Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
From Andrew Davies:
I think the first shot of Christopher Nolan's Memento could be best described as the film in miniature because of how the subject of the shot establishes several important elements of the film. The credits begin on a dark screen. The title "MEMENTO" is still there as the shot fades in, placing the title over the image of a hand holding a photograph. Placing the title over the image of the photograph links the word and the image, telling the audience this photograph is a memento of...something.
The photograph, which is that of a man dead on the floor, his blood on the wall and floor, establishes several important things about the film. The photograph first establishes the narrative structure of the film because as it is shaken, the picture fades instead of develops. This represents how the film begins at the end of the story and progresses, so to speak, to the beginning. The fading of the photograph also establishes the mental state of its main character, the man holding the photograph, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Like the photograph, Leonard's memory fades. He has short term memory loss, caused by an intruder who raped and murdered his wife in a home break in. His mission through the film is to find "John G," the name he gives to the intruder. The photograph, in of itself, establishes one of the ways in which Leonard tries to keep track of people and places he will forget is to take photographs of them, writing captions underneath the picture.
It starts in a girl's bedroom, the camera slowly retreating in a gentle arc around the bed where the girl lovingly pets and hugs her dog. A teenager's room is a private sanctuary, and this bed (with a blanket folded at the foot for the dog -- a bed upon a bed) is her own imaginary island.
Her name is Holly (Sissy Spacek), and her story (narrated in the first person) and her voice is as flat as Texas but colored with the awkward poetic aspirations of a teenage diarist who's writing her thoughts for herself, but also partly addressing them to some future fantasy reader. She begins:
My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman... He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. [Fade to black.] Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Ft. Dupree, South Dakota.
From David Nicol:
The camera drifts slowly across a stretch of calm water. Insects and birdsong can be heard. Raindrops begin to strike the water's surface as we pass over a patch of water weed. And in voice-over, a young woman says, "Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother; we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you."
This is the opening shot of "The New World" (2005), Terrence Malick's dream-like interpretation of the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The film depicts the interactions between the English colonists and the Powhatan natives, and in particular the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas, who speaks the film's opening words. As an opening shot, this image of placid river water is less spectacular than many of those that we have studied for Jim's project, but its simplicity is deceptive and it contains all of the qualities of a great opening shot that Jim has been encouraging us to see.
Nicholas Ray's directorial debut, "They Live By Night" (1949), begins like a trailer and then slams us right into the opening titles of the feature. An attractive young couple (Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell) are nestling in close-up by the flickering light of a fireplace. They smile, they kiss, and then something off-screen (and unheard on the soundtrack, though signaled by an jarring shift in the musical score) causes them to react with fear and alarm.
"They Live By Night" is a prototypical young-couple-on-the-run movie ("You Only Live Once," "Gun Crazy," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands"), and this tabloid-style opening sets it up breathlessly. The shot seems to exist out of time -- perhaps an idealized moment they once shared, or would never have. The man who would later direct "Rebel Without a Cause" establishes them as innocents and outsiders, star-crossed lovers who "were never properly introduced to the world we live in..." Dissolve to an aerial shot of a truck barreling through a dusty wasteland.
We soon discover that, at the point the title appears, the boy and the girl have yet to meet. So, the whole film could be seen as a flashback -- a noir convention that emphasizes the forces of fate, since the ending of "their story" (even if we don't know what it is) has already been determined from the opening shot. Or perhaps it's a flash-forward to a memory they'll cling to for the rest of their lives. Or an imprint of their fugitive state of mind...
The opening shot of Wim Wenders' moody color noir "The American Friend" (1977), based on Patricia Highsmith's 1974 novel "Ripley's Game," isn't anything fancy or complicated -- no intricate tracking or crane movement -- but, wow, does it announce the movie. First we hear the sirens and the traffic noise behind a black screen, over which the title is immediately emblazoned in electric red-orange block letters: "DER AMERIKANISCHE FREUND."
Bam! We're there, at street level on the lower West Side of Manhattan. We get a look at a few cars and a truck heading uptown, and the ghostly outlines of the World Trade Center towers that stand in the distant haze -- modern New York looming over this less imposing block of old New York. (They also provide a Roman numeral II to mark this sequel to the Scanners Opening Shot Project, which is why I chose this shot for last week's announcement of Part 2).
Nearly five years ago (June 16, 2006), I announced what I called the Movies 101: Opening Shots Project, and I figure it's past time for a re-launch. I want to elaborate a little on what I wrote back then, when I started off with the opening title/shot of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon":
Any good movie -- heck, even the occasional bad one -- teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I'm not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they're worth discussing, too -- but that's another article); I'm talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor's Notes on RogerEbert.com) know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:
1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention -- to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you're seeing, chances are they'll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.
From Jason Haggstrom (haggie), Reel 3:
The opening shot of Robert Altman's "The Player" establishes the film as a self-reflexive deconstruction of the Hollywood system and those who run it. With its prolonged shot length, the take is also designed as a means to introduce the bevy of players who work on the lot and to setup the film's general plot--or at least its tone--as a thriller/murder mystery.
The first image in this extended opening shot is of a film set--a painting of one, to be precise. We hear the sounds of a film crew before a clapper pops into the frame. The (off-screen) director shouts "And... action" informing the audience that the film should be viewed as a construct, a film. The camera tracks back to reveal its location on a Hollywood studio lot where movies are described not in accolades of quality, but of quantity with an oversized sign that reads, "Movies, now more than ever."
The lot is filled with commotion. Writers come and go (some invited, some not) as do executives, pages, and assistants. The political hierarchy is highlighted through dialog and interactions that expose the value system of Hollywood. The most powerful arrive by car; high-end models pervade the mise-en-scène in all of the take's exterior moments. An assistant is made to run (literally, and in high heels) for the mail, and then -- before she even has a chance to catch her breath -- to park an executive's car.
Woody Allen's "Another Woman" (1988) begins with a shot that is the whole movie in miniature. As followers of the Opening Shots Project know, that's one of my favorite approaches, and I think "Another Woman" is one of Allen's best movies.
A woman (Marion Post, played by Gena Rowlands) appears at the far end of a dark hallway and strides toward the camera, passing in and out of light. She is wearing a long coat, and she puts a scarf around her shoulders as she walks. She's a woman who knows where she's going. We don't get a good look at her until she moves into medium close-up, adjusts an earring and comes face to face with herself in the mirror. (Bergman reference intentional.) Her reflection is obscured from our point of view, but for a moment we see her look directly into her own eyes.
Marion, who has recently turned 50, thinks she knows herself and what kind of life she has led. But what she encounters when she steps out the door will overturn her establish notions of who she is and what she has done with her life: her memories of the past, her marriages, her lovers, her friendships, her relationships with her own family... Everything she though was solid and certain is swept out from under her feet and she goes into free-fall. With wit and insight, the movie details her unexpected investigation into what she's made of herself. And as the illusions crumble around her, she notices her mother's tear stains on the last line of a favorite poem, Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," which reads: "... for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."
From Nathan Marone:
It begins high above Union Square in San Francisco and by the time it ends, nearly three minutes later, the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film, "The Conversation", will hone in on one as-yet-unidentified man.
The slow descending zoom, looking down at a cheerful park, full of people, seems at first unobtrusive. Credits roll in the lower right corner of the frame, directing our gaze to the sunlit left hand side. Here, from a distance, we are able to observe a wide variety of people, but it is a very active mime that commands the most attention. All of this seems very normal until about the 1:15 mark, when a strange bleeping noise disorients the viewer. It comes and goes quickly, but will return, unexplained, several times throughout the shot.
This sound is our first indicator that something more than casual observation or location setup may be going on here. The second indicator comes when the camera intentionally settles on the action of the mime, who soon begins to follow and imitate a middle aged man dressed in a grey raincoat. The camera stays with these two for a little while. The mime continues his act while the man is totally dismissive. Soon the mime gives up on the uninterested man and steps out of the frame, leaving the camera to hold on him until the shot is over.
From Gavin Breeden, Charlotte, NC:
When I think of great opening shots, my mind quickly goes to Francios Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece, "Les Quatre Cents Coups" (aka "The 400 Blows"). I may have to break the rules a bit here and consider the entire opening credits sequence rather than the first shot though I think Truffaut would approve since he broke many cinematic conventions of his day with this film.