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On Opening Credits

I like everything about going to the cinemas. All the little rituals.

I like to listen to those waiting in the ticket line debate about what film they should watch. I like grabbing my little tub of “Dibs” at the concession stand. I like slipping the ticket stub into my back pocket after the other half’s been torn out. I like scoping out the best seats in the movie hall the minute I enter it. I like when sometimes a theatre employee comes to the front of the cinema hall and makes an announcement that always ends with: “Enjoy the Movie”. I like, make that love, previews – sometimes even more than the actual film I am about to see (although I have my beef with movie trailers these days, but that is for another post). I like when the movie begins and the Universal, or Columbia, or Twentieth Century Fox intro rolls across the screen with its familiar music; this makes me more than a little giddy. And I like movie credits.

For me, any filmmaker who truly loves movies has to invest in how their film declares its title. How can any filmmaker who breathes and lives movies not indulge in one of the few vestiges that remains in the structure of film today: the opening credits.

One of the easiest ways for me to judge a film, often the quickest too, is to see how the opening credits have been done.

That is why I frown upon films that altogether do away with opening credits. I can understand the refusal to indulge in a full run through every person who contributed to the film; that can wait until the end credits. But there is endless ingenuity to be exercised in the appearance of the name of the film on the screen: the when, the where and the how.

Of course the history of movies is also associated with the history of opening credits. Consider the opening credits of the James Bond movies (as Bond turns to the camera and shoots from his gun at the audience) the style for which has carried the blueprint for the evolution of the Bond series itself. Or the famous animated opening credits for the Pink Panther films. Or that indelible rolling script from the opening of the Star Wars films. Who can forget the glorious opening credits for 2001, A Space Odyssey, forever associated with Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathushtra. But I am going to set aside the obvious, iconic opening credits. And consider them within the context of more recent films, including some favorites.

Shame did opening credits beautifully, with a single shot of Michael Fassbender lying in bed under blue sheets. I have forgotten many individual scenes from Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, but not the opening credits that scrolled across a sleeping Scarlett Johannson’s barely covered derriere.

It is not just the actual visual of the title credits, or the movement, or the aesthetic that matters. It is also the timing of when the filmmaker chooses to announce the name of the film during its narrative. Some movies start with opening credits off the bat, and I respect that. Others have fun with it. My personal favorite in this regard is 127 Hours, which provides the best example of when to place the opening credits for a film. The movie finds the perfect moment during the evolution of its story to announce the title; it occurs literally when the first second of the 127 hours in question ticks in. In doing so it immediately establishes the wit that Danny Boyle has invested in the movie.

See how it is done for one of the best films of 2011. The movie starts with a single unbroken shot of a man and woman on either side of the screen, speaking to an unseen court official as the wife explains why she is seeking divorce from the husband. The court official dismisses them, noting that the reason for the proposed separation is trivial. The two walk away from either side of the screen, and the title flashes: A Separation. This immediately made me smile and settle down in my seat knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who knew what he was doing.

How disappointing that someone as gifted, technically at least, as Christopher Nolan, makes the choice, repeatedly, to do away entirely with opening credits. He probably considers opening credits too obvious a cinematic conceit, and I can understand that. But by doing so, he is also sending the message that his films are somehow above it all. So no opening title credits for Batman Returns, none for Inception either. And I am willing to bet there won’t be any in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises installment. For me, this suggests a filmmaker exercising some manner of arrogance.

Same thing with Woody Allen, who famously has used the same white Windsor font against a black background for the opening credits of each of his films since 1980. When it comes to credits, you can see his refusal to bend to fashion or showiness or contemporary trends as refreshing, revolutionary even. He is making the argument, you could say, that the meat of the film, all the creativity, is in the content of the movie itself. But nah, I find it lazy. I can imagine Allen telling himself; phew, that’s one less thing I have to worry about. As much as I appreciate Allen as a filmmaker, that is one down for him in my books.

The worst offenders are some contemporary Indian films, which use the opening credits as an exercise in marketing. Endless names are flashed, sometimes one at a time, of financial institutions, of personal gurus, of family members of the filmmakers, of music executives, of television/radio channels that advertised the film, and on and on…until you want to scream for the movie to just begin already. Or even worse when a starlet, unrelated with the rest of the film, is summoned to shimmy over a musical number as the opening credits roll by. This is beyond creative bankruptcy; it is mortgaging away upfront whatever little artistic credibility the filmmaker might have had.

Compare that to someone like Jason Reitman, who in each of the four major films he has directed, has earned his stripes when it comes to opening credits. Each movie has used the credits as a way of establishing the tone of the film with intelligence. For the opening credits in Thank For Smoking, Reitman finds an almost impossibly perfect song, which, married to the movement of the credits, renders the bone dry sensibility of the film.

Or consider the overly sweet, quirky sensibility of the Juno opening credits that play as Ellen Page walks through an animated montage. You know right there what you have signed up for with the rest of the film.

Or behold the annoyingly brilliant opening credits sequence for Up In The Air, which if released in and of itself, would alone have been worth the price of admission.

And then finally there is Young Adult where Reitman projects the opening credits as the camera pans over the moving mechanics of a lo-tech cassette tape spooling in a player. Is this representative of the lead character moving back to an earlier, less sophisticated phase in her life? Or is it her regressive behavior through the movie that is denoted by the (in)significance of a cassette in a digital world.

Most people have an opinion about the director Lars Von Trier, that equal parts auteur and provocateur. But to see the first ten minutes of Melancholia, wordless and filled with jaw-droppingly, heart-breakingly beautiful images scored against Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is to know a filmmaker who has rendered a preamble whose brilliance is nearly immune to criticism. It’s a piece of bravura filmmaking that reiterates that as much as he tempts us to, we cannot dismiss the talent of Von Trier.

I am not a fan of David Fincher’s remake of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but have to concede to the the beauty of its opening credits. Going as far back as Se(7)en, Fincher has been particularly adroit with the use of ingenious design for the opening credits of his films.

And how about the title credits for the film Certified Copy. At the very start of the film, the credits appear over a static single unbroken shot of an empty podium at a crowded hall. One hears the background chatter of those gathered to listen to the speaker as the credits roll. This excitement in the air, is independent of how the speaker will actually fare with the audience. It is after the film is over that one realizes how complimentary the opening credits have been to the central theme of the film; it does not really matter if what you are seeing is the original or a copy. Should not the only thing that matters be one’s enjoyment of what one is seeing, regardless of whether it is the original piece or a facsimile thereof?

Speaking of static opening shots in French films, see also how the single take in the film Cache (incidentally also starring the invaluable Juliette Binoche), kick-starts the primary conceit of the movie. You watch what appears to be a photograph of a house as the opening credits begin to roll. And you are several minutes into the credits, before you see somebody on a bicycle zip by. And you realize with a start, by jove, this is not a static picture, but this house is being filmed. As the film progresses, it  is revealed that the family living in this house is being sent mysterious tapes showing their house being filmed over extended periods of time. First from the outside. And then, from inside the house. Altogether unsettling, isn’t it? Here the filmmaker, Michael Haneke has, with clever cunning, folded the central crux of the film into the opening credits.

I complained about Woody Allen and his identical opening credits for the films he has made over the last thirty years, but see what he has done in Midnight In Paris. The first five minutes of the movie are unhurried shots of Paris tableaus, the obvious touristy locales as well as parts of the city that are seldom seen. One waits for the story to begin, for one of his neurotic characters to start speaking. But instead one gentle Parisian view after another unfolds unhurriedly on the screen. You even start to fear if perhaps the movie is a joke, and the entire film has been cobbled together only with wordless, plotless images of Paris. But then you find yourself somehow settling into the space that has been created. It is a brave choice, but it works. When the lead characters do eventually appear and start talking we are happy to see them, but we are also smiling at the immersion we have just been through. Here is Allen gently granting the audience familiarity with the city in which his story is set.

Really, what better way to very quickly assess the quality of a film you have just sat down to watch than through its opening credits. Works for me every time.There are so many examples of brilliant opening credits. I’d say my personal recent favorite would have to be Melancholia but am curious to hear of others that have struck a chord with readers.

Sundance Online Shorts – Best of the Current Crop

As posted a couple of days ago, selected Sundance 2011 shorts are available to view for free via The Screening Room Youtube Channel.  Part of me wishes that Sundance and YouTube would repeat last year’s experiment in which a small selection of full length movies were made available to rent online for a very reasonable $3.99.  Alas, as reported by the NYTimes, the experiment was a financial failure yielding only $10,709.16 in revenue for YouTube.  Not exactly earth shattering numbers by any measure.  Perhaps making the movies available on devices such as Apple TV or Roku players would have been more successful.  After all, who wants to watch a full length movie hunched over a computer desk on a cramped laptop screen whilst a 50-inch flatscreen lies dormant in the living room?  I digress… back to this year’s shorts.

“Skateistan:To Live and Skate Kabul” is my personal pick of those currently offered, and while it’s nine minute length does not permit a deeper exploration of some of the underlying issues concerning the lives of those featured, the material is nonetheless engaging.  It takes talent to produce a documentary short as effective as this. There is a compelling narrative here as well as some effective camera work and judicious editing. Director Orlando von Einsiedel receives my applause for his efforts.

What do YOU think think?