiti, already is) in the body of the film. Not even when it’s true (The Insider)—if I’m interested, I’ll look that shit up on Wikipedia. The postscripts at the end of Zodiac are informative but biased towards one particular theory; let me do my own reading and decide where the story ends.
On screen text is used by some of my favourite filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann and David Fincher. Even Robert Bresson, the Patron Saint of Cinema, opened Pickpocket with an interminable foreword.
But we can do better. Resist the text. If you decide to use chapter titles, give them an auxiliary purpose: use them for humour or suspense or both. If the location of a scene is important (and it probably isn’t) then write it without any indicators in the script and see if anyone is confused. If they are, work the information in somehow—with a shot or with a line, but never, never with text.

Originally published 12 March 2014

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