Welcome to Noticed, Vox’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: Movies with “chapter titles” — text appearing by itself, rather than over images, throughout the film, between scenes. They break the film into segments and give each segment a name.
Where it is: They’re everywhere, but lately they pop up mostly (though not entirely) in prestige, artsy movies. Nope, The Power of the Dog, The French Dispatch, The Northman, The Last Duel, The Green Knight, Not Okay, and The Worst Person in the World all use intertitles between the movie’s chapters, and that list is by no means comprehensive.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: The shortest answer to why we’re seeing it so frequently might have to do with poetry. But for the real answer, we have to go back in time.
Once upon a time, back before they made noise, you had to read a lot of text to watch a movie. If language or literacy stood in the way, you’d still get the gist of it — a pianist in the theater might help, plus plenty of context clues. But in between scenes, or even just shots, text appearing on the screen (let’s call them “intertitles”) would describe what was going on. A character’s mouth would move, and then intertitles would come up, telling you what she just said.
When silent films started to give way to sound in the late 1920s, those functional intertitles were no longer required to fill in dialogue, though they were still used to provide context. For instance, the 1930 Western The Big Trail, John Wayne’s first starring role, uses sound. But titles throughout aim to tell you what’s on the minds of the people in the scene: “Prairie schooners rolling west. Praying for peace — but ready for battle.” Or: “They have not turned back, those who died; they stay, and yet they go forward. Their spirit leads.” Not strictly necessary, but meant to be illuminating.
Now, if you see a movie with functional contextual intertitles, it’s a self-conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker, an aesthetic affectation that can be skillfully deployed or, in more amateurish hands, just sort of silly.
In recent decades, the intertitle is back, with a twist. Modern intertitles are rarely intended to purely inform. They’re performative, self-conscious, and evocative. They direct your attention or create tension.
It’s easy to attribute these to directors with high aspirations, who wish to make their films feel “literary,” and default to chapters to evoke a book. (Some of these, including The Power of the Dog and The Green Knight, are indeed adaptations of books.) That answer seems plausible, but a little simplistic — especially since most books have dozens of chapters and movies typically have far fewer, and also because I don’t really know of any directors who go around secretly wanting their movie to be a novel.
But there are better answers.
Though it never fully went away (nothing ever does in Hollywood), most people remember the intertitle roaring back to life with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 breakout, which breaks up its non-linear narrative with slightly cryptic text headings, creating chapters:
It’s easy to see how these are different from old-timey intertitles. They aren’t telling you what a character said. But they’re also not giving context or telling you how to interpret what you’re watching. They don’t add information, exactly — they point you at information that’s coming: a character, a symbol. Now, when a gold watch shows up, you’ll sit up a little straighter.
This is a smart way to use chapter titles: as a way to briefly pull you out of the story and redirect your attention in a manner fruitful for the mood the filmmaker’s trying to build. For instance, consider how Stanley Kubrick uses them in The Shining, his seminal 1980 horror film. The Stephen King novel on which the movie is based has chapter titles, and they’re mostly descriptive: “The Interview,” “Phonebooth,” and so on. In the movie, the intertitles instead demarcate the passage of time in a way that starts to feel eerie and erratic, in a way that writer Roger Luckhurst describes as “telescop[ing] time and tighten[ing] the screw.” First it’s “A Month Later,” then “Tuesday,” then “Saturday, then “Wednesday,” “Monday, “4pm.” At first glance these just tell us that time is passing, but they’re doing so much more, making us feel like we’re counting down to something ominous and terrifying.
In this way, the intertitles become part of the story, an added layer of intrigue to fold into the whole. And many directors have used them this way before and after Tarantino and Kubrick, from Wong Kar Wai and Lars Von Trier to both Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas. They show up in everything from Moonlight to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They’re by no means a Hollywood affectation; directors from all over the world have used them to tell their stories.
And their redirection of attention can bend toward various ends. In The Worst Person in the World, for instance, there are 12 “chapters” with titles like “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus” and “Bad Timing” and “Epilogue.” The effect is that the film feels like a series of linked short stories about the same character, Julie. And because the movie is, in essence, about deciding to be the author of your own story, the intertitles contribute to the overall form.
Or there are the intertitles of The Northman, which, on first blush, seem like your standard info-giving titles — “Some Years Later,” “Land of the Rus,” and so on. Yet The Northman is designed to feel like a legend floating back through the mists of time to us, without feints toward the modern. Thus the intertitles are rendered in Norse runes, and they feel like a nod to old theatrical traditions, as if we’re watching an opera or some very old form of folk theater, rather than a movie. They beckon us to forget every action blockbuster we’ve seen and let ourselves be taken back to a pre-modern age.
Perhaps the most surprising set of intertitles appear in Nope, Jordan Peele’s newest, which crosses horror and alien sci-fi with elements of Westerns. The intertitles break the movie into chapters, each of which gets the name of a creature — a horse, or a chimpanzee, or a … well, I won’t give it away — that is a key part of the action. None of the titles are named for humans, which is in part meant to direct your attention toward that non-human character when they appear on screen.
But Nope is also in part about a very early moving picture, created by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, and the descendants of the Black jockey who rides the horse. History has forgotten the name of the human rider, but remembered the name of the horse (Annie G.); Nope’s chapter titles echo that sobering historical fact.
These kinds of intertitles are less about narrating the action and more about creating an effect. Poets are skilled at titling their work, often with the aim of selecting a title that expands the meaning of the poem in some way: adding an entendre, giving you something to look for, telling you that something is coming in the poem so that you’re holding your breath waiting for it. Novel chapter headings often do the same thing, signifying what you’re waiting for as you read. Modern intertitles, used to set apart chapters, are similar. Since sound and modern viewing habits (you understand jumps in time) make them unnecessary for literally parsing the action, they’re placed there on purpose by the filmmaker, who has a reason in mind.
All of these examples point to something interesting: Intertitles that break a film into chapters help remind you that you’re watching a film. They self-consciously interrupt the artifice of realism or authenticity, the illusion that a movie can spin that makes you feel, for just a moment, like you’re living in medieval Europe or spying on your friend Julie’s life. Suddenly you’re not watching images; you’re reading text, and that reminds you that this movie is something crafted by an artist who intends for you to have a specific rhythmic emotional experience. It’s a way of making you see the movie anew.