Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” I wonder how much time gets spent on those loglines that describe movies in the little boxes on digital cable menu grids? I’ve become a bit of an aficionado of these bite-sized descriptions, and often find myself scrolling the menu not simply to see what’s on but also to see what the logline writers said about it.
Descriptions generally don’t exceed 25 words and often come in closer to 10. That’s a tight window, so it’s no wonder that logline writers would put functionality first. Yet the best still manage to suggest a point of view towards the material. War of the Roses, for instance, is described on my cable grid (Time Warner of Brooklyn) as, “Rich couple divorce, both get the house.” The Turning Point is described as, “Aging ballerina and ex-rival bicker.” The first description will tease a grin from anyone who knows what mayhem ensues after the Roses’ divorce. The second description suggests thinly-veiled contempt, as if the writer is trying to warn potential viewers, “That’s all there is to this movie.”
The description of the 1955 western The Kentuckian—Burt Lancaster’s directorial debut—invokes the only element that has stopped the movie from sliding off film history’s radar screen, a notorious setpiece in which Walter Matthau’s bad guy attacks an unarmed Lancaster with a whip. “A frontiersman heads for Texas with his son and meets two women and a guy with a bullwhip,” says the logline. (Where’s Gregg Araki when you need him?) A blasé description of The Outlaw Josey Wales plays up familiar Clint Eastwood tropes but doesn’t begin to hint at the movie’s quirky richness: “A Missouri farmer hunts down the Union soldiers who killed his family and left him for dead.”
Sometimes, though, the logline writers hit one out of the park. My all-time favorite is a nine-word summary of A Place in the Sun: “Poor boy woos rich girl, takes poor girl boating.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.