Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On Openings

Last week, my esteemed colleague wrote a piece about Endings: their thematic elements as well as their structure in a broader sense. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article, even though I'm somewhat naturally averse to endings - they make me nervous, seeing as the completion of an activity necessarily signals a transition to another, which has the possibility to be messy and unsettling. Endings affect me so profoundly that I tend to forget important details of the last act of a movie, or the last chapter of a book, or the last episode of a long-watched TV show, while the beginnings remain firmly lodged in my brain.

Given this natural bent of mine, I decided to write a companion piece that focuses on how various entertainments begin. And since I don't watch nearly enough TV to stay up to date on what's going on with the beginnings or endings of shows, past and present, I've decided to focus on movies. And since I'm feeling too focused and analytic to delve into the contextual meanings of the all-important first few scenes, I've decided to limit myself to the opening sequences.

No, it's true! I've always felt that there can be a lot to learn from the conventions that govern the very first impressions that a movie leaves on its audience. And I hope my explorations of some of these conventions will leave the blogosphere a little brighter than when I found it.

To illustrate how things have changed, I'd like to travel back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. The days when the illustrious studios were still excited about these newfangled "talkies", when "Warner Bros." actually referred to real live people, and when a big shot director like Cecil B. De Mille could rule over his film set with an iron fist.

Well, that was a fun trip down memory lane. Now, for a contrasting image, take the Season 4 finale of HBO's hit series Entourage. The gang just sat through the world premiere screening of their latest film, Medellin, at the Cannes film festival. This is the film into which they poured their life's blood, for which they risked their entire careers - and suffice it to say, it totally sucked. As everyone got up to leave before the end credits, the film's hotheaded director gets up on stage and admonishes the audience for not staying through the credits, begging them to "show some respect for the below-the-line people!"

What's the difference between these two filmic eras? Most of the early Hollywood masterpieces of the 1930s and '40s were made in the days before end credits. Back then, at the start of the picture, there would be six or seven title screens: one with the studio's logo, one with the director/producer/any big stars, one with the title of the film in a large elegant font, one with the supporting cast, then two or three with key members of the crew.

They're up on the screen for enough time to read each name in a leisurely fashion - not like when some cable channel broadcasts a movie, and they're legally obligated to show the credits, but they jam them into one corner of the screen and scroll them so fast it makes your eyes hurt even when you're not trying to read them. And while it's true that the old system doesn't allot time and space to give recognition to every single person who contributed to the finished film product, it has the advantage of allowing the film experience to conclude with a majestic and classy "The End!" Lights come up, audience shuffles out of the theater with the final scene of the film fresh in their minds, rather than a seemingly endless barrage of names.

Sometimes, in addition to the title cards acknowledging the cast and crew, the filmmakers feel it necessary to provide some backstory or context for the upcoming plot by way of a title card. These can be as simple and straightforward as Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, ("Miami. Florida. Three-Twenty P.M. April the Twenty-Fourth. Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six...."), or as complex as the 1938 Warner Bros. classic The Adventures of Robin Hood ("In the year of Our Lord 1911 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land," etc., etc.).

The textual backstory, while still in use today, peaked in the 1970s with the Star Wars trilogy. The famous scrolling yellow text against a backdrop of stars (and set to music by the incomparable John Williams) supersedes an opening credits sequence. The only "credit" given prior to the opening is to the studio (20th Century Fox) and the production company (Lucasfilm Ltd.), both logos accompanied by the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare. In fact, the fanfare blends so seamlessly into the overture that the 20-second audio clip is included as the first track on the soundtrack albums for each of the three real Star Wars movies.

Contrast this gaudy presentation to the Warner Bros. logo in the above-mentioned Robin Hood, which appears on a single title card, accompanied by the actual film's score. The WB logo has long since been updated with a little animation sequence (an overhead view of the Warners backlot) and theme music (a rendition of "As Time Goes By" from the studio's (arguably) most famous and influential film Casablanca). Pretty much every studio (major, mini-major, independent, or otherwise) nowadays has its own extended animated logo. The same holds true for various production companies - for example, you might see a lightning bolt striking a tree to signify Jerry Bruckheimer's involvement, or a creepy-looking robotic pair of eyes emerging out of the grass to represent J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot shingle. These logos doubtless help to brand the products to which they're attached, but they sometimes interrupt the flow of an opening sequence.

Sometimes, though, even nowadays, logos can be incorporated into an opening in a way that holds true to the overall feel of the film. Take Warners' biggest recent hit, The Dark Knight. As the movie opens, we see three extended animated logos: one for WB, one for Legendary Pictures, and one for DC comics, but all sans music, and all with an uncharacteristic blue-steel hue. Then we see a shadowy bat-signal emerge from a burst of fire of the same eerie color. Then straight into the movie. They don't even show you the title; not until after the last shot of the film, right before the closing credits.

Opening sequences, like all aspects of filmmaking, present the director a chance to either bow to conventions or put a personal stamp on his/her work. Whether the director wants to prominently feature only the names of the actors and the director (Quentin Tarantino with Inglourious Basterds), acknowledge the work of some of the more prominent "below the line people" (Jason Reitman with Up in the Air), start us out with a relevant quotation (Kathryn Bigelow with The Hurt Locker), or bring us right into the picture without a single word (James Cameron with Avatar), is largely a matter of personalities. That and whether or not the studio is willing to surrender enough control to let their creative team come up with something clever. We'll just have to wait and see how film beginnings evolve in the future.