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.
Enlarge image: Newsroom hustle...
Enlarge image: ... and bustle. Notice the emphasis on women at work in the very first moments.
From That Little Round-Headed Boy:
"His Girl Friday": Anybody who ever worked in the journalism business, or wished they had been around for newspapering's madcap era, must feel a quickening at the opening tracking shot of Howard Hawks' classic comedy. As the camera tracks from right to left across the city room of the Chicago Morning Post, a smoky, hustling, chatty ambience hangs over the enterprise, as an editor yells out for a "Copy boy!", reporters are decked out in rolled-up shirts and green eye-shades, the women wear fashionable hats and the blue-collar switchboard gals are yammering in overdrive. The scene sets the fast-paced theme, and it never lets up.
JE: Good grief, TLRHB, that's a great one! (This should give readers an idea why they should check out TLRHB regularly.) As someone born with ink in his veins (red ink, I'm afraid), I know well the quickening of which you speak!
"Altered States" opens with the image of a fluorescent, egglike shape surrounded by darkness. It is a window. From below, in comes a floating human figure (William Hurt as Prof. Eddie Jessup), who appears to be immersed in liquid. Surrounded as he is by the dark oval frame of the window, he resembles an embryo inside a mother's womb. The camera slowly tracks back to reveal that Jessup is inside a horizontal tank in an empty room. As it tracks back even further, the viewer detects the edges of a second window, rectangular this time. In front of that window sits a bearded scientist in a laboratorium, who carefully monitors the room with the tank holding Eddie Jessup.
In the film, science tries to discover the essence of the Self by use of altered states of consciousness. The opening shot prepares the audience for this very process by taking the viewer through different layers/windows of counsciousness: from the symbolic birth of the Self, via self-awareness, to self-examination; from subjectivity to objectivity. The soundtrack amplifies this trajectory, going from bubbly water effects and steady breathing through an oxygen mask, to the buzz of lab equipment and clicking of buttons.
Peter Gelderblom founder / contributing editor www.24LiesASecond.com
JE: Beautifully done, Peter! I love the use of sound in this shot, too: From the very first moments you have this feeling of being immersed in an individual's interior consciousness -- which is where the drama of the movie really plays out.
Set your timers -- it'll be a blast!
OK, I know the Opening Shots Pop Quiz is difficult -- mainly because, even though many of the movies are famous (or by famous directors), they're very personal favorites of mine that most people wouldn't necessarily think of right off the bat.
So, I thought I'd do another one that didn't require so much detective work. It's also a kind of companion to my 101 102 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, in that these are 10 11 of the most celebrated films, and most famous opening shots, ever (plus one relatively obscure one by a favorite director of mine who also has a shot on the OS Pop Quiz -- a little extra hint. Another clue about that one [BONUS #2] here).
So, not only should you have seen all these movies (and you probably have), I hope you won't have too much difficulty remembering these classic opening shots, and why they're great. Feel free to send in your answers via the e-mail link above -- along with your comments. I'll publish the first correct answer, and any of the interesting comments you have about the shots themselves. Just click the link below and start the clock ticking...
It feels like an unbroken stream (of consciousness)...
We've received some terrific contributions to the Open Shot Project. Thank you so very much. And please keep 'em coming in. (And tell your cinemaniacal friends.) I'm going to start posting them next week. But remember: We're talking about single opening takes, not entire sequences or montages. Doesn't matter if the image comes before, during, or after the titles -- just as long as it's the first image. (Of course, the first shot of a montage could be significant and wonderful and worth considering on its own, especially when you consider how the succeeding images build upon what it establishes.) I'd even include this shot from David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" because, although it is really a combination of layered opticals, it gives the illusion of being a single, unbroken take -- no clear cuts, just a lot of overlapping fade-ins, fade-outs and dissolves.
Today, I've decided to offer a little pop quiz. What follows after the jump are single frame-grabs from some of my favorite opening shots in some of my favorite movies from the '20s to the '00s -- some famous, some fairly obscure. I don't necessarily expect anybody to get them all (unless they know me personally!), but see what you can do. In most cases, the frames are taken from the first second or two of the shot. Some shots last only a few seconds, others a minute or more, and some begin as dissolves out of the opening titles. Keep in mind that filmmakers often like to hit you with a distorted image you can't quite make out -- an extreme close-up, or a reflection, or a shot from a peculiar angle -- just to grab your attention and pull you in. Ready? Begin...
"Barry Lyndon" opens with a bang.
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.
2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie... at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)
The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows. It can even be the whole movie in miniature. I'm going to talk about some of my favorites, and how they work, and then request that you contribute your own favorites for possible publication in future Scanners columns.