February 10, 2010

Intertextuality and The Body: The Titles of Vertigo, Foxy Brown, and Superbad

This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote in 2007 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. Screencaptures are my own. Critical analysis is original. 

Abstract: The titles for Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, titles by Saul Bass, 1958), Foxy Brown (dir. Jack Hill, titles by Imagic Inc., 1974), and Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, titles by Scott M. Davids of Yard VFX, 2006) when viewed in chronological order present a timeline of sorts, offering an interesting view into the intertextuality of film titles and the ways in which the body, especially the partitioned and dissected body, and the body in motion, are represented in a similar visual fashion even though the stories of the three films are vastly different. Each title works within its specific decade of release and says something about its time period. Foxy and Superbad draw more consciously on the concept of cultural citation of the filmic tradition, whereas Vertigo evokes psychological depth and originality in its approach; the latter films rely more on the stylistic quotation of popular culture.    

Vertigo: This title sequence moves from a shot of a live woman’s face to many-colored fractal shapes, spiraling into and out of impenetrable and infinite black space, the space of the disturbed mind, and then returns back to the impassive woman’s face. Each subtle color change and the choice of the hollow, white outline typeface reflects on the thematics of the film. Central to this discussion of the titles is their relation to the representation of the body. One important aspect of that is the inscription of text onto image and how that relates to authorship. The font, as already noted, is a hollow outline, which allows for the maximum exposure of skin. This creates the illusion of branding, of stamping onto a woman’s flesh the names of men who claim to own her. The model in the titles is a stand-in for Kim Novak’s character, Madeleine/Judy. Her dual identity speaks to the difficulty Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie has pinning her down, pinpointing her, gaining control of her actions. When Stewart’s title zooms in from off-screen and stamps itself above the unnamed woman, the character of Scottie is declaring his ownership of Madeleine/Judy, and giving the anonymous model an identity solely in relation to his name and identity. Importantly, Bass uses a freeze frame technique on this image, stopping the motion of the model’s lips, lingering on them, and emphasizing the importance of Stewart’s credit.

The next credit is for Kim Novak, the object of obsessive desire in the film. The camera pans up to the woman’s eyes that, instead of being immobilized by a freeze frame, dart back and forth, imparting uncertainty and the theme of searching which is central to Madeleine’s character. The camera then pans left and zooms into a singular eye and the credit ‘IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S’ appears. This is an obvious example of the branding and ownership of the dismembered woman’s body. Hitchcock is ostensibly taking claim of his film, but subtextually, declaring dominion over her eyes, which are later revealed to be the entrance to the interior space of the mind, the area of madness and abstract obsession. The camera zooms in more slowly to the eye, the frame is tinted red, the eye widens in reaction to this dangerous color, and the title ‘VERTIGO’ charges from the depths of the woman’s dark iris, toward the camera and up out of frame. The arena of the mind that was branded as belonging to Hitchcock has now produced the title of the work of art. The fa├žade of the mask-like woman is revealed to be as hollow as the typographic outline, a mere vessel for the artistic expression of film auteur Hitchcock, and by implication, title auteur Bass. After an interlude of spiraling geometric shapes of varying colors, the camera zooms back again out of the woman’s iris, with the credit ‘DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK.’ This is another inscription of authorship, and an exertion of control over the uncontrollable interior madness of the montage of fractal shapes. After a recess into the ether, we emerge again, back where we started, with the commanding name of the director reified.


The inscription of text on image: Typography and its placement over the image belies a struggle for dominance that is amplified when the type is placed over the human form. In Vertigo, authorship is etched into the skin of female, owning and controlling it. The credit for Kim Novak is unsure of itself, and the woman’s eyes break their mask-like gaze.

Although Vertigo deals with sexuality, fetishism, sexual obsession and perversions, it is moored in the spatial temporality of 1950s America. According to the Hollywood codes at the time, these themes are repressed throughout the film and their representation becomes sublimated to the level of subtle visual markers. The title sequence sets up these sublimated sensibilities. The title opens and closes on a female body as a way into the psychological and physical space of the film. Physical representation is important as a threshold metaphor, as a method to draw the viewer into the immersive space of the film. The physical, and importantly female, body that is utilized as a metaphor in this instance is carefully spliced by the camera, into disparate body parts: lips, eyes, chins, and cheeks. The slow camera movement, coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s perfectly lilting orchestrations, entices the viewer into the body, and into the obsession that is shared by Scottie, Bass, and Hitchcock.

Foxy Brown: The cinematic tradition upon which the Foxy titles draw is varied, but a clear antecedent is Bass’ work on Vertigo. Though the films are thematically and stylistically worlds apart, the first images of each title sequence is a dislocated female body part, in Foxy, first a pair of lips, and then two blinking eyes. The theme of eyes continues with Foxy’s/Pam’s wink to the audience as the green-tinted images transition to a photo-real filmic representation. The sequence also features several freeze frames of Foxy as she poses, dancing, each freeze frame bringing her figure closer to the audience. Unlike the Vertigo titles, however, Foxy Brown has somewhat of a schizophrenic title sequence because auteurship is not foregrounded, rather favoring the strong Black, female protagonist. Her identity is clearly marked, signaled in text “PAM GRIER IS…‘FOXY BROWN,’” and image, the close up of Foxy/Pam’s face winking to the viewer. The strong centrality of the title character before the film proper begins distances this title from its ‘50s forbearer whose title woman was an empty vessel and a physical surface on which to ascribe masculine authorship. Foxy is a character of the 1970s, foregrounded socially in the women’s rights movement and cinematically in the tradition of blaxploitation and sexploitation pictures.


Freeze frame: In Vertigo and Foxy Brown, freeze frame pauses and focuses the gaze on the female protagonists to fetishize the lips and eyes.

The different representations of Foxy Brown within the title sequence, both on the visual and auditory plane speak to the conflicts of bodily representation. On the one hand, Foxy is a modern, liberated woman who is the center of her film. On the other, her physicality is sexualized and fetishized in lingering close-ups of her breasts, crotch, lips, and eyes. Switching back between film and tinted and colorized images also reflects the multiplicity of representation. Foxy is dressed in many ways throughout the title: in a bikini, as a cowgirl, in a one-piece bell bottom suit, as a ghetto or “Afrotastic” version of herself, and as a leather-clad, karate-chopping action heroine. Conflicting images of physical representation are layered and diverse. The title seems at odd with itself, unable to reconcile the profit AIP needed to generate by playing on Pam Grier’s sex appeal, with its vengeful and ass-kicking female protagonist.


In Foxy Brown, the text does not assert its control over Foxy’s body, like the type in Vertigo, but acts as an introduction to her character, which is defined by the coupling of the visual and the auditory, more than the typographic.

This tension between Foxy's status as sexualized object and in-control heroine is brought to bear in the tension between sound and image. Willie Hutch’s funky sound, upbeat and celebratory, provides the viewer with positive associations and a general happy feeling towards Foxy. This sets the tone for the film, where the viewer really comes to root for and identify with Foxy’s path of revenge. As much as the objectifying images are at odds with this groovy soundtrack, so do the lyrics occasionally contradict themselves and the music. One of the lyrics’ main descriptors of Foxy: “You’re cute and sweet, but you don’t play around!” Foxy embodies the duality of the newly liberated woman, still an object of desire but one who does not tolerate the masculine control exercised over the unnamed model in Vertigo’s titles. Another lyric warns of Foxy’s physical dominance: “Please don’t make Foxy mad/Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad/Superbad!” In Foxy Brown, the lyrics are mostly empowering to women, and the images mostly objectifying, though the sequence treads a fine line between the exploitation and celebration of the physical body in motion. 


Foxy Brown uses close-ups of Foxy’s anatomy to convey her obvious sex appeal. This image is layered, in the foreground with Foxy’s realistic body and in the background, her colorized body.


Superbad's homoerotic friendship. 


Sexuality in bodily titles: Bodies captured on film, and especially bodies in motion, are subject to a sexualizing filmic gaze, so it is fitting that three films each dealing with sexuality include in their opening credits the sexualized or fetishized body. The role of sexuality in Vertigo's titles because of the time period is more subdued, though there are subtle clues that link sex with obsession and madness, much as the story centers on this paradigm.


Freeze frame: In Foxy Brown, freeze frame draws Foxy closer to the viewer. 

Superbad: The title theme song for Foxy Brown provides the title for the next film, Superbad. This sequence is a direct descendent of Vertigo and Foxy Brown, yet its subject matter is the most radically different. This film also provides us with the clearest example of intertextuality because the theme of filmic citation and self-reflexivity is central to the titles, and the film at large. The main stylistic difference is tied to this film’s postmodernity. Superbad comes thirty years after Foxy, and fifty years after Vertigo. To bridge that gap, the film employs the currently popular strategy of a retro title sequence. The retro appeal of its titles comes from its reference to blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and the era they represent. This is purposefully one of the most ironic cultural citations Superbad, a buddy film about two white, suburban teenagers, could make. 

Within the text, there are no overt references to the ‘70s, neither Foxy Brown nor blaxploitation are mentioned in the film, and the phrase ‘superbad’ is never uttered by any of the characters. The title sequence establishes a groovy mood that is never explicitly evoked again, yet the celebration of retro nerdiness is maintained throughout the film. The film is relying on the cool factor of its title tune, “Too Hot To Stop” by The Bar-Keys, and the aura of the 1970s, to support the plot, which is essentially about nerdy white high school kids trying to score alcohol and get laid. The plot of Foxy Brown and Superbad could not be more far apart, and yet the titles of the later film draw on the cinematic history of films like Vertigo and Foxy Brown in setting the tone for their modern teen comedy.


The visual quotation of Foxy Brown in Superbad: The multiplication of bodies in motion, with shadowed and layered images of dancing figures.

The juxtaposition of funky ‘70s flavor and the 21st century green screen and computer technology utilized presupposes the theme of cultural citation prevalent in the film. The first conversation in the film is Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) talking over cell phones, immediately signifying that the story does take place in the present, and not the 1970s. But, references to the ‘70s are commonplace: Seth and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) wear t-shirts with pictures of Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons, Bruce Lee and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam, 1975). This kind of intertextuality is merely quotation, and does not have a deeper significance to the plot or meaning of the film. Much like the opening titles, these in-text references are stylistic choices pulled from pop culture.

Unlike the female bodies at the center of Vertigo and Foxy Brown, the male body takes center stage in the Superbad title sequence. And although it is not a photo-real physique, it is a new representation and commodification of male friendship that is not usually seen in mainstream cinema. Like the music of Foxy Brown, Superbad also presents an tension between the visual and the audio because while the lyrics are explicitly heterosexual (“Girl, I’m out to get your love and I’m too hot to stop now”), whereas the images convey a homosocial bond between the two characters that is much stronger than either character’s pursuit of the opposite sex. The characters in Superbad are obsessed with the female form and its anatomy is immediately the center of conversation in the opening seconds of the film. Seth’s quest for the “Vagtastic Voyage” porn site and the emphasis on breasts and penises and individual body parts recalls the fetishism present in both Vertigo and Foxy Brown, albeit in a more obvious and less mature manner.


Freeze frame: In Superbad, freeze frame lingers on a backwards glance and a separation, emphasizing the male "bromance" at the center of the film.


Fifty years of cross-genre thematic titles: Focus on the eyes in the Vertigo titles is key to understanding the psychological complexity of the plot and main character. Foxy Brown's titles convey the inner strength of the title character by quoting Vertigo's design while simultaneously updating it for the newly liberated '70s. The "iris out" visual effect in the Superbad titles completes the ocular thematic continuity between the three sequences. Superbad suggests a shift from the isolated and fetishized female body to the coupling of two male bodies in constant tension between heterosexual and homosocial desires. 


  1. Your attention to visual/aural representations of the films themselves--posters, title sequences--reveals the transformation of a "moving" picture into a "still" one--or a re-imagining/preview. You line up a complex series of images and effects and clarify/remind me why I was so flabbergasted by "2001" all those years ago when I was 12: In the beginning was the Image. Thanks for this post on posters!

    1. Wow, sorry to get back to you so late on this, Paul! (I need to check my stats more often...)

      Thanks for the kind words; I've never really thought of myself as being particularly interested in "the transformation of a 'moving picture into a 'still'" but I really liked the way you phrase that. I do spend a lot of attention on film stills. Thanks for bringing the obvious (heretofore, unrecognized!) into perspective.