Ever since Saul Bass designed his radical motion graphics for the films of Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s and 60s, a small but vocal group of devoted fans, many of them designers, have followed this art form, often obsessively. The most flamboyant examples of the craft even generate enthusiasm among the general movie-going public (Star Wars and James Bond, come to mind), and every year or so, there is a film that stands out from the crowd largely because of its original title sequence alone. Currently, the film Watchmen is generating a buzz for its coupling of vintage superhero graphics and three dimensional motion type. Others from recent years hyping stylish title sequences include Juno and Panic Room. The best examples are without a doubt an art—essential to the action of the movie, while functioning equally as short, stand-alone films unto themselves. These bold, lavish productions in the skill of marrying original, catchy moving graphics with innovative type certainly garner respect and deserve admiration. But what of those film title sequences of the more subtle variety—those that employ type alone to usher us into the mood, plot, and action of the film? What is the role of pure type in the film title sequence, and does it too have a language, an art of its own?
The most noticeable, and arguably best, examples of the pure type title sequence come not from the current Hollywood studio system, but from the contemporary European cinema. They are found in the films of such directors as Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis, and Olivier Assayas. Harboring a lineage that starts with the films of Godard, but unlike their forefathers and mothers, these films employ sequences less playful than say Bande à part or Masculin, feminine, and operate instead, typically on a level of heightened formalism and restraint to achieve their power. A particularly striking example is found in the title sequence for Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s English-language film of last year, Funny Games, itself a frame-by-frame remake of his 1997 German-language film of the same name—but this time with American actors including Naomi Watts and Tim Roth.
Funny Games opens with tiny, bright red credits on a black background. The type is centered on the screen, bold, all caps, but because the size is so small, we struggle to make out the names as we fade in and out of credits for film companies, finance companies, producers, and line producers. Because of their near-illegibility, the words function more like small shapes on a black expanse, or mere traces of words. It is a relief when we shift away from the text to the daylight, aerial images of an SUV hauling a boat on a non-descript expanse of freeway, which gives way to a rural, wooded two-lane highway, backed by classical music, and then the voices of a middle-aged couple and child on a tranquil drive to a yet unknown destination. The voices eventually tell us they are playing a little guessing game with (which we now see in point-of-view camera angle) the stacks of classical music CDs in the Land Rover’s storage compartment. We see the wife’s hands inserting a CD, and now the husband must guess the composer and piece. The camera now frames the wife, husband, and child seated facing us. The husband correctly guesses Handel, but struggles and finally gives up on the composition. The wife announces her win again, and the husband reaches to switch the music yet again, but the wife objects “Hands off.” She asks of him to “Just listen.” He complies as they continue to drive as the Handel composition plays for another moment, but abruptly shifts to piercing, heavy metal grindcore music. At this point the film’s title “FUNNY GAMES” appears on the screen in huge, bright red letters in bold and all caps.
The film’s title displays so large that it takes up the full width of the screen, fragmenting the faces of the actors behind the glyphs of its enormous letters. To the type-educated, we see that the typeface is Arial Black—the “S” in “GAMES” gives it away as Arial and not Helvetica because of the slight angle of the ends of its chopped-off stroke. At this point, we are clued-in to the fact that the miniature type we have seen just previously must also be Arial Black— the extreme heaviness of its weight confirming the difficulty of its legibility at such a small size. The gargantuan letters of the title are made even more shocking coming right after the tiny type just before, mixed with the tranquil scenery of the rural drive and the softness of the classical music. There is a violence, especially coupled with the aggressive music, that comes with the oversized letters, their (what now seems at this extreme size) severe linearity, the blood red meaty boldness of their weight, seems to cut right through the faces of the actors in the vehicle behind. Although we know Arial Black to be not the most mechanical of typefaces (it is actually rather Humanist in comparison to other sans serifs), when juxtaposed with the fragile, now dwarfed faces of the actors, it seems utterly clinical and even malicious in its precision.
A sans serif (especially such a widely-used one as Arial) is an interesting choice of typeface to connote a sense of dread, shock, or terror. Instead, another designer may have opted for the jagged creepiness of serif faces found on the covers of mystery novels or in the titles of conventional horror flicks—“Funny Games” in blood red Bernhard Modern, perhaps. Yet, in Haneke’s sequence, no prickly serifs are needed to spill the blood of the doomed. The giant letters of the title are immediately followed by a more medium display size showcasing credits for the primary and secondary actors, the director of photography, editor, sound, set design, costume design, and music. This is followed by a peculiar incorporation of credits that would typically be found in the closing credits. One by one, the face of each of the three actors in the vehicle is framed by two columns of text, one justified left and the other justified right, respectively. The actors’ faces are thus left vulnerable in the narrow “white space” outlined by the jagged rhythm of the ragged edges of the interior type. Here, the type is smaller, yet still quite legible. At times, a letter will intersect the face. While the resonance is not as eerie as the giant type of the title, there still remains an air of terror—the lines of type display as small red arrows—the names of assistant cameramen and makeup artists becoming menacing darts, just waiting for a face to inch a little too close.
It is hard for the color red not to connote blood, even if it remains on a subliminal level. Yet, this shade of red is also a very commercial red—the color of Coca-Cola advertisements, Heinz ketchup, or a Target ad. Arial, a derivative of Helvetica, is synonymous with all things commercial—it was born to be nothing other than commercial. So over-exposed and completely immersed in the realm of mundane advertising, bundled office fonts, and generic pharmaceutical labels is Arial, that it is all-too ironic that a personality manages, in this film sequence, to emerge from this character-depleted typeface. If this dichotomy sounds a bit too disturbing, then from the title sequence alone, the director has succeeded.
Funny Games is a profoundly harrowing, yet highly intelligent film, that explores violence as consumption in media, especially that of the Hollywood ilk. It questions the participation of the general public in this socially-accepted, yet disturbing cycle. It is both uncanny and haunting that bright red Arial Black could mange to both connote simultaneously the viscosity of shed blood, and both the potential violence of technology and irresponsible commercial media.
A blatant, yet not quite identical, derivative of Helvetica, the Arial family is now one of the most widely distributed and used typefaces in the world. Packaged with Microsoft Windows since 1992 and Mac OS X since 2001, Arial was originally designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for Monotype typograph and use with IBM’s laserxerographic printer. Arial is a success of the excess of the 1980s, one of Arial Black’s most prominent displays of that era is found in the logo for rap group Run DMC. Certainly coincidental, but no less interesting, is that Arial’s rise to prominence occurred in a decade when the heightened consumption of media violence was becoming commonplace. Arial shares a birth year with teen slasher flicks Friday the 13th III, Halloween III, and Slumber Party Massacre. While relatively sophomoric in their displays of violence when compared to more contemporary gore fests as Hostel, Saw, or Kill Bill, this genre of teen horror was at the forefront of the rise of violence as entertainment in American media. At the same time, video games were gaining prominence with their own versions of simulated violence—all in the name of a bit of arcade fun. In 1980, Atari released Battlezone, a fighter simulation so advanced it was used in the U.S. military to desensitize soldiers to war conditions, but was also found in suburban homes across America. Battlezone was joined by no less violent video game classics as Death Zone, Mortal Kombat, and Manhunt. The title sequence of Haneke’s Funny Games also manages to be reminiscent of arcade games. The display of the title “FUNNY GAMES” resonates similarly to “GAME OVER” or “YOU WIN.” There is also the same ironic, pseudo-comic tone of the teenage arcade, except in Funny Games it comes across much darker as it is played right up against human tragedy and extreme violence.
After the opening credits, Funny Games unfolds as a psychological horror film about a middle class family who are terrorized by intruders (seemingly without any motive) in their comfortable lake house. It is a highly stylized film with conventions that toy with the audience participation in the brutality and complicity of the violence that we witness on the screen. The director uses such provocative devices as having the villains address the audience directly, having the worst atrocities occur just off-screen, and even toying with the very notion of film as manipulation by rewinding the action of the film itself and replaying it to an even more violent outcome. It is a brutal film with an important intention at its heart. The fact that it was remade frame-by-frame for an American audience is no coincidence. And, that such an innocuous typeface as Arial Black could become such a central harbinger of the tone of this difficult-to-watch film, is perhaps no coincidence either. The consumption of brutality, the mendacity and complacency of a purely consumer culture, can be found in the most inconspicuous of places—the suburban movie house, or even in a bundled typeface. Funny games, indeed.
While elaborate film title sequences with clever motion graphics can be thrilling eye-candy, crucial to the action of the film itself, or movies in miniature, there is a less obvious, but no less powerful role for the pure type title sequence. Well-rendered and well-displayed letterforms have never ceased to conjure deeply emotional and resonant themes, and in film, they can function alone to carry the viewer into the mood and action of the film. The title sequence in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games proves that a thoughtful treatment of type is a powerful graphic unto itself—one that can transcend the assumptions about its nature or purpose, one that sometimes forces us to reconsider the familiar. In rethinking the accustomed, we challenge ourselves to see beyond what we have come to believe we see, to actually seeing—and seeing anew is in essence what makes a good typeface, a good graphic, and a good film.