Winter 2003

Cinematic shorthand [EXTRACT]

Here’s a challenge for the budding film title designer in all of us: come up with a credible opening sequence for a movie about a transgendered East German rock singer whose botched sex-change operation leaves one sixth of his penis intact. Remember that the lead actor also co-wrote the script and he’s the director too. And there’s not much money because most of it has been blown on production. Oh, and it’s a musical. Off you go.

The movie is, of course, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – a pun-addled film title if ever there was one. And Marlene McCarty’s titles, created with the assistance of Andy Capelli, are as wacky as the movie’s opening: the live performance of a raucous rock’n’roll number (‘I’m the new Berlin Wall, baby – try tearing me down!’) by Hedwig and his band in a cheesy mid-West restaurant filled with bewildered or plain disapproving guests. The anarchic letterforms of a colour-blind madman wheel and flash across the screen, jostling with Hedwig for attention. McCarty takes aim at the movie audience with spinning wheels and lurid 3d titles, while Hedwig flicks his outrageous, platinum sausage curls at the bewildered diners. A heady brew indeed.

Popular accounts of the recent history of film title design tend to rely either on a predictable invocation of famous names (most likely beginning with Saul Bass and ending with Kyle Cooper), or focus on the aesthetic innovations of a particular period as somehow definitive of the industry as a whole; or they do both. In her tongue-in-cheek account of this way of thinking about graphic design history, former Eye columnist Jessica Helfand recently suggested that a period of self-conscious ‘leaves-and-twigs’ eco-design had been eclipsed by a David Carson-inspired ‘Age of the Blur,’ which had then been superseded by Cooper’s ‘Cult of the Scratchy’ – as heralded in the titles for the movie Se7en.

Rather than simply adding one more name to the film-title hall of fame, this article seeks to complicate such received ideas by narrowing in on an individual whose work, mainly on independent movies, is much less easy to characterise in terms of an overall look or style. Over the past decade, Marlene McCarty has been involved in relatively low-budget projects directed by the likes of Rose Troche, Mary Harron and Cindy Sherman. All of these movies have demanded a constant process of project-by-project resourcefulness, and this is a direct reflection of the comparatively limited production finances (and hence the miniscule budgets for titles) available

to directors working outside the Hollywood mainstream . . .

Thanks to Marlene McCarty for giving me complete freedom to write about her work, to my interviewees, and to Lesley Husbands for valuable research assistance.