Cinema Matters #3: The Opening Image

March 2014
Cinema Matters #3:  The Opening Image

I believe that cinema matters.  This is a continuing series of my personal thoughts on film.  Every month a new topic.  In no more than 750 words.

Most movies open with an image*.  That first image is critical.  As a viewer, we see a visualization that gives us a sense of the world of the film.  It must immediately trap us.  It should also inform us. 

Some great films open with a shot that gives us a strong sense of the setting, mood, texture, and sometimes the thematic treatment of the movie.  Nothing makes me more excited than being in a dark theater with fellow audiences, eagerly awaiting for the first image to appear. 

I remembered waiting to see Shutter Island (2010).  I recalled the first image, that of a ship in choppy waters, emerging from the mist, accompanied by the frightening music “Symphony No. 3 Passacaglia – Allegro Moderato” by Krzysztof Penderecki. 

In just over a minute, it had captured the essence of Scorsese’s masterful and chilling suspense-mystery, and I was hooked for the rest of the picture.  Scorsese, like many great filmmakers, had made his first image count. 

Paul Thomas Anderson made it count too in his masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007).  It opens with a still, wide shot of a vast landscape.  The music, by Johnny Greenwood, begins as indiscernible in a series of notes played on strings that goes up in key before settling on a single note.  I remembered feeling uneasy.   At the most basic level, the unsettling sense of mood is immediately communicated to the causal viewer. 

By the end of the movie, the strange opening shot makes complete sense thematically.  It gives a feeling akin to an unseen evil force looming over the ground, a foreshadowing of sorts of the transformation of oil prospector Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) from a pragmatic opportunist to a sinful capitalist. 

These are two of my favourite opening images in post-2000s cinema.  Everyone has a favourite opening scene or sequence, but to truly pinpoint a favourite opening image is far more difficult because few movies have one that lasts long enough to be appreciated on its own terms. 

Other films whose opening image capture the essence of the movie in its totality, and continue to impress me include the following:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick
A still shot of the Moon that tilts upwards and tracks over it to reveal the Earth and then finally the Sun, all in perfect Kubrickian symmetry... and yes to the tune of Strauss’ grandiose “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.  Also look at how Kubrick announces himself by matching his credit “A Stanley Kubrick Production” to the music’s crescendo.  Simply beyond words.

             The Conversation (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola
A wide shot of a city park that very slowly zooms into Gene Hackman’s character walking away, accompanied by jazz music, and very critically, the sound of static and electronics.  Surveillance couldn’t have been welcomed in any other (better) way.

Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese
A still shot of steam from a street vent, before a yellow cab cuts right through it in slow-motion to the sound of Bernard Hermann’s thumping score.  The cab is monstrous and menacing... but we are curious as to who is steering it...  Henceforth, Scorsese and Robert De Niro cement their legendary partnership.  Also, Shutter Island opened similarly as mentioned above.

Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan
 A shot of a hand holding a photograph, but why is it fading away?  Perfect opening image to a film about memory loss that is envisioned and told in reverse chronology.

Cache  (2005) by Michael Haneke
The 21st century answer to The Conversation in cold, dispassionate style by one of contemporary cinema’s great masters of cold, dispassionate films.

These are only five examples of great opening images.  There are many others from all over the world.  Some I leave you to discover for yourself, others I will discover for the first time in my never-ending journey through cinema.

*When I refer to the image, I also refer to the sound or music that accompanies it, if any.  An image is also not equivalent to a scene (which is a series of images) or a sequence (which is a series of scenes).  You may see the image as the equivalent to the shot.

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