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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Opening Shots: 'Repo Man'

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From Schuyler Chapman:

Down a desert road the car ambles erratically, while the motorcycle-cop watches from the far side of the road. Lapsing, perhaps, four seconds and consisting of a 180-degree pan that follows the car as it heads toward and passes the camera and police officer, it's not a terribly long shot -- but it perfectly encapsulates the film, "Repo Man," that follows.

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A synthesized sound and clanging industrial rhythm accompany the automobile's desultory progress. The music that scores the first shot, like the jagged, punk rock guitar played over the credits, creates a sense of dread -- an undercurrent of menace -- that complements the bizarre Chevy Malibu. Music is integral to this scene (and the movie), establishing a sense of tension that might have been otherwise lost. Listen to the thrumming electronics and the rhythm vaguely reminiscent of heartbeats. This atmospheric touch tells us that something's not right. This auto is not swerving as the result of an intoxicated driver -- or rather the result of a driver intoxicated by the typical substances -- it's the result of something unknown and alien.

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The audience is set up for the film that follows: a surreal and slightly sinister chase for an old Chevy. Another aspect of the shot clinches it for "Repo Man" offering one of the best and most appropriate cinematic openings: the movement of the car itself. How have I described its motion? Desultory, erratic -- I should also add forward. Like the story that tracks its movements, the Malibu wanders hither and thither but maintains general forward momentum toward some discernible end. There will be slight detours but they never take us far off course and, frankly, make the narrative a more "scenic" trip.

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Opening Shots: 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'

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"But I do want to say something about imagination purely as a tool in the art and science of scaring the crap out of people... You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. "A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible," the audience thinks, "but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall."

-- Stephen King, "Danse Macabre" (1987)

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Peter Weir's 1975 "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is masterpiece of horror, but not in the way you might think. There are no monstrous bugs of any sort -- except for the usual (tiny) ants that plague just about any picnic. "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is a perfect thriller because (like "Twin Peaks," another symphony of anguish over Not Knowing) it's about effect of Mystery on the human imagination -- not just the ache of the Unknown, but the terror, and torture, of the Unknowable. Is there anything more horrible for the mind to contemplate than a mystery with no satisfactory solution? It's more than the psyche can bear...

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And it's all set up right here, in what is undoubtedly a series of nearly imperceptible dissolves (perhaps combined with optical work): A rock in the outback remote wilderness (premonitions of Ayers' Rock and Fred Schepisi's "A Cry in the Dark"?) that stays utterly still, yet shifts and changes. First, we see the black trees in the red foreground. Then the rock appears, hovering over the landscape. Next, fog obscures the foreground and the rock appears to be floating (hanging?) on a cushion of mist. How much time has elapsed between each of these views? Minutes? Hours? Days? Just when you think you know what you're seeing, it becomes something slightly different. You can't quite pin it down. It's ... unsettling, disorienting...

Zamfir's primitive-sounding pan flute reverberates in the air. It's an ominous beginning and we're tempted to feel, like Roy Neary would about another rock formation in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" a few years later, that this means something. But what if it doesn't?

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Opening Shots: 'Day for Night'

A bus crosses the frame from left to right and we follow a woman in red walking from right to left, who stops to get a magazine. Notice the curves and circles that establish a pattern for the shot -- the curb, the kiosk, the fountain.

View image The bus re-enters in the background, driving around the circle and now moving in the same direction as the lady in red and the camera -- an indication that the shot (and the movie) will loop back upon itself.

From Kathleen Carroll, co-founder and artistic director of the Lake Placid Film Forum (and "non-practicing film critic"):

I still smile at the very thought of Francois Truffaut's opening shot in "Day for Night," the amazingly long tracking shot that gradually reveals the film-within-the-film. I interviewed Truffaut at the time that "Day for Night" was first released in this country. This is how he explained his purpose for making the film. "I wanted to show a film to the public about the making of a film, a film that would give the most information and from which one could learn the technical aspects of movie making. The film will help those who are thinking about making films. And, as far as the ordinary public is concerned, the film doesn't spoil anything."

View image Still following the woman in red, a pair of figures in black appear in the background, moving forward on the diagonal, on a trajectory that just might intersect with the camera's. Will the shot turn out to be about them instead of the lady in red? Or are they somehow connected with the lady in red?

View image The pair in black split up. The woman heads down the subway entrance -- and so does the lady in red. The man in black continues toward the camera. Are we going to meet up with this guy?

During the same interview Truffaut told a funny story about "Jules and Jim" which, as he explained, he deliberately tried to make "like an MGM film." There were those who did not see "Jules and Jim" as just another MGM movie. When the film was first released here, the then all-powerful Legion of Decency (which later became known as The National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures) threatened to give it a condemned rating. Truffaut was asked to speak to a group of priests on behalf of the film. He went reluctantly, feeling "like a little juvenile delinquent."

View image Nope. The man in black falls out of the frame and the lady in red descends into the subway, casting a (fond?) look back as she leaves us. We fix upon another lady, one we saw back at the magazine vendor, walking a dachshund.

"Do you realize the girl in the film is behaving like Elizabeth Taylor?" asked one of the priests. "It was the time of 'Cleopatra,'" and the Taylor-Burton affair was all over the newspapers," recalled Truffaut. "I pretended that I didn't know what he was talking about." "It's in the newspapers," insisted the priest. "I only read film reviews," said Truffaut.

View image Jean-Pierre Leaud comes out of the subway, and turns in the direction the camera is already moving. OK, we're abandoning the lady with the dog. This is who we're going to watch -- he's the star of the movie! (Yes, casting will often tell you how to watch a shot.)

JE: Oh, Kathleen -- joy is right! This really may be the Ultimate Opening Shot in many ways, because we actually get to go back into it and critique it in the movie itself. The whole thing looks perfectly random and natural (I don't want to know how many takes it really took), as if the eye (camera) were just alighting upon one thing and then another as its interest is piqued. But we soon see how carefully and precisely it's all choreographed. Day for night. Illusion for reality. Artifice in the service of art. Notice, too the use of strong colors like red (dress, car, little girl, etc.) and white (car, overcoat, etc.) -- the alternating colors of the awning in the background -- and black (suits, car roof, etc.) to focus our attention. Doesn't this just make you want to go out and make a movie?

(Shot continues after the jump)

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Opening Shots: 'The Silence of the Lambs'

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From Mike Calia:

Bare tree branches set against an oppressive grey sky, meeting somewhere between impressionism and expressionism and setting the palate for the whole movie (save for the blaring reds and wood tones that pop up later in the institutional settings). Then the camera points down, almost straight down (setting up the well scenes in Buffalo Bill's lair, as well), to the bottom of a hill, where Clarice Starling enters the frame and starts climbing and doesn't stop for the rest of the movie. It's part obstacle course, part fairy-tale woods, and not one frame is wasted. Add in Howard Shore's haunting score (unjustly snubbed by the Academy that year) and you have the perfect blend of modern police procedural suspense and gothic horror.

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JE: Good one, Mike! This is such a deceptively simple beginning (and it takes you a little while to figure out what's going on), but you're absolutely right -- it leaves you with a feeling, of Clarice running through the cold, hazy, wintry woods, that stays with you for the whole picture. (Demme is so unfussy and elegant.) There's something about the starkness and emptiness of those titles -- white outlines filled with black -- that's chillingly effective, too. And then there's the way Clarice glances to the left -- not behind her down the vertiginous path from whence she came, but off in another direction -- before running out of the frame to the right. You get the feeling she's running from something, perhaps something from the past about to pounce into the present, and she isn't quite sure where it will come from.

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By the way, Dr. Lecter offers an excellent Socratic lesson in the principles of critical thinking here:

Dr. L: I've read the case files, have you? Everything you need to know to find him is right there in those pages.

Clarice: Then tell me how.

Dr. L: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius -- of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Clarice: He kills women.

Dr. L: No! That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Clarice: Anger. Social acceptance. Sexual frustration --

Dr. L: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now...

Clarice: No. We just --

Dr. L: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?

Those words ought to be inscribed as an example in every classroom. See each thing for itself. Then consider its context. Understand how your enemy or adversary thinks. What may seem most important to you, may be only incidental to him...

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Opening Shots: 'Cat People' (1982)

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From Andrew Wright, The Stranger:

Cinematic brimstone manna for pubescent Cinemax viewers, Paul Schrader's unjustly neglected 1982 remake of "Cat People" leaves the watcher uneasily poised somewhere between needing a wet-nap and a steel-wool shower. Working again with "American Gigolo"'s visual consultant Ferndinando Scarfiotti, the director's interpretation of the wittily Freudian source material is chock full with the promise of tantalizing sex and violence, which is ultimately delivered so nastily that it's difficult not to feel guilty for enjoying it. Schraeder, a dude who knows a thing or three about temptation himself, here delivers one lulu of a cautionary tale: What you want to see may not really be what you want to see, no matter how much you think you want to see it.

Nowhere is this poisoned voyeurism more evident than in the opening shot, which quite literally unearths the film's joint fascination with turn-ons and snuff-outs. Beginning with a patch of hallucinatory, nuclear-Antonioni colored desert, a wind slowly, sensually, blows across the surface of the sand to reveal a polished human skull, and then another, and another, and yet another, until an entire boneyard is uncovered. All this, while David Bowie and Georgio Moroder are moaning orgiastically on the soundtrack. Just writing about it, I want a cigarette. And a hairshirt, possibly.

JE: Muchas gracias, Andy. That ultra-lapsed Calvinist Schrader does indeed know something about putting out a fire with gasoline. I haven't seen his "Cat People" in, let's see, 24 years, and all I remember about it is the Bowie song and the way somebody jumps, catlike, onto a table or something. That image you sent sure is purrty, though...

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Opening Shots: 'Punch-Drunk Love'

Three eloquent and distinctly personal appreciations of the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love":

From Nareg Torosian, ScreenPlay:

The opening shot of one of my favorite films of recent years, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002). As described on the DVD's back cover, the focal point of the movie is Barry Egan, "a socially impaired owner of a small novelty business, who...is unlikely to find love unless it finds him." On the surface, nothing much happens during the handheld shot that begins the movie, but for this first minute and a half, Anderson is able to set up three crucial elements for the rest of the film:

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1. Barry's loneliness. The set is about as sparse as can be - one desk and one chair in the corner of a large, unadorned, warehouse-like room. No one else will enter the frame, and other than the voice on the other end of the telephone, no other sound can be heard. (A metallic ping that breaks the silence will attract Barry's attention and cause him to leave, thus creating a bridge to the film's next shot. Jon Brion's lush, atmospheric score/soundscape will not come to play for several minutes.) Anderson shoots the sequence in a long shot, and the resulting amount of empty, indifferent space conveys the character's sense of isolation and emotional distance; this composition is mirrored later when Barry calls the phone sex service in his apartment and when he calls Lena from a pay phone in Hawaii. Even the first spoken line ("Yes, I'm still on hold") subtly hints at his feeling of emotional repression and arrested development.

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2. Barry's phone etiquette. In the opening dialogue, Barry politely and rationally explains a loophole in one of Healthy Choice's promotional campaigns to one of the company's phone representatives. This is one of many phone conversations he will have during the course of the film, and it will become clear that he is a man who (initially) seems more confident and can express himself more clearly over the phone than in person.

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3. The film's color scheme. Color is very important in this movie, and the shade of blue on the warehouse wall and on the suit Barry wears will be closely identified with him throughout the film. It is not until Lena's appearance that a vibrant red will make its way into Anderson's palette, literally and figuratively signaling a change in Barry's monotonous existence.

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Opening Shots: 'A Hard Day's Night'

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From Sam Goldsmith:

If there is any opening shot that truly shows the power of cinema, it comes from my favorite film, Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night." After crediting Miramax and Walter Shenson, the film makes a hard edit to John, George, and Ringo cheerfully running from hordes (not a group, hordes) of overzealous fans at Marylebone Station in London. Accompanied by one of the greatest opening chords in rock and roll history, you know that something fun is about to begin.

View image: Down goes George.

Also, notice the fact that George falls down, Ringo tumbles after him, and John turns and laughs. If it were any other film, the makers would probably have them do the shot again, but the spontaneity of that moment and how they react to it is real and joyous. When they finally approach the screen by the end of the shot, the magic of the film starts to weave a spell of euphoria, and we can do nothing else but enjoy the ride.

View image: John cracks up.

From Jerry Matthews, The Salt Shaker, Salt Lake City, UT:

The picture cuts in from black as, on the soundtrack, George Harrison's jangling 12-string strikes a kinetic opening chord. The four members of The Beatles run towards the camera on the left side of the frame, while the stampede of fans who want to touch them fills all of the narrow street. The cars parked on the street obstruct much of the crowd, suggesting the film's energetic, impromptu feel.

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Opening Shots: 'Petulia'

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From Tom Sutpen, If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats:

There is no more enigmatic image in the badly underappreciated canon of Richard Lester than the opening shot of his 1968 masterpiece "Petulia." Outwardly it gives us scant information, it establishes little that could be called functional, it lasts a handful of seconds, no more; yet it instantly sets the tone for a film in which nothing fully belongs to recognizable human reality except the errant bursts of emotion its principals seem to have forgotten they were capable of.

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Silent but for the sound of sqeaking rubber wheels, three overdressed, wheelchair-bound whiplash cases are guided through a somewhat dank, inactive, seedy-looking hotel kitchen by impassive attendants. Though Lester's camera never leaves the front of this odd train as it travels down a long corridor, one neck case following the other, there's no sense of real movement in the shot (as there would have been had, say, Stanley Kubrick executed it), apart from the wheelchairs and the camera seemingly joined in concord.

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The people being transported . . . even the attendants ostensibly doing the driving . . . seem incidental. And the looks on their faces say it all. They could be going to a Coronation, they could be going to the Gas Chamber; they'd probably look the same in either event: Too deadened even for passivity. One almost concludes from the elements of this shot that things, objects, have more life in them, more reflex even, than humans do. Which is wholly consistent with a film where style and manners and form appear to have consumed all of humanity's natural impulses while its back was turned.

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Opening Shots: 'Quills'

From Jeff Levin, Rochester, NY:

I’ve never seen an opening tighter or more ingeniously structured than the one for Philip Kaufman’s "Quills." It’s an opening that flips from dreamy to nightmarish and completely changes the nature of what you think you’re initially observing, all the while quickly and efficiently familiarizing viewers with the persona of the of the protagonist.

That protagonist would be a one Marquis De Sade, brilliantly played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush in an Oscar-nominated role. Starting with a black screen, you hear him announce that he has a “naughty��? tale to tell, one “guaranteed to stimulate the senses.��? He then begins by announcing that the tale is about an aristocrat named Mademoiselle Renare, as soft music begins to play and the visage of a dreamy looking young woman appears on the screen. You then see an erotic expression come over her face as the Marquis describes how her sexual proclivities “ran the gamut from winsome to bestial.��?

But suddenly, you see a man’s hand come into the picture … then two hands … then the man himself, a brute wearing a hooded mask. The Marquis continues, “Until one day … Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man every bit as perverse as she. A man whose skill at the art of pain exceeded ever her own.��? The man then begins tying her hands as she pleads for mercy. Looking up at a window, she suddenly notices a figure looking down at the proceedings and it’s … the Marquis himself. It’s at this point that you realize that you’re not seeing a story acted out -- you’re seeing what inspired it in the first place: mass executions during the French Revolution.

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Opening Shots: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

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From Edward Bowie, US Army:

I have a counter-intuitive nomination for best shot: The opening segue from the Paramount “mountain��? to the unspecified Andean mountain in “Raiders of the lost Ark.��? Indicative, I think, that what we are about to see is “…only a movie!��?

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Perfect for the “just for fun��? spirit that Lucas and Spielberg intended for their paean to the Saturday serial while demonstrating the technical wizardry that gives their “effects��? movies their dazzle (and their point.) Relax, get out the popcorn, their won’t be a quiz….a masterpiece!

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JE: Nothing counter-intuitive about this one -- it's intuitive all the way! I recall seeing it the weekend it came out with a friend and film professor of mine. We took in a matinee double-bill -- first "Clash of the Titans," followed by "Raiders." Within the first few seconds, I remember her leaning over and whispering: "Isn't it great to see somebody knows how to make MOVIES?!?!" Yep, it is.

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Watching this shot repeatedly (I like to get my hands dirty, as it were, while getting frame grabs), I thought of a couple basic principles of improv comedy: 1) always add information to the scene; and 2) always say "yes" -- never contradict what somebody else has brought into it. Of course, this shot is anything but improvisational; it's artfully choreographed all the way -- and Spielberg is saying "yes" and adding information second by second.

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