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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: Watchmen

In some editions, the opening shot begins on the cover of "Watchmen": A black oval on a field of yellow with a drop of red liquid splashed on it. ("Bean juice?" "Human bean juice.") The first "shot" proper (comic book, not movie -- though the filmmakers find their own take on it) begins with the smiley in a sea of blood.

The "camera" pulls back from directly above the button. Carried by the flow, the smiley falls into the gutter as the blood pours down a drain. As the camera recedes further we see a man is washing away the stain with a hose. A pair of boots belonging to another, red-headed man carrying a "The End Is Near" sign wade right through the blood puddle and tracks red footprints down the sidewalk. From several stories up, we see a large delivery truck with a triangle on top. This will mean something, but we don't know it yet.

For now, the triangle that most draws our attention are the converging lines of windows down the side of the building that has come into view on the right. The lines point directly to the splash of red.

(Click to enlarge frames below...)

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Opening Shots: Shotgun Stories

Through an open doorway we see a man without a shirt sitting on an unmade bed. In his hand is a white piece of paper. On his back is a spattering of circular, scarred-over wounds, like craters of flesh. Both membranes have stories inscribed on them. We just don't know what they are yet. Maybe we'll find out. Maybe we won't. The man, Son Hayes (Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon), reads the unfolded note, nods in acknowledgement, and looks up, as if to face himself in an off-screen mirror.

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Opening Shots: The Dark Knight

The corporate logos are deep blue and black: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, DC Comics. Then, out of a silent explosion of blue flames and black smoke, the familiar Batman shadow appears. Cut to bright afternoon daylight. The camera glides with surreal smoothness above a recognizably real American cityscape, over the rooftop of a large, squat building toward a cluster of shiny glass skyscrapers. This is not the forbidding, neo-Gothic Gotham City we expect to encounter at the beginning of a Batman movie, a densely stylized urban forest of inky comic-book noir. It's almost like Phoenix at the start of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho": Anywhere, USA.

And that may well be the idea: The camera closes in on a colossal mirror, a wall of tinted windows in the side of a building. What are we looking for? How much closer can we get before something has to happen? (Where's the helicopter? You'll catch a glimpse of it at the far left, just at the moment your eye is distracted by an exploding window near center frame.) For a fraction of a second we may wonder about the fate of the people inside the room, and the pedestrians on the street below who are about to be showered with bits of glass. But before that can quite register we're on the other side of the blown out window with a pair of clown-masked gunmen. This is part of some diabolical plan... which turns out to be a bank robbery in progress. (See other notes on this shot, and the rest of this sequence, here.) Turns out, the building we've just passed over is the most important element in the shot; the glass wall is just a means to an end. Smoke and mirrors...

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Opening Shots: Spider-Man 2

From Kris Pigna:

"Spider-Man 2" begins with an extreme close-up of a woman's face, a dissolve from the last image of the opening credits. Against a stark white backdrop, she stares right into the camera, deeply, with the kind of eyes that are easy to fall in love with. "She looks at me every day," Peter Parker says in voiceover. "Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy. If she only knew how I felt about her." The camera slowly pulls out on this ideal, dreamlike image.

"But she can never know. I made a choice once to live a life of responsibility, a life she can never be a part of." The camera pulls out far enough to reveal we're actually looking at a billboard, a perfume advertisement Mary Jane posed for. "Who am I? I'm Spider-Man, given a job to do. And I'm Peter Parker, and I too have a job." The camera pulls out farther, and we see Peter come into frame on his pizza-delivery moped, gazing at the billboard over his shoulder with full attention. Suddenly we hear a man calling his name, and Peter's attention is snapped. So is the dream.

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Opening Shots: The Producers (1968)

From Raymond Ogilvie:

"The Producers," Mel Brooks first film, uses its first shot to break taboo by sexualizing old women. The character Max Bialystock is based on a producer Brooks worked for as a young man. This producer would, like Max, make love with old women to get funding for his plays. But Mel Brooks, whose films "rise below vulgarity," doesn't end his taboo-breaking here. He goes on to apply the same gleeful irreverence to ex-Nazis, homosexuals, and voluptuous foreign blonds. Indeed, if the studio had not objected, Brooks would have called this movie "Springtime for Hitler."

Cold open on a frosted glass window with the legend, "Max Bialystock, Theatrical Producer." Behind the glass, two silhouettes kiss and giggle mischievously. The man, the taller of the two, excuses himself for a moment, putting up his finger to tell the woman to keep quiet. Slowly he cracks open the door and peeks out. Here is Max Bialystock, theatrical producer, played by the tall, portly comic actor Zero Mostel. He's checking to see that there are no witnesses to his clandestine love affair.

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Opening Shots: Le Samourai

From Brandon Colvin, Out 1:

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The opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 noir masterpiece “Le Samouraï” establishes the tone of Melville’s contemplative crime film, defines its amoral protagonist Jef Costello (Alain Delon), and introduces the connections between Costello, a hired assassin, and the concept of the Japanese samurai, particularly the ronin, or masterless samurai. The nearly three-minute shot maintains a simple but wonderfully expressive composition throughout, remaining within the drab gray-blue confines of Jef’s apartment.

Jef lies stiffly on his white mattress with black polka dots in the bottom right corner of the frame. Two windows, overflowing with soft light, balance the composition by providing visual anchors in the center of the frame. Jeff’s pet bird chirps away in his birdcage, resting on a table centered between the two windows. Chairs and dressers crowd the outskirts of the frame, completing the layout of Jef’s ascetically simple, disciplined apartment. For minutes, the only sound is the constant drizzle of rain outside the windows and the intermittent whooshing of cars on the street below, punctuated by the light cries of Jef’s bird. Jef’s lights a cigarette and when he puffs, the smoke floats up softly, stagnating in the light of the windows, rolling around as if trying to escape. The completely still shot seems as if it’s attempting to emulate the frozen camera of Ozu. Jef lies with solemnity and his imprisonment in his dreary apartment is analogous to the situation of his caged bird.

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Following the credits, text appears in the top right corner of the shot. The text reads, “There is no greater solitude than that of a samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle . . . perhaps . . .” The quote is attributed to Bushido (Book of Samurai), which Melville fabricated for the film, and illustrates the connection between Jef’s disciplined isolation and the social exile experienced by great warriors, like samurai. Particularly interesting is the connection between Jef and ronin, or masterless samurai. Ronin are noted in Japanese storytelling for their lack of morality and existential listlessness, caring for themselves above all and feeling no loyalty to exterior forces. Jef exemplifies this sort of selfish existence, which, as with the ronin, fates him to a sense of dread and, ultimately, death.

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Opening Shots: Silent Light

View image "Stellet Licht," Heilige Licht.

From Paul Clark at

Despite the sensational buzz for Carlos Reygadas’ "Silent Light" at Cannes, I approached the film with a bit of trepidation when I got a chance to see it in Toronto. I didn’t much care for Reygadas’ previous features, Japon and Battle in Heaven. I could see that he was a talented director, but his attention-grabbing tactics and leaden symbolism made it feel like he was trying too hard. A director who films a shot of a man writhing in agony next to a horse’s corpse is just aching to be taken seriously as an artist.

But all of my doubts melted away during the glorious opening shot of "Silent Light." The film begins with an image of a starry sky, with nothing but chirping crickets on the soundtrack. The camera then tilts slowly downward until we see the horizon in the distance. After this, the sun slowly rises, and we begin to make out the rolling hills, and a few trees. As the sun continues to rise, the soundtrack begins to teem with life- chickens, cows, and the like- and we see a farm. All the while, the camera ever-so-slowly pushes forward toward the horizon, as the sun rises higher and higher above the hills.

If I wasn’t sure before whether Reygadas was worth taking seriously, this shot put my misgivings to rest. Simply put, it’s a stunner, partly because Reygadas makes it feel so effortless. It’s an extremely patient shot, taking at least five minutes, and in this time he acclimatizes us to the deliberateness of the film’s world. "Silent Light" is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, far removed from fast-paced modern life, where people speak slowly and aren’t prone to snap decisions. The film’s opening shot prepares us for this beautifully.

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Opening Shots: Zodiac

View image Opening shot: Above it all.

View image Second shot: A street in a neighborhood: Vallejo, CA - July 4, 1969. Music: "Easy to be Hard," from "Hair."

It's probably the second shot of David Fincher's "Zodiac" that you remember best: the linear, smooth-gliding traveling shot (out the passenger window from within the car that will be the site of the movie's first "Zodiac Killer" murder) through a suburban neighborhood on July 4, 1969.

View image What is this boy running from -- or to?

The first shot is a simple (if breathtakingly beautiful) aerial establishing shot, of the sort that will be used repeatedly to introduce timecoded segments throughout the rest of the movie. We won't know it until the next shot, but the fireworks we see are exploding over Vallejo, CA. From above, we get a sense of the terrain -- the bridge over the river, the cityscape stretching into the distance. Nobody in the movie gets to see this Big Picture this way. Everyone is limited to looking at events from ground level, trying to map out the larger view, one piece at a time, in their heads.

View image The kid approaches the car and his face appears in the (window) frame.

View image Same "kid," last frame.

This is a movie about maps, about time and place and getting from one point to another and how long it takes to get there and whose jurisdiction events fall within. It is, as I've written before, an analog movie set in an analog world. It is about, and made up of, an obsession with details -- an investigation into our need as pattern-seeking animals to understand and make sense of the evidence we observe or uncover or have delivered to us by phone or mail or courier (but only rarely by fax). The Zodiac Killer proved elusive in large part because he didn't stick to his patterns. In so doing, he sent police and newspapermen scurrying all over the map, and they kept losing him in the details. (See also: Hurdy Gurdys and Aqua Velvas: Misc. "Zodiac" fax....)

View image Noticing what is in front of one's nose: "This can no longer be ignored. What is it?"

View image A typical "Zodiac" establishing shot, marking the temporal and geographical coordinates, as if putting a pushpin in a map of time and space: "September 14, 1972 - Santa Rosa, CA - Sunset Trailer Park - Space A-7." What do all these details add up to?

The film's other establishing shots may be aerial views or more conventional exteriors or wide-shot interiors, but they accomplish the same purpose: to place the next piece of action in a particular time and place in relation to the previous one. The movie's second shot -- from the street, but with glimpses of the fireworks overhead connecting it to the first -- shows a neat row of subdivision houses. The parallel motion of the camera emphasizes the geometric orderliness of the setting, but there are glimpses of life in passing property as we glide by -- but there's also something a little creepy about them: a kid entering a house, a girl with a sparkler, a cone fountain ("CAUTION: Emits shower of sparks") erupting in a front yard, a man with a Weber, a family congregating in the rear of a driveway/alley.... The shot ends when the camera stops in front of a house and a boy runs from the front steps, down the sidewalk, and into view from the driver's POV. His face, framed in the car window, the first we see clearly in the film, will also be the last shot in the movie. That will be years later, and this boy will be a different person. "Zodiac" traces the distance from this face to that one. His face is one of the movie's maps or cryptograms.

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Opening Shots: Pan's Labyrinth

So many movies have opening shots that are like overtures, condensed miniatures of the whole film. In Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" you might even say it contains the entire movie in one shot. Not only does it begin with the ending, but the movement of the shot (together with the next one) takes us from underground (the land of the subconscious, the imagination) up into the light of day -- or, looked at another way, from political and psychological repression into the liberation of the open air. This presages the momentum of the entire movie.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is so locked into the emotional and fantasy world of its protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), that the camera itself lies on its side next to her and is then plunges vertiginously into her pupil, entering her head, where the movie takes place. This initial dazzling sweep (actually a composite shot, but executed in once continuous motion) sucks us into the movie so quickly that we barely register what we've seen until the end, when we remember these prophetic first few seconds from the start of the movie.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is riddled with pupils and irises, holes and portals that lead to new worlds. In this first shot, we appear to rise out of the ground (although it's a right-to-left movement, reversing time), into Ofelia's eye into a fantasy realm of her own creation, and then moves back to the right (setting the story into forward motion), following a running figure (Ofelia herself) up a circular stairway and through another doorway, into another chamber, with another stairway. The next shot follows her up the stairs, leading through a reverse of the opening pupil-shot: an eye-hole flooded with white light. And, with that, the movie-proper begins...

Roger Ebert has published a Great Movies review of "Pan's Labyrinth. My own review, originally in the Chicago Sun-Times, is at, too, in the Editor's Notes section.

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Opening Shots: Brazil

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From Raymond Ogilvie, happyreflex:

This is really the second shot, following a brief bit of above-cloud photography. Let's not be too picky.

It starts with a TV set turning on. A suitable enough opening that many films have used. We know that when the movie starts with some TV, always with a healthy dose of analogue noise, we're being greeted by a commentary on the movie's world before we enter it. The TV set itself has a retro-futuristic design; the kind that was popular at least from the 20s into the 50s. All smooth curves, no sharp angles. Red and blue lights outside blink on and off, casting subtle glows onto the scene.

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The TV shows a commercial from Central Cervices. An imposing logo and a happy little jingle: "Central Services. We do the work, you do the pleasure!" And already we don't trust them! It's a very Orwellian thing. We've lost freedom of choice in this society, and that's exemplified here by Central Services. All our home repair needs are now taken care of by official government employees, who can be as inefficient, bureaucratic, and unaccountable for their own blunders as they please. The customer comes last.

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Now here’s the Central Services spokesperson. He’s here to tell us about how we can replace our old, unsightly ducts with newer, more fashionable unsightly ducts. They just get in the way and clutter up your living space, don’t they? The ducts are just like the bloated, bureaucratic government: they exist only for their own benefit. The public is an afterthought. You’ll see just how little the bureaucracy cares about human beings when the innocent Mr. Buttle is wrongly arrested and accidentally killed during interrogation, and no one feels any remorse: they just don’t want to be stuck with the paperwork.

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