What with exam marking and report writing it has been a pretty fallow month on the cinematic front so, if I may be permitted an indulgence, I thought I would take my cue from Sight & Sound’s very successful ‘closing shot’ series at the end of their monthly magazine and turn my attention to film openings.
These are perhaps less easy to recall than endings, simply because, by the time we come to the end of a (good/great) movie we have invested so much in it emotionally that we are bound to find the conclusion highly charged. Film-makers notoriously only have ten minutes or so in which to engage their audiences before eyes glaze over and stupor sets in, and in recent years they have outdone one another in anticipating ever-decreasing attention spans by reducing that margin still further and packing in an attention grabber from the off: a full-scale battle in Gladiator, or the destruction of a world in Man of Steel. Back in the 80s, when I still had the time to afford the odd ‘bum evening’, I used to go along and see a film with no more foreknowledge than that provided by a squint at the poster, and it was interesting to note how, twenty minutes in, one vainly awaited some sort of volte face in approach, some glimmer of engagement. But no, the die was cast.
So what are the openings that endure in the memory? Inevitably one recalls those of one’s favourite films: Paul Newman held in telephoto sepia close-up as he cases the bank in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Richard Burton delivering a humdinger of a sermon in The Night of the Iguana, and chasing his congregation out of church; James Stewart falling off the roof in Vertigo, later reprised in Cliffhanger! Are these films (except Cliffhanger) great because they have an extraordinary grasp of structure and storytelling from the outset? The opening sequence of Jaws (first victim) quickly became a genre convention of the monster movie, but is itself a masterpiece of cinema storytelling: there is no dialogue at all of importance, but sound and vision are paramount.
Another type of opener, the kind I remember being in vogue when I was a student, is the one that goes for atmosphere and aesthetics over storyline. One thinks of Apocalypse Now, with its Doors mantra (The End – get it?) intoned over a combusting jungle treeline, or Blade Runner’s opening, a dystopian cityscape that trumpets special effects over content, or The Shining’s, simply a helicopter follow shot of a car moving silently through the Rocky Mountains, while Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s synthesized Dies Irae intones ominously on the soundtrack. In the opening montage of Blue Velvet, David Lynch lays out his sanitised picture of suburban America, before poking his camera into its subterranean depravities. Directors rarely make bold statements like this these days, though Paolo Sorrentino did last year in The Great Beauty. Which makes me recall another, not unrelated: Fellini’s entry of Christ into Rome by helicopter, in La Dolce Vita!
I suppose the ultimate abuse of the opening sequence is that espoused by the Bond films, Indiana Jones (Raider of the Lost Ark still unbeaten), and even The Naked Gun, where it merely serves to give a flavour of what follows but bears little or no relation to the story. This technique has been extensively used in TV since the sixties and is known as a ‘cold open’. Back in the seventies there was a vogue for long pre-credits sequences, where you had invariably forgotten that you had had no credits by the time they arrived (the longest was Dennis Hopper’s 30 minuter for The Last Movie). Some films open with the action unfurling behind the titles, others like to get the titles over first, usually against black. Roman Polanski’s last two theatrical films, Carnage and Venus in Fur, adopt the former approach and are both bookended by telling sequences outside the building in which the action occurs, the tracking shot through the rain in the latter offering a classically open-ended start to the film, culminating with the camera nudging open the theatre doors. Open-ended beginnings… sounds like a good place to stop.