This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
A cacophonous industrial noise fills the darkness, illuminated by what seems to be some kind of flashing safety light behind a divider of scuffed, semi-opaque plastic strips. They ripple and part and a man appears -- his legs in tattered jeans, seen only from the waist down -- carrying a tank of propane.
It's a neo-Bressonian opening if there ever was one -- no music, just the legs, a man doing some kind of work. The man, as it turns out, is engaged in a Sisyphean labor, operating a breakfast pushcart in midtown Manhattan. He's a Pakistani immigrant and, as he soon realizes, a Middle Eastern man toting a tank of gas in New York makes some people nervous.
I saw Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart" at Roger Ebert's 2006 "Overlooked Film Festival," and fell in love with it -- even more so about two seconds after it ended -- on exactly the perfect note. It's that kind of film, one that gets under your skin as you watch it, and then stays with you. It's been months since I've seen it, but I still think about it and want to revisit it.
I'm looking forward to writing about "Man Push Cart" in detail, when it opens in theaters in September. The three best films I've seen in 2006 so far (in the order in which I saw them) are "Man Push Cart," "A Prairie Home Companion" and "The Descent" -- three unique, personal visions of three distinct worlds. I'm very happy to report that Ramin, a self-described "movie geek" who really knows his stuff, is currently shooting his next film -- and promises to contribute a favorite Opening Shot when production wraps. I'm exceptionally eager to see whatever he does next.
This summer a friend is introducing me to the HBO series, "The Wire," beginning with the first season on DVD. Sunday nights, we eat a big ol' fresh-grilled meal (like steak, ribs, kabobs, pork loin, salmon, scallops wrapped in prosciutto, asparagus or broccoli sauteed in olive oil, garlic and crushed red peppers)... I'm sorry, what was I saying? I kept hearing from friends that "The Wire" was something great, as good as (some say even better than) "The Sopranos" or "Deadwood." Well, we're only three episodes in (we also watch a "Freaks and Geeks" -- all new to me -- after each episode), but I'm hooked.
"The Wire" is about Baltimore police (homicide and narcotics) and their investigation and surveillance (hence the title) of a city-wide drug operation run by one Avon Barksdale, a shadowy figure said to be based on a real Baltimore dealer. All threads seem to lead back to Barksdale, but the cops don't even have a photograph of the guy.
The first image of the first episode of the first season is a close up of blood on the pavement. It lasts only a few seconds, but the camera slowly moves up the trail of blood toward its source, the body of a drug-related homicide victim. The liquid catches the flashing lights of police cars and seems to illuminate with electrical sparks like... wires. Only the middle-ground of the shot is in focus -- where it comes from and where it leads are still blurry. We don't know it yet, but the whole season has been set up for us.
From Robb Hamilton, Seattle, WA:
A few weeks ago I took my kids to see "Cars" at a theater off Aurora Avenue in Seattle. Aurora would be a perfect setting for a Clowes/Zwigoff picture: seedy motels, diners, people waiting for buses, adult book stores, etc. We were seeing the movie a week or two after it opened so the crowds had died down. The cast of characters in the lobby getting snacks (the overweight family loading up on jumbo popcorn, the chaperone with the retarded kids, the guy with the NASCAR hat) made me remark to my wife that I felt like i was in a Dan Clowes comic.
The opening shots of "Ghost World" cut back and forth between "Jaan Pehachaan Ho" from the Bollywood movie "Gumnaam" and a camera movement to the back of Enid's apartment building. We find out at the end of the shot that the movie is playing on Enid's TV. Terry Zwigoff does a great job of capturing Dan Clowes' style as well as Enid's character. All of the inhabitants in the apartments seem brain dead, while Enid's apartment is pink and blue, filled with thrift store finds, toys and a Pufnstuf poster. Later in the movie Enid is eventually able to escape the dead end that is her life. The opening shots of "Ghost World" drop you right into the pages of a Dan Clowes comic book and more importantly shows the juxtaposition between Enid and her surroundings.
An alley off Aurora Avenue North near 80th -- east side of street. Residential facilities on the right; a structure housing the Baseball Barber Shop on the left. Keep heading north for lots, lots more... (A9 Local Search)
JE: Muchas gracias, Hammy! (I recently wrote an appreciation of "Jaan Pehachaan Ho" here.) As you know, I love Aurora and consider it the greatest street in the entire world. (Sorry, State Street -- Seattle's my kinda town.) My theory is that every town in America has an Aurora Avenue (the old Highway 99), a main commercial drag (possibly the former primary arterial route) that takes you past parks, parking lots, and used car lots, and is littered with establishments where merchants provide for the exchange of goods and services of every conceivable type -- from birth (diaper services) to death (funeral homes, cemetaries). In LA, it's Pico Boulevard. In Spokane, I suppose it's Division. Anybody reading this should know the clogged arterial in their particular burgh. What's yours? (BTW, if you want to take a simulated drive down Aurora, you can do so right now, thanks to Amazon's fantastic A9 Local Search, which photographs both sides of streets to help you find just the merchants with the goods and services you require. Here it is: Seattle's Aurora Avenue North, between Green Lake (and Woodland Park) and 80th.)
The way I look at this opening is much like you describe. The first two shots are really a "title card," because they are really a suggested frame-within-the-frame image of "Gumnaam" playing on TV (although we don't know that yet). After the title appears, there's the first shot proper: a great image down the side of an apartment complex, with the silhouettes of wires and ceramic insulators in the foreground. In the windows receding into the distance, we see the flickering of light from cathode-ray tubes. The camera begins to move toward them. Although the rest of the sequence involves cutting back and forth between "Jaan Pehachaan Ho" and shots that slide past and peer into those windows, it feels like one continuous camera movement. I've said it before: It perfectly legitimate to talk about the context for these Opening Shots -- as Robert Horton also does for "Cutter's Way." More images after the jump...
From Robert Horton, film critic, The Herald, Everett, WA:
How technical do you want to get about "opening shot"? Is the opening shot literally the very first thing that appears onscreen? Or is it the first shot proper, the thing that tells the people behind you to stop talking and pay attention? In the 1931 "Dracula," the former is a wonderfully archaic credits plate with an art-deco bat, accompanied by a scratchy, mood-setting snippet of "Swan Lake" (without that bat and the music the movie that follows would somehow not be the same); the latter is the post-credits shot of a lusciously suggestive Transylvanian crossroads. Both count in "Dracula."
Most movies now begin with credits over a shot, making it hard to define the beginning-proper (and making it hard for the people behind you to know when to shut up already). The credits play over the opening shot of the 1981 film "Cutter's Way" (aka "Cutter and Bone"), a film very people have heard of, let alone seen, but which is nevertheless one of the key American films of the 1980s (a crucial film in connecting the post-sixties hangover and the corporate runamuck of the eighties).
The opening shot is dreamlike, stylized, drained of color—quite the opposite of the remainder of the film—and looks dead-center down a warm Santa Barbara street as an Old Spanish Days parade approaches the camera. It begins in black-and-white and bleeds slowly into color, and it's in slow motion; the odd music by the late great Jack Nitszche seems to be running in slow motion, too. A band marches, banners wave, and front and center is a blonde in a white dress, like a bride, dancing in the Fiesta. Nothing really unusual about a blonde in a small-city parade, but when you watch the movie, you realize that this might be the kind of pretty girl who could end up dropped in a dumpster on a side street in the middle of the night because she made a bad decision about which rich guy to blow.
The camera has watched this, panning finally to accommodate the blonde's sideways movement. The whole thing has the drowsy long-lens shimmer of midsummer. The blonde has gotten close enough to the camera to pass out of the frame, but as we peer at the people in the distance, now coming into focus, she abruptly passes by again—and as her white ruffled dress rustles by, the image in the background is wiped away and replaced by a whole new shot…if you like, the first shot proper of the story: an exterior, in the magic hour of dusk, of the outside of an unmistakably Southern California hotel.
A fairy-tale home in a wooded setting. Two women sit an an outdoor table in the shade of some tall trees. The camera glides across the lawn silently (we can't hear what they're saying, just barely audible laughter) at an oblique angle that takes us closer to the women, but not directly toward them. A big black trunk passes startlingly across the screen in the foreground. Then a smaller trunk comes into the shot, mid-distance, and nicely frames the image. That's all there is to the opening shot (which lasts less than 10 seconds), but to understand the context we have to consider the rest of the brief pre-titles sequence.
The women are looking at photographs, scenes from a marriage. "Wasn't he thin?" the older woman observes. "That was just before I met him," says the younger woman. The older woman suggests the man, surely the husband of the younger woman, could stand to exercise more and lose some weight. The younger woman defends him and says he has lost a little. The older woman (we assume she's the mother of the wife) says she hasn't noticed. They look at another picture, a new mother holding her baby, and the younger woman remarks: "That was when Michel was born."
A boy runs into the scene carrying a bouquet of flowers, which he gives to his grandmother. Behind him is a man who walks over and stands behind his wife, resting his hand on her shoulder. A beautiful family tableaux. The sound fades. The image goes out of focus. Roll titles.
From Nathaniel Soltesz, Pittsburgh, PA:
One of my favorite opening shots is from Michael Tolkin's "The Rapture." First, a black screen, menacing ambient music, vague noises of typing, people speaking. The camera rises and we realize we're looking at the side of a cubicle, and then we begin to move over a dark and shadowy cube farm, where average-looking phone operators perform and say the same maddeningly rote things over and over again. Eventually the camera focuses in on Sharon, our protagonist; but until then she could be anybody, another face in the crowd.
In the spirit of "Rashomon," two views of the opening shot of another Akira Kurosawa picture:
From Or Shkolnik, Israel:
We see a beautiful mountain landscape, a dramatic music starts playing while the name of the movie appears in big letters:
Suddenly a stiff samurai enters the frame, wind blows in his wild grown hair, and than a hand pops out from within his kimono neck collar in a charming way that looks as if his hands are still in their sleeves at the sides of his body. He scratches his head in a very un-samuraish way, and than the hand goes back from where it came from and disappears as if only to visually express what's going in this man's head: He has no direction. Then the credits start to roll and the camera follows the man (in a single shot) while he is walking, but we can't see where because the angle is very low and frames only the back of the man's head over a grey empty sky. Like the samurai, we can see no direction. After the credits end, a caption appears that unfolds the historic background of how in 1860 the Tokugawa dynasty lost all power and many samurai found themselves without a master to serve, including this samurai who was left with "no devices other than his wit and sword."
We then see the samurai walk to a crossroad, stop, look around, pick up a stick and throw it in the air. The Camera frame the stick when it falls, and we see the samurai's feet walk to it and than changes their direction to where the stick points, the camera tilts up and the sequence ends with the samurai walking away from the camera.
From Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule:
Brian De Palma’s exceedingly stimulating and sensational consideration of femme fatale iconography and the possibility of redemption within it begins with one of the director’s customarily brilliant, multilayered opening shots. Under the black of the producers credits, familiar voices are heard. It’s Fred MacMurray. Fade up on a shot of an extreme close-up of a TV. It’s MacMurray, 525 broadcast lines blown up to big-screen size, in "Double Indemnity". But a close examination of the image reveals a splash of color -- something else is visible here, contrasting with the black-and-white images of Billy Wilder’s film. It’s a reflected image of a half-naked woman stretched out perpendicular across the TV screen. She is watching "Double Indemnity", and we see her watching the movie in her reflection off the glass TV screen. "Double Indemnity" continues to play out, crosscutting between MacMurray and the original femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck (as Phyllis Dietrichson).
The image of the young woman becomes clear, yet remains slightly ghostly, as the image in Wilder’s film darkens. MacMurray moves to close a window, when a shot rings out. Stanwyck has betrayed him with a bullet, and the title credit "Femme Fatale" pops on screen at the same time, as the ethereal image of the woman, reclining on her side, dispassionately watching the movie, lingers. (The title credit “A Film by Brian De Palma��? was earlier synchronized with Stanwyck’s first appearance on the TV.) Now De Palma’s camera begins to pull back. We see the cabinet of the TV, and we can now also observe that there are French subtitles superimposed on Wilder’s film. The image of the woman reflected in the TV seems even clearer now, as we continue to pull back, seeing her much more clearly in the flesh, gray tendrils rising from the cigarette she’s smoking while watching the TV. At this point there is double layering of the woman’s image, the reflection and the person being reflected, over the image of Stanwyck, who has taken a dominant position over her wounded lover as she confesses her machinations against him.
From Richard T. Jameson, Editor, Movietone News, 1971-81; Editor, Film Comment, 1990-2000:
The opening credits of Richard Lester's "Juggernaut" (1974) play over a neutral backdrop that can just barely be detected as an undefined image rather than a simple blank screen. Whether it's an out-of-focus image or something more elemental -- say, the granules of the film emulsion itself -- is hard to say. The basic color is a beige-y grey, with now and then the merest hint of a diagonal band of something warmer attempting to form across the frame. On the soundtrack are noises similarly difficult to ascertain; some suggest hammers falling, an unguessable project under construction, while in other select nanoseconds we seem to be listening to something beyond the normal range of hearing -- the mutual brushing of atoms, perhaps, in an unimaginably microscopic space. In short, nothing; and the essence of everything.
The first shots cut in after the (swiftly flashed) credits have ended, and we get our worldly bearings. An oceanliner is preparing to depart an English port and, among other things, a dockside band is tuning up. I say "first shots," but we won't cheat: there can be only one opening shot, and it's over with before we barely register it. And indeed, why register it? It's nothing dramatic. Indeed, it's barely informational. There are streamers, fluttering limply and unremarkably in the breeze. Send-off streamers; bon voyage and all that. Most of their brief time onscreen, they're out of focus, because that's a gentle way of easing us from the shimmering nothingness behind the credits and into the coherent imagery of a movie we are obliged to pay attention to. Besides, this is 1974, five years after cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and "Easy Rider" had made rack focus a fashionable, sometimes almost fetishistic aspect of self-consciously contemporary moviemaking. (Not that Kovacs worked on "Juggernaut": the DP is Gerry Fisher, working with Lester for the first and last time.) So out-of-focus and then in-focus streamers, no big whoop. And the movie moves on.
It's only on a second viewing that these streamers may hit us like a fist in the chest. For the essence of the shot is that there are two streamers in particular traversing the frame in clarity. And one is red, one is blue.
Alvy Singer speaks.
From Hiram M:
If a movie's opening shot provides the compass with which to navigate the ensuing film, then this simple set up needs commending. Unexpected, efficient, and funny from frame one (relying as it does on the "Woody persona"), this fourth wall-breaker immediately establishes the anything goes storytelling so unique to "Annie Hall."
JE: Good one, Hiram. The shot doesn't have to be complicated (or even long) to do what it has to do. This shot from "Annie Hall" not only sets up Alvy's profession and character (a writer and stand-up comedian with an anhedonic view of life), it establishes him as the narrator even when he's offscreen. (Seinfeld would later borrow the device of having the story grow out of the framing device of Jerry's monologue.) We'll return to this shot near the end. And, of course, Alvy (and other characters) will break the fourth wall at key moments in the movie (most memorably in the Marshall McLuhan scene with the pompous guy in the movie line), reminding us that this is Alvy's subjective take on his relationship with Annie. As he illustrates, she sees things quite differently. Here, for the record, is what Alvy says to frame the funny valentine to the girlfriend he can't quite get over:
ALVY There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such ... small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. The-the other important joke for me is one that's, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud's wit and its relation to the unconscious. And it goes like this-I'm paraphrasing: Uh ... "I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.