A film’s opening sequence is an important one. It introduces us to the characters or the world that we will be inhabiting for the next 2 hours and sets the tone for what will follow. More often than not we see this reduced to simple economy. A wide shot. Showing us a city, a neighborhood, or some dingy back alley that tells us where our characters are in as little time as possible. There isn’t anything wrong with this. From a structure standpoint it follows basic film structure of beginning with a wide shot to establish where we are in the mind of the audience and then drill in to tell the story.
What I end up more interested are those films, and filmmakers, that buck this trend. They want this opening shot to convey something more than a simple location and they put alot of thought into making sure that it means something in the grand context of the story. With this in mind I wanted to highlight a few filmmakers and the way they used their opening to immediately pull the audience into the situation. Each of these will focus on a single filmmaker, or small collection of thematically similar ones, who have managed to do something a bit more with their opening shots.
Let’s begin with a look at Paul T. Anderson. From day one he has made movies with an uncompromising vision that has both attracted and alienated movies. He grew up in the film industry and is well versed in classic cinema to a level that any cinefile would be jealous. After his initial student film (an underrated gambling drama “Hard 8”) he made his first studio picture, a love letter and cautionary retelling of the porn film industry in the 70’s called “Boogie Nights”. The movie is truly excellent on a technical and artistic level with several amazing performances. Go see it.
Why we start here are it’s long and complicated tracking shots. See P.T. Anderson is a fan of Martin Scorsese, and like Scorsese, he has seen and adored a relatively unseen propaganda film out of Cuba called “Soy Cuba.” It was a joint production between the burgeoning Cuban film industry and their Russian benefactors and is shot almost exclusively in long takes. He took inspiration from this when shooting Boogie nights and decided to start the movie with a long complex tracking shot. It starts on the title of the movie itself, incorporated into a night club sign, and follows club goers into the world of the 70’s night club scene. In this one shot we meet nearly all of the important characters in the movie, get a feel for the world they live in, and see why the glitz and glamour would attract the adoration of the main character and make him want to join. Its only when we watch the rest of the film do we see the dark side of the industry as the movie systematically dismantles whatever allure this world.
Our next movie, also a P.T. Anderson film, is a beast of a completely different color. Going even further back into time, the turn of the 20th century, it follows a brutal and determined man who is focused on making his fortune at whatever cost. The opening of the film is told largely without dialogue, focusing instead on simple action and a chilling debut score by Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead’s guitarist. We have dropped the long take here and instead see a series of quick, methodical shots of the main character, Daniel Plainview, mining for gold. It tracks him from a broke prospector, to his first find of gold, to his accidental discovery of oil, and the growth of that one site into a small but thriving business. What makes this special is how it tells us everything we need to know about the main character in just a few minutes without any dialogue. Here is a man for whom there is no measure of what he would not do for wealth and the image of success. He is driven, smart, and hard. These opening ten minutes are the thesis that the rest of the movie proves. The director maintains that this is his take on a horror film. If this is true, we are watching nothing less than the creation of a monster without realizing it. Now sadly, the entire sequence is hard to find online, but I was able to grab a good chunk of it and recommend anyone reading this to track down the movie and see it in full.
Originally this was meant to be a single piece. An unofficial list of some great opening sequences that do more than just establish where our story starts. As I began to write about it, and think about even just these two opening sequences it became apparent to me this is too fun
a project not to keep writing about. As such expect quite a few more pieces coming down the pipeline. Usually they will be focused on a single film but sometimes, like this one, they will be about a body of work as a whole. If this continues to be fun I may start doing pieces about some ending sequences that also set the bench for how to end a film spectacularly.