The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
View image: Waking into a nightmare.
From Brad Damare, New Orleans, LA:
"Dawn of the Dead" opens with an close-up of one of the lead characters, asleep against a blood-red carpeted wall. She seems both alone and surrounded by the red -- an echo of what will be the film's finale, in which she has to escape the mall rooftop alone, possibly alone in the world. But Romero jump-cuts with something of a joke: She's only dreaming, and she's actually in a room full of people. But that room full of people is in full-panic mode: She's awakened from one nightmare into another.
JE: Thanks, Brad, for mentioning one of my all-time favorite horror movies. It's like she's in a red-shag womb, about to be born into a world that's worse than anything she could have dreamed. That jump-cut happens as she cries out, waking herself up -- and at the same instant a man pops into the frame and grabs her: "Are you alright? The shit's really hitting the fan." And the zombie head is really hitting the helicopter blades... A TV station colleage, watching a debate on a monitor ("We don't know that," says a man on the screen. "We gotta operate on what we do know!"), observes: "Still dreaming..."
View image: What are we looking at/for?
View image: Find one difference in this picture.
From Jeremy Mathews, The Salt Shaker Magazine, Salt Lake City, UT:
It may be a recent film, but I don't think it's too early to canonize Michael Haneke's "Caché" opening shot as one of the greats. Haneke's first image prepares the viewer for his film's astounding distortion of the cinematic lens.
A static shot of a house at the end of a Parisian street during early morning seems perfectly banal, as Daniel Auteuil's character walks over to his car. But then, in voice-over, Binoche and Auteuil begin to discuss the workings of the shot — they didn't see the camera, so how was this footage created? One of them comments that the shot is too clear to be shot through glass (i.e. hidden in someone's car).
Until the scanlines appear as the characters rewind the tape, there are absolutely no clues from the image's quality (resolution, interlacing, etc.) to suggest that it isn't from a professional film. When the next shot, of Auteuil and Binoche in their house looking at the TV, comes up, there is no discernible visual difference between the tape and what we assume isn't a tape.
From Girish Shambu, Buffalo, NY:
"Flowers of Shanghai" (1998), by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has an opening shot that lasts — I kid you not — eight minutes! Jazz bassist Marcus Miller once said about James Brown’s music that no matter how small a piece of it you took, like DNA, it had the “funk in it.��? That’s how I feel about this shot: it contains, in its eight minutes, the entire film.
The camera is an observer at a table in a 19th century Shanghai brothel or “flower house,��? where several clients are playing a drinking game. Most of them are young, dressed in dark and gleaming silk robes. The only light in the shot is provided by a couple of curved lamps. (In fact, we will discover that the film will never venture outdoors.) Next to the patrons, standing, are their “flower girls.��? Every now and then, promptly but gracefully, they light opium pipes or pour wine for their clients. Like a plaintive sigh, a melancholic melody-drone accompanies the shot.
From Jonathan Pacheco, Anna, TX:
Seemingly too easy of a choice, this film's first shot meets your criteria perfectly. After a slightly creepy overture, we are blessed with shot of a barely visible moon. It slowly moves down as the earth rises above it, and even more distant, the sun rises above the earth.
All of this happens as "Also sprach Zarathustra" beams in the background, a song and tone poem based on a book that spoke about the journey in the evolution from ape to man to superman. Already, Kubrick is telling us exactly what will happen in the next couple of hours with just the music. The visuals are telling us exactly how his film should be approached: as a slow but massive epic, a film with concepts and visuals that should be pondered and revered, much like one is awed when looking up at the heavens. As an added bonus, the final shot in the film uses the first shot and takes it to the next level.
JE: Right you are, Jonathan. Kubrick composed his films with a thoroughly musical technique unlike any other director I can think of. (I've said it before: "Eyes Wide Shut" is ridiculous if seen as a straight narrative [it is, after all, based on a "Traumnovella" -- or, "Dream Story"]; it's magnificent when you look at it as a musical composition, using imagey the way musicians use sounds -- thematic statements, colors, tempos, structure, repetition, development, variation...)
When we see the image of the planets and the monolith in alignment at the beginning of the film's last movement (the psychedelic star trip into inner/outer space), we have that momentous sense that this is the climax of the picture, and it could take us anywhere -- even if we don't understand exactly what's going on. And then, in the last few moments of the film, the spherical, planet-sized Star Child drifts into view...
I saw "2001" at the Cinerama Theater in Seattle when I was 10 years old. My life has never been the same since. Kubrick finds expression for the mystery and awe of being alive in this universe, at this time, by invoking images of the unimaginably distant past ("The Dawn of Man") and the unimaginably near future ("Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite").
Here goes. For the time being, I'm just going to offer up the answers to the Opening Shots Pop Quiz, without further elaboration or analysis in most cases -- because these shots are so great they deserve full Opening Shots treatments of their own. (And you, by the way, are welcome to provide them if you are so inclined!)
It starts in the dark with a swirl of strings and then a blast of brass as the screen explodes into vivid neon pink. No movie has ever announced itself with a more sexually confidant and pulchritudinously entrancing opening shot than Alan Rudolph's "Choose Me." As Teddy Pendergrass purrs the song from which the movie gets its title (back-up girls: "You're my choice tonight!"), we rack focus and pull back from a flashing neon sign for a nightclub called "eve's LOUNGE." Yellow arrows direct our gaze downward toward the awninged entrance. We tilt down, still floating above street level, as a man emerges, dancing to the music on the soundtrack, and enticing a woman (momentarily out of frame) to join him. She does, and we're about ready to join them both. As we descend to street level, , he's wrested away by another woman, leaving his initial partner leaning against a parked car (looks like a '50s Chevy -- metallic blue with a white top). This is when the title appears in lower-case pink-and-blue neon letters (the credits continue throughout).
From Leonard Maltin:
The one that first comes to mind is from a film I fell in love with thirty-some years ago, "Scarecrow," directed by Jerry Schatzberg and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. I revisited it when it finally came to DVD last year and felt exactly the same way. It opens on a static shot of a wood and wire fence alongside a two-lane highway, as a figure makes his way down a hill toward the fence (and us)...the sky is gray behind him. We're riveted to this image, eager to find out who this is, where he's coming from, and where he's headed. I haven't timed it to see how long the shot actually runs, but it's long, and absolutely mesmerizing: an opening shot that draws you in and makes you want to watch the movie.
JE: Thanks, Leonard -- it's a beauty! The dark gray clouds contrasting with the pale tan of the dry, grassy slope; the light playing across the hillside that makes the clouds shift even darker; the sound of thunder echoing in the distance -- it's the kind of shot where, seconds into the movie, you can almost smell the setting: The ionic scent of the approaching rain, the dusty pollenated aroma of the baked grass. And it's also funny, as Gene Hackman attempts to extricate himself from the fence. Anyone who's attempted to climb over, under or through barbed wire knows the pain and frustration of this moment all too well! It looks like the shot was originally even longer, and is interrupted by a few cutaways to Al Pacino watching from behind a tree -- perhaps to substitute different takes. And you're right: Now I'm going to watch the whole movie. (Love Pacino's introduction: "Hi. I'm Francis.")
"I am your host! Und sagen..."
Here they are, eleven of the most famous opening shots in movie history, plus a bonus that I threw in just because I like it. Prepare to smack your head and say, "D'oh! I knew that!" But don't give up -- keep sending in your nominations for great opening shots, along with your explanations for why they set up the movie so well, to: jim AT scannersblog dot com.
Congrats to Daniel Dietzel, who got all ten right, but did not hazard a guess about the two bonus shots -- and to Jeremy Matthews, who got nine out of the top 10, but also correctly identified both the bonus/tiebreakers!
And come back Sunday for the answers to the original Opening Shots Pop Quiz.
Now, the answers to the Opening Shots Quiz 2: 10 Easy Pieces (+2):
Movies 101: Opening Shots Project Introduction
I still have plenty of excellent Opening Shots submissions to edit and post -- and I'm doing my best to get frame grabs to accompany them whenever I can. (Quiz answers coming soon, too.) To no one's surprise, "Star Wars" (1977) has been the most popular nomination -- and for good reasons. But do keep 'em coming. I think of new brilliant opening shots every day, so if your initial ideas have already been mentioned, keep thinking. (Or, if you'd care to add to the discussion of a particular shot, Comments have supposedly been enabled on certain posts -- though I have to approve 'em first.)
A few notes about terminology, just so we can be sure we're all speaking the same language:
shot: a continuous image on film, from the time it begins (when the camera is rolling) until a cut (or fade out or dissolve) takes us to the next image. Sometimes the word "take" -- as in continuous shot -- is used interchangeably, although it is more specifically used to refer to one of several attempts to "get" a certain shot during filming. The editor often chooses between several takes of a given shot, and may cut them into shorter shots, or inter-cut different takes with other shots.)
pan: when the camera pivots horizontally, usually on a tripod. If a shot is strictly a pan, the camera does not move from its location, it just swivels -- as if you were standing still and turning your head. It can, of course, be used in various combinations with any of the other techniques below. The opening shot of "Psycho" is a simple pan. Later, a zoom and a crane shot are used in the opening sequence.
tilt: like a pan, but a vertical movement rather than a horizontal one. The camera does not "pan" up the exterior of a skyscraper from a position on the sidewalk across the street; it "tilts" up. The last shot of Robert Altman's "Nashville" is a simple tilt up to the empty sky.
dolly shot: a shot in which the camera actually moves -- usually when mounted on a dolly or a crane, and often on tracks which have been put down to ensure a smooth-gliding and precise movement.
tracking shot: sometimes used interchangeably with "dolly shot," but technically a shot where the camera moves with, or "tracks," another moving object in the frame -- whether from above, below, ahead, aside, or behind. (See opening shot of "Birth" -- which also appears to use a crane and a Steadicam.)
crane shot: a movement where the camera is mounted on a crane (and sometimes a dolly as well), usually to rise above, or descend to, the scene of the primary action. Lots of movies end with crane shots that raise up on a crane and sometimes dolly back at the same time (think of "Chinatown" or "Silence of the Lambs").
handheld shot: any shot in which the camera operator simply holds the camera manually, whether standing in one place or moving around within the scene. Often characterized by a certain shakiness that we're used to experiencing as more immediate, immersive, or documentary-like than a solid, mounted camera, which can feel more detached and "objective."
Steadicam shot: a Steadicam is a gyroscopic device that, as its name indicates, can be used to eliminate the shakiness of handheld shots for a smoother, more fluid movement -- as if the camera is floating on air. (See "Halloween" for a dazzling example.) In a landmark shot at the beginning of Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory" (photographed by Haskell Wexler), the Steadicam operator is actually on a crane and lowered to the earth, where he steps off and continues the shot at ground level.
zoom: a zoom lens is simply a sliding telephoto lens that smoothly enlarges or reduces the size of objects in the frame optically, like looking through a adjustable telescope. The camera doesn't necessarily move (though it sometimes does that at the same time), but appears to magnify or decrease whatever it's looking at. As you zoom in on something, the image appears to "flatten." (Recall the famous shot of Omar Sharif riding toward the camera across the desert in "Lawrence of Arabia" -- he never really seems to get any closer because of the long telephoto lens that is used.) The dizzying "Vertigo" effect (after Hitchock's innovation in that film) involves dollying in and zooming out at the same time (or vice-versa) -- an effect employed memorably in a shot of Roy Scheider on the beach when a shark is sighted in "Jaws."