USING CHAPTER HEADINGS IN FILMS
By Ian Long
The iron rule “show, don’t tell” is instilled into screenwriters from day one. So why do some filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion and Wes Anderson, for instance) risk pulling audiences out of their stories by breaking them up with chapter headings?
Surely that’s a novelist’s trick – something just for books?
The answer is that used creatively and judiciously, chapters can add an enormous amount to films.
So let’s see what screenwriters should know about them.
Pulling it all together – Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995)
In October’s Sight and Sound, producer George Miller told what happened when he showed the first cut of Babe to his now-wife, film editor Margaret Sixel:
“She sat and watched it and went silent. And the first thing she said was, ‘You’re not going to release it like that, are you?’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘George, it has no narrative tension. It’s episodic.’ And she was right. She said, ‘What we should do is put in chapter headings to make a virtue of its episodic nature.’”
Margaret’s suggestion seemed to work, as the quaint tale of a piglet who wants to be a sheepdog went on to make $254.1 million on a $30 million budget, and still has an approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Making a virtue of a necessity
Making a feature out of something you can’t hide is a well-known design concept. Ideally, the foregrounded element takes on a new life, becoming a positive asset.
But chapters are much more than a way to rescue a film with structural problems.
Time slowing down - ANIARA (Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, 2018)
The jaw-dropping Swedish science fiction film Aniara is set on a vast space shuttle taking people on a three-week voyage from a used-up Earth to a new home on Mars. But an accident sends the ship drifting helplessly, perhaps endlessly, into deep space.
The film is broken into chapters telling us how long the journey has lasted, and each chapter has its own subtitle.
The first chapter is titled “HOUR 1: ROUTINE VOYAGE.”
The next is “WEEK 3: WITHOUT A MAP.”
Then, a sudden leap to “YEAR 3: THE YURG.”
After this, we cycle through “YEAR 4: THE CULTS,” “YEAR 5: THE CALCULATION,” and “YEAR 6: THE SPEAR.”
Each new chapter comes as a shock as we empathise deeply with the people trapped on the ship, closely following some individual stories, and contemplate the physical and psychological impact of remorselessly passing time.
Big jumps to “YEAR 10: THE JUBILEE” and "YEAR 24: The SARCOPHAGUS" painfully signal that the passengers will never reach their destination, and that we're watching the despair and denial of people faced with an impossible situation.
But after this comes one of the most devastating uses of chapter design I've seen. The ship (now entirely devoid of life) comes into the orbit of a beautiful, Earth-like planet
The chapter heading reads: "YEAR 5,981,407: LYRA CONSTELLATION."
In the few remaining moments before the film ends, we have to process the fact that the spaceship is now a relic of a long-vanished species. Almost certainly, no human beings remain anywhere in the Universe.
After two hours of concentrating our attention on specific characters and social situations, the narrative has brushed them aside and revealed its true themes:
The absurdity of looking for "another Earth." The uniqueness and value of our own planet. The smallness of humanity in the face of space-time and the immensity of the Universe.
The film achieves its overwhelming effect by setting up a pattern and finally breaking it, exploding our understanding of the situation in a profound and moving way.
Time speeding up – THE SHINING (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Kubrick’s film tells the story of Jack Torrance, a would-be writer who takes a job as the off-season caretaker of The Overlook, a rambling, remote upscale hotel.
Its titles start modestly enough, describing story events without reference to time:
“THE INTERVIEW” and “CLOSING DAY.”
The next title reads: “A MONTH LATER”.
As the narrative speeds up, we move through various days of the week, but in a rather odd order: “TUESDAY”, “SATURDAY”, “WEDNESDAY,” “MONDAY”.
The last few titles denote times of day: “8AM,” and “4PM”.
In some ways Kubrick is aiming for the opposite effect to Aniara, but the sum total is similarly claustrophobic. We feel as if time is collapsing as we're hurled towards some inescapable but probably appalling denouement.
We may not register the jumbled, inconsistent nature of the titles consciously, but they have a subliminally deeply unsettling effect.
Many other elements of the film share this deliberately chaotic and irrational aspect (detailed in the excellent documentary Room 237), so the design of the titles greatly boosts the film's weird, off-centre feel.
A lingering question – CONTAGION (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Soderbergh’s film presciently follows the course of a pandemic emanating from China. Along the way, a number of leading actors are infected with the virus and die quickly and horribly, upping both the story’s realism quotient and the audience’s fear-factor.
Teasingly, though, the film’s chaptering scheme starts with “DAY TWO” rather than the “DAY ONE” we might have expected.
It continues through DAYS 3 – 8, then moves to “DAY 12,” “DAY 14,” “DAY 18,” “DAY 21,” “DAY 26,” and “DAY 29.”
Then there is a leap to “DAY 131,” “DAY 133,” and “DAY 135.”
What is the emotional/psychological effect of all this?
The careful annotation of passing time heightens the sense that this is an account of real or potential events. It also demonstrates how quickly a disease can spread around a fully globalised world, something we now know all too well.
By the end, though, most of the audience will probably have forgotten that they came into the story on “DAY 2.”
But when the film is almost over, we finally arrive at “DAY 1”.
A flashback sequence shows a bulldozer destroying an area of rainforest in China. A colony of bats is disturbed, one of which drops a piece of banana into a nearby farm, where a pig eats it.
The pig’s carcass is prepared in the kitchen of a Macau casino by a chef who leaves the kitchen without washing his hands to pose for a photo with a woman. And this is the person who, we now realise, brought the virus to the US.
The chaptering gives us a pattern which we may not realise has been incomplete throughout the story until the “DAY ONE” chapter heading brings this home.
Like Aniara, it's only with this final nugget of information that the story's full meaning becomes clear.
More on Narrative Design
This article outlines just a few ways that chapters can be used. People are constantly finding new, creative ways to use them. Not all stories benefit from chaptering, though, so think carefully before using them.
Do you have thoughts on chaptering in cinema?
Maybe you can think of films that use chapters in other, interesting ways? Or perhaps you dislike chapters, and feel cinema would be better off without them?
Let us know your thoughts in the Comments!
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