(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)
The worst intertitles in the world belong to Len Cella, the filmmaker known for 1985’s Moron Movies and the inevitable 1986 sequel More Moron Movies. Seemingly just plastic letters on a board, they spell out the titles of his shorts––such as “Animals Should Wear Underwear” and “Jello Makes a Lousy Doorstop”––and may look uglier than any other title ever has.
Still, they function perfectly, setting up Cella’s visual jokes exactly as needed. Sometimes they are themselves more than half of the joke, delivering the punchline in the first second of the film, and setting up our expectation of action to come (not unlike Flaherty’s titles in Nanook). As well, they set our expectations exactly right for the humor of these films: they instantly create an expectation of the lowbrow, and the poorly-made (yet pitch-perfect) strivings of Cella.
As Stella Bruzzi points out in her essay “Narration: The Film and its Voice” in New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, much of the disparagement of narration and titling in the documentary field may derive from the taste of Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema filmmakers who saw resorting to narration as a failure of a film to achieve its desired results through picture-logic rather than word-logic. Yet to abandon a key tool of filmmaking––and clearly one necessary to a range of essential documentaries––would be foolhardy.
It may be that alternative strategies (such as Chris Marker’s use of a female voice in 1983’s Sans Soleil) and minimization (as in the use of text in 2004’s Darwin’s Nightmare) may be necessary to avoid the known pitfalls inherent in intertitles and narration. Photographs of circa-1976 leisure suits do not stop clothing designers from making suits, after all, but may serve instead to force questions on the function and message clothing delivers. It may be the same for documentary filmmakers.