May 29, 2007

Ten Years, Ten-Lists #2 (Ian Pugh)

It was actually a set of closing credits that gave me the idea for my contribution to FFC's Top Ten List project--the very final sequence of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, to be exact. Thinking about how that film's end titles entailed the most eloquent, concise, and chilling example of the film-long equation of zombies with dead-eyed consumerism, the idea of compiling a list of other great thematic "thesis statements" became an attractive one. Ultimately, I decided to head for the opposite end of the chronological spectrum, because while the best opening title sequences establish and epitomize their films' worlds and intentions, they also represent the screenwriters' and filmmakers' eagerness to snatch up the soonest possible opportunity to subdue the viewer with the elusive magic that is cinema. The definition of what constitutes a "title sequence," per se, will be left intentionally vague for the purposes of this list. Many of these selections are pre-credits teasers, while others are the moments that surround the literal credits--basically that grey area between the studio logos and "directed by."-Ian Pugh

10. Magnum Force (1973, Ted Post)
Sequels don't require the laborious set-ups that original films do--and boy, does the second Dirty Harry film ever know it. As the film begins, we're quite plainly presented with Harry Callahan's familiar .44 Magnum, spread out across a blood-red background. The gun turns towards us and--as Clint Eastwood recites an abridged version of his "do you feel lucky" speech--fires. Call it a simplification of Godard's necessities for filmmaking: all you need is a gun.


9. Bride of Re-Animator (1989, Brian Yuzna)
A good chunk of my admiration for Brian Yuzna's scattershot Re-Animator sequel lies in its opening stinger, featuring the living, disembodied head of arch-prick Dr. Carl Hill slowly floating towards us as he casts a dire warning directed at his nemesis, Herbert West. The last time we saw the dear departed Dr. Hill, his brains were splattered across the walls of Miskatonic University; he won't be formally revived from the dead in this film for another half-hour. And yet here he is, head awake and fully intact, coming at us with a beautifully melodramatic speech in the Bela Lugosi vein. (After all, beyond the obvious Frankenstein connection, Bride of Re-Animator is something of an extended tribute to Ed Wood.) Hill has bent the rules of his own metaverse to once again rise from the grave and make life difficult for everyone. It's the ultimate re-animation.


8. Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)
"Hi, I got a tape I wanna play." The singularly bizarre sight of the crane-like David Byrne jamming to an acoustic version of "Psycho Killer" on a bare stage makes us wonder what he's hiding up his sleeve.


7. Dead of Night / Deathdream (1974, Bob Clark)
Dead of Night earned the right to use Hitchcock's familiar "no one will be seated" marketing ploy by turning the jungles of Vietnam into something dark and supernatural even before Andy Brooks (played by a different actor in the pre-credits sequence than in the film proper) is killed in the line of duty and sent back to Mom and Dad as a post-traumatic zombie. So once the film starts throwing pulsating lights and faraway, ghostly voices at us, it doesn't seem like a leap of logic so much as one step deeper into a void of madness that has already engulfed us. To be honest, the audio alone could almost carry this sequence, as the wails of a dying soldier and the pleas of his doomed friend ("Darren? Darren, Jesus Christ, Darren!") are just as haunting as any other horrors delivered throughout the rest of the piece. With this prologue, Clark implies that his own metaphors may be unnecessary in the harsh face of what was already happening overseas.


6. The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)
Pauline Kael famously called The Untouchables "an attempt to visualize the public's collective dream of Chicago gangsters." I would call its title sequence an attempt to visualize the public's collective dream of the gangster genre as a series of recognizable abstracts. Start with a sepia background and pillars of shadows that vaguely mimic some aspect of the noir aesthetic--maybe the ceiling fan that presides over the archetypal private detective's office, or the Venetian blinds that ominously open and close when he wants a peek at the outside world. They're eventually revealed to be the deep shadows cast by the enormous letters of the title itself, which of course becomes a representation of the purely conceptual heroes from the days of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Robert Stack's Eliot Ness--in our eyes, larger-than-life and, of course, untouchable. Top it off with Ennio Morricone's driving, threatening overture and you're ready for The Untouchables despite that there isn't a single fedora or Thompson gun in sight.


5. Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)
The entirety of Schizopolis is something of a gigantic joke on an audience unprepared for the avant-garde, and Steven Soderbergh's intro, in which the man himself takes the stage for a brief explanation, serves as a parodic response to folks who demand cohesion and logic from the likes of David Lynch--finally, somebody can tell me what all of this weird shit is about. But all that awaits such expectations are more frustrations: Soderbergh interrupts his stream-of-consciousness speech with random commands to "turn" and retreat to a different camera angle, and concludes that the viewer's lack of understanding in the film's purpose is "your fault, not ours." It's at once a condemnation of the attempt to rationalize a world of subconscious surrealism and an invitation to play by its rules.


4. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert)
I can't list my favourite opening sequences without mentioning at least one James Bond film; out of all of them, I choose Maurice Binder's title sequence from my personal favourite of the series, The Spy Who Loved Me. The teaser itself hits all of the familiar marks for a Bond film--and I could probably do without the disco remix--but the surrealistic titles manage to indulge in the typical silliness that comes with the territory (girls on trampolines, fetishized gun barrels) without descending into puerile ridiculousness. Notice how they follow the easygoing flow of Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" while capturing the undercurrent of paranoia in the film's détente subplot: there's actually something self-consciously reckless about how the guns are thrown around here. The vital moment, however, comes when the 007 silhouette knocks over a row of nude women "dressed" as marching toy soldiers.


3. Fahrenheit 451 (1966, Francois Truffaut)
The opening "titles" of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 don't feel quite right, as if they were made by someone with only a rudimentary grasp of filmmaking: the credits are read aloud in an indifferent monotone while the camera, armed with obnoxious pastel filters, zooms in abruptly on what appear to be intricate television antennae. It comes from another world, one of illiteracy, artlessness, and suppression--one that's becoming more and more familiar every day.


2. Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)
I absolutely adore the opening minutes of Sam Raimi's Darkman--the original, superior version of Raimi's overblown Spider-Man 3--because they establish its world of comic book hyper-logic so effortlessly. Raimi kicks things off by filling his frame/panel with a multitude of unique personalities (in the second shot of the film, notice the geek off to the side quickly alternating between popping pills and puffing his cigarette), only to cram more such characters into view a few moments later. Then it proceeds to embroil them all in a manic gang war to determine which band of thugs will serve as the bad guys of this picture. The winners, of course, are the ones whose themes and traits are most consistent with a comic book villain landscape--Robert Durant's penchant to clip the fingers of his adversaries with his cigar cutter; a guy named "Skip" with a machine gun housed in his wooden leg--and those who best prepare the viewer for the fantastic elements that Darkman is about to hurl at them.


1. A Hard Day's Night (1964, Richard Lester)
The Beatles described their experiences with crowds of rabid fans as terrifying--it was apparently the threat of being assaulted with scissors for locks of their hair that finally forced them to stay holed-up in a studio for good. But A Hard Day's Night begins with the Fab Four, just two steps ahead of a screaming mob, running for dear life with great big grins on their faces and concocting silly, makeshift plans to escape. It's a spectacular, hyperactive sequence, one that of course sets the stage for the madcap hilarity ahead. But knowing the truth of it, it also says a lot about masking your fear and pain for the benefit of your audience--willingly feeding into a popular perception that there was something fun and cartoony about the disturbing loss of anonymity that attends worldwide fame. I dare say that it transforms The Beatles' subsequent horseplay into the work of operatic Pagliaccis. Incidentally, the sequence makes for a fine companion piece to the final, live-action sing-along of Yellow Submarine, where the band attempted to exude the same camaraderie when they were actually on the verge of destruction thanks to their clashing egos.


See also:

24 comments:

Jason said...

I'm fairly glad that your list eschewed some of the "basics" in this area (like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Once Upon a Time in the West, etc.), Ian. That said, I disagree with a couple of your choices.

9) Bride of Re-Animator

What? Bride of Re-Animator over Re-Animator proper? A somnambulant opening drawl from the villain versus the juicy eye-explosion and our first introduction to Herbert West? Even if your affection for the film comes from this little stinger, I think you're giving the character of Dr. Hill a little bit too much credit. In terms of 80's horror-villains, he's a C-stringer, at best. As such, he's too weak a character to be a moving force for the film on his own, and having him pop up for an Ed Wood-style intro is a weak hook into a weaker film. Bride sucks, and it's intro looks even worse when you compare it to its predecessor.

4) The Spy Who Loved Me

I'll give you the teaser sequence, if only because the parachute jump is so cool (it forgives the lazy plotting and pacing of everything leading up to it). However, I don't think that Maurice Binder was doing anything new or interesting in Spy's title sequence that wasn't done before. There's nothing self-conscious about this, or any of his title sequences, really. If anything, that's why they were enjoyable - they're largely there to retain audience familiarity, after the gun barrel opening and before the obligatory visits to MI6.

Moreover, I think that these titles, in particular, are hit-or-miss, based on your individal acceptance of the detente subplot. I see the subplot as disingenuous, so I tend to look at the titles as a flimsy excuse to drive a confused point home. The film treats detente as a game of sexual one-upsmanship between two beautiful people, then drops this to let the (supposedly) equal female agent get kidnapped and require rescuing. The film pretty much loses its thin argument for detente in its rushed crawl for the big finale, and the titles are just another spot where Western-Soviet relations are given lip service and then pushed aside for the sex and violence.

As for the whole "descent into puerile ridiculousness," that's really more of how that particular song is affecting you. All those title sequences are puerile and ridiculous, especially on their own, but if the song hooks you or moves you, then you're gonna go with it. With all of the Binder sequences for the Bond films, it's pretty much down to whether you like the song or not, as they're all so similar otherwise. And the less we say about the Brosnan-era CGI monstrosities, the better.

Anonymous said...

Very nice list! I'll throw in a lowbrow shout-out to Wes Craven's Scream, which went against the odds by offing starlet Drew Barrymore in the opening in a lengthy, drawn-out horror sequence that offered more actual scare than any of the resent "gornos".

Dave Gibson said...

Great list--I'd also throw my hat in for "Bullit", "Dead Ringers" (that mournful Howard Shore score complemented with those eerie Bosch-like designs and blood-red background)and, ahem "Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers" which is genuinely better than the actual film, with it's quietly unnerving autumnal tableaus.

Alex Jackson said...

I suck.

I've only seen two of those movies. I thought Schizopolis was too smart ass and I don't remember the opening sequence to Darkman.

They all sound like films I would like to see though.

Afraid I'll have to go with the stock answer of "virtually any Kubrick film". Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut. I actually can't recall the opening sequence to Barry Lyndon but assume that it wasn't one of the greatest of all time.

Bill C said...

You've never seen The Untouchables? That legitimately shocks me.

Gotta put a vote in for Revenge of the Pink Panther, as well as the indelible scrolling title sequence of Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, a major influence on the same in Lost Highway.

Bill C said...

Whoops, I meant THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN.

jer fairall said...

Jules and Jim!

Alex Jackson said...

You've never seen The Untouchables? That legitimately shocks me.

Yeah. Just moved it to the top of my Netflix cue. I'm guessing that it's important.

Bill C said...

Probably not that important; I just mainly thought it was one of those movies harder to avoid than to see. Ian's right: hell of a title sequence--and possibly Morricone's best post-Leone score.

Jared said...

Alex not having seen "Stop Making Sense" shocks me more than him not having seen "The Untouchables". It might be the greatest concert film I've ever seen.

Alex Jackson said...

Okay, that'll be number 3 on my Netflix cue. And that's only 'cause I'm spacing out Twin Peaks Season 2 and disc three is up.

Sure to make Bill cringe, I've also seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade multiple times but have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Generational thing guys, I wasn't at the right place at the right time. Spent so much time finding the underappreciated classics of the 80s, I haven't spent enough seeing the 80s classics that WERE appreciated.

Alex Jackson said...

Actually, Stop Making Sense is not available to rent from Netflix! They'll let me watch it online, so... eventually I can see getting to it.

Bill C said...

Sure to make Bill cringe, I've also seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade multiple times but have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Cringing. Well, we all have shameful holes in our viewing history (which come to think of it might make a good Top 10 list), and I personally think it's pretty cool to have caught up with The Mosquito Coast before Raiders.

DaveA said...

I second "Dead Ringers" - terrific opening sequence with an even better score by Howard Shore.

I also adore the opening/title sequences of both "Ghost in the shell" movies, this eerie celebration of the creation of artificial life.

I can't really comment on the list because I've either not seen the movie or I can't remember the opening. However, I vehemently disagree with "Spy who loved me", if just for my sheer hatred towards anything connected to the Bond franchise. These often praised title sequences of the Bond movies bore me to no end.

Ogami Itto said...

I'm off-topic, but I just read Walter's review of "The Twilight Samurai" and was wondering what he thought of "The Hidden Blade."

Jared said...

I didn't see Raiders of the Lost Ark until last year and frankly the thing bored me to tears. I only remember being terribly interested in Temple of Doom on video, saw the third one in the theater because I was old enough by then and didn't really care for that one. It seems fairly inert compared to today's action-adventure movies; I guess that would be a compliment for some but I grew up in the ADD era and it didn't hold my interests. It's a profoundly stupid movie anyway so I don't think it makes you a philistine to not like it.

Richard said...

Jared, that whole comment makes me want to cry.

Bill C said...

Ditto, Richard. The ADD era really has turned a lot of sensibilities to mush.

James Allen said...

Not a bad idea for a list, particularly in light of the fact that most big time films these days forgo opening credits altogether (save for the title.)

I'll like to throw in Dawn of the Dead (2004) - Great use of video montage, credits in blood and, the amazingly effective "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash. That and the pre-credits sequence is as chilling a first 15 minutes of a film I've ever seen.

chris said...

"Sallah, I said no camels. That's *five* camels. Can't you count?"

Joe Valdez said...

Brilliant idea for a list, Bill, but I can't agree with any of your picks! Stop Making Sense is great, but I don't know if "Psycho Killer" would really count as a credit sequence. It's just the opening number of the concert.

I agree with Jason, The Spy Who Loved Me did nothing for me at all. Maybe the screen I was watching it on was too small. The Untouchables was a pedestrian title sequence at best.

My picks: the original The Getaway has one of the greatest titles sequences ever edited. It qualifies as a short film in and of itself, while the one Peckinpah did for The Wild Bunch ain't bad either.

Alien is pretty inventive, and with those musical cues by Jerry Goldsmith, builds tremendous dread.

How about Dr. Strangelove? How about Superman: The Movie? Unless I'm mistaken, you gave no props to Saul Bass. His work for Psycho is probably my favorite, though Spartacus and GoodFellas stand out as well.

I guess you're only doing your job if people disagree with you. Great post!

Bill C said...

Just so everybody's clear, I'm posting but not writing these lists. See the header's parenthetical, title graphic, or intro paragraph sig for the rightful author.

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