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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In the Beginning

I recently had the idea of writing something about great opening scenes in films. And then I realized that was quite a task, so I decided to limit myself to the last 10 years of film. Luckily enough the first two films I had chosen happened to be post-year 2000. Once I was done I noticed some other (troublesome?) similarities. All of the films open with violence; four of the five start with an actual murder and the lone exception, Snatch, involves plenty of gun wielding. There are two points to make here: 1) A murder is a great way to open a film. It provides mystery and spectacle immediately. 2) The last three scripts I’ve written have opened up with a murder. We are what we consume.

But enough psycho-analysis, let’s see those movies.

1. 16 or 17 years old, Krikorian Theater

With Kill Bill (Vol. 1), I’m actually talking about two first scenes. The movie starts with heavy breathing and a black screen; maybe it was my adolescent hormones, but I was expecting sex. This was also a side effect of not watching trailers before I went to see movies in those pre-YouTube days. Kill Bill was the first movie to change how I went to the theater. After this movie the theater became a sanctuary. As the breathing intensifies we are suddenly confronted with the image of a battered Uma Thurman just moments before a bullet goes through her head. Tarantino knows exactly how to engage us from the start. As if this weren’t enough, he follows it up with a perfectly executed fight scene, giving Vivica A. Fox her most memorable silver screen role in less than 10 minutes actual time. By the end of the first scene the audience has tons of questions, no answers and a burning desire to watch until their curiosity is quenched.

2. 22 years old, IMAX at the Irvine Spectrum

I can barely explain the hysteria surrounding the Dark Knight. That movie drove everyone wild for several months after its release. My friend and I did impressions at work for the next two months. Heath Ledger was so good he managed to not only make us forget about the plot holes and the atrocious batman voice, he made us see it more than once (I saw it 3 times in theaters). Before Avatar came along as a movie that had to be viewed in IMAX or at least in a theater, The Dark Knight laid claim to the title. Never before had it been so much fun to watch someone be so evil. The brilliance of the first scene in the Dark Knight is that it builds the legend of The Joker in about 5 minutes. The first scene could easily have been a short film by itself or excluded from the movie and replaced with an insert of a newspaper title. Thank God Christopher Nolan left it in. The scene starts and the question is asked: So why do they call him The Joker? By the end of the scene we have our answer. The voice actors are brilliant, the music unsettling and the bank employee/mob guy has just the right amount of outrage. Of course that first scene is really about Ledger, shoulders hunched, holding a clown mask with his back to the camera. Enough can’t be said about his posture in the film; Ledger’s body does over half the work in developing his character. His walk from the bank employee, after stuffing his mouth with a grenade, to the bright yellow school bus establishes all we need to know about The Joker. The Dark Knight’s opening scene was so good it made the rest of the movie better; all I did for the rest of the film was wait to see The Joker on camera again.

3. 23 years old, IMAX at the Irvine Spectrum

Many people did not like Watchmen for a number of reasons: 1) It’s too long 2) Dr. Manhattan is inherently boring 3) They were unable to follow the story because they didn’t read the graphic novel 4) It was not a loyal adaptation. I agree with the first two reasons. Dr. Manhattan is a boring character and the movie is really long. As someone who didn’t read the graphic novel until after I saw the movie, however, I can’t say that it was hard to follow. And after reading the graphic novel, I’d say they were pretty loyal to the author’s vision. At any rate I liked the movie; The Comedian and Rorschach were great, the art direction was perfect and, of course, the opening scene was brilliant. To use every film snob’s favorite word, I loved how the music was juxtaposed (I feel disgusting now) with the violence in that first scene. In fact, despite all the complaints I heard, everyone seemed to like the first scene (and title sequence)…and agree that the movie went downhill from there. I tend to agree with the exception of scenes involving The Comedian or Rorschach, which is enough for me to say I really liked this movie.

4. 19 years old, University of Redlands Dorm Room

Snatch is on the short list of movies I’ve watched over 20 times (Dodgeball, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Big Lebowski, Groundhog’s Day and a few others). A perfect blend of action and comedy, no scene exemplifies this more than the opening one. At first it appears that a group of Hasidic Jews are having a friendly argument about the creation myth on their way to the top floor of the building. The audience realizes, as does the proprietor of the Jewelers, that these men are not who we think they are. The scene turns into, as so many Guy Ritchie scenes do, a music video featuring gun wielding Hasidic Jews demanding diamonds. And the audience is immediately invested in the story.

5. 23 years old, ArcLight in Sherman Oaks

I spent the better half of the summer running around saying, “I want my Nazis!” Needless to say I was pumped for Inglorious Basterds. What made it better was that the row of people in front of me, on opening night, were Jews, in yarmulkes, who cheered every time a Nazi got his skull bashed in. Of course we had to wait for that satisfaction. First, Tarantino wanted to remind us just how evil World War II Germany could be. What made Kill Bill so great is the exact opposite of what made Bastards brilliant. Tarantino builds the tension until we can barely stand it, in true Leone fashion he manages to make a 20 minute scene feel like it went by quickly. When the Frenchman finally gives in and Cristoph Waltz’s character calls in his Nazi friends to shoot up the house, you could sense a collective heart drop. The glimmer of hope that is Shoshana runs off into a grass field with a pistol aimed at her back. The audience watches and waits, willing her to freedom. And the filmmaker awards us with her safe escape. At the end of that first scene Tarantino had already run the emotional gamut.

There you have it, five opening scenes that locked me into my chair. Hopefully the next list will be slightly less violent…

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