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Perhaps the lowest common denominator in popular culture is the movie title. Producers and distributors try desperately to condense their films' essences in a maximum of four or five words, often ending up with such gems as "The Children of Paradise" and "You Only Live Twice."

Lately, the titles themselves have become inscrutable and genuinely unsymbolic. Despite the critical acclaim for the movie, to what exactly does the title "Reservoir Dogs" refer? A particularly glaring category embraces those titles that combine a gerund and a person's name. The first of these were acceptably succinct, e.g. "Educating Rita" and "Eating Raoul." Not too difficult to figure out what these films were about, no. But then, a couple of years ago, came that cinematic treasure known as "Regarding Henry." So, it's a film about Henry. What about Henry? No one could possible know.

Some evolution has taken place in this crippled genre. Take last month's "Losing Isaiah." Hmm, you think, could be about death, kidnapping or even a slam-bang lost-in-the-big-city caper. But no, "Losing Isaiah" draws its plot from the topical problem of surrogate motherhood. How did I know? Luckily, I saw the subheading: "Who Decides What Makes a Mother?" Yes, these titles have become so vague that a whole other title of unlimited length--defeating the entire original objective--becomes necessary.

But then again, other films conspire to leave us still deeper in the dark. Why couldn't "Billy Madison" have been the main character in "Forrest Gump," for example? They're equally stupid and both bear the name of a leader from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Or how about "True Lies" as a new title for "Basic Instinct?" How about "Basic Instinct" for just about every movie with a nude Sharon Stone in it?


Titles don't mean too much in an age when actors--typecast to the extreme--define movies more than anything else. Still, something a little more descriptive could certainly help; take "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective." At least there's no mistaking that title for the next Star Wars film.