May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 9, 2009
I’m tempted to put together a video mash-up of favorite first minutes, but how would I ever narrow it down? If you were going to teach a film school course on Great Beginnings, which opening shots would you choose?
As I prepare to lead a series of discussions on the art of great filmmaking, I’m browsing through DVDs of recent favorites. I’m looking for scenes that would inspire rich discussions, moments that demonstrate the measureless possibilities of cinema.
I haven’t made it very far. The first two films I selected gave me great stuff right in the opening moments.
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Bringing up the opening scene of Jeff Nichols’ extraordinary directorial debut, Shotgun Stories (my favorite film of last year), I was again impressed by how much he accomplishes within one minute of screen time.
We see a shirtless man sitting on the edge of a bed. The glow through the curtains suggests that it is morning. He leans forward, staring intently at a small scrap of paper. It appears to be a note that was left for him. He receives its message with very little expression at all. (Is that frustration? Angst?) He shakes his head, tosses the note aside.
We can see the faint traces of marks on his back, but he’s shown in profile, so we’re not quite able to discern the nature of those marks.
This room is furnished, but barely. This is not a wealthy person at all.
Then he stands, turns to face the door (and us). He takes a t-shirt from a dresser drawer, winds it around his hand, looks ready to leave the room. But pauses, glances down to the dresser as if something has just occurred to him. He reaches down and opens a drawer. The film cuts to over-the-shoulder perspective, so that we can see that the particular drawers he opens are empty.
Without a line of dialogue or narration, Nichols is communicating to us what has happened. It all becomes clear by this one simple gesture.
And then we’re back to gazing in through the bedroom door as the man turns to contemplate the scene of his abandonment. For the first time, his back is to the camera. We can see from the sunburn that he must work outdoors a lot, and with a t-shirt on. Perhaps the shirt is to cover those scars which we can now see clearly. They’re scattered across his back — deep, round scars the size of a quarter or larger. They are not open sores. They have been there a good long time. Buckshot?
And then, the opening title to the film: Shotgun Stories.
In this brief span, Nichols kindles my curiosity: What is the story behind those scars? It’s a question that will hang over everything that follows, and the answer is not revealed until almost the end of the movie. If you aren’t paying close attention, you’ll miss it.
He also gives me a picture of a fractured relationship, perhaps a broken marriage. She’s gone, and she’s taken her things. It’s serious this time, and he doesn’t seem surprised. We’ve seen how little he possesses, and thus we won’t be surprised to learn that the problem is related to a lack of money. Clearly, he has failed in some way.
This efficiently sets the stage.
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Secondly, I chose Flight of the Red Balloon, and was again entranced by just how much Hou Hsiao-Hsien accomplishes in the opening moments.
There is an effortlessness to this opening scene that tells us we’re in the hands of a master. He has a way of making things seem incidental, “happened upon,” spontaneous, and yet upon contemplation, sophisticated meanings begin to suggest themselves.
The opening image reveals a young boy climbing around on the railing at the top of a stairway that descends to a Paris subway station. Heavy traffic is rushing past. The boy is relatively still, a quiet and meditative point in the middle of the city’s frenzied energy. (Note: The fact that Hou places the child at the entrance to a station, and not only that, but one that asks him to descend in order to get on the train and take the journey, is not insignificant.)
The boy is talking to himself. Or wait, no… he’s talking to something hovering out of the frame above his head. A balloon which is out of reach, teasing him from high among the branches of a tree. We won’t see the balloon for a while yet. Instead, we feel eager to see it, and thus begin to participate in the boy’s longing.
The first of several visual jokes scattered throughout the film is immediately in view. An advertisement for a film is posted here at the entrance to this station. The movie poster advertises Severance. Now, it may or may not be significant that the poster refers to a horror movie about savagery among salespeople.
But we will come to observe that Flight of the Red Balloon is a film about growing up and losing our childhood wonder, playfulness, and carefree spirit. It is a film, in short, about the severance that will inevitably occur in the days just ahead for this young child.
Am I reading too much into this? Am I putting too much upon what is really just an incidental detail?
But wait, note that a vertical beam, a pole that is part of this station stop, is bisecting the title. Even the word Severance is severed. If that’s an accident, what a happy accident!
As the boy, despondent at his inability to reach the balloon, gives up and disappears, the camera turns skyward and we watch the balloon slowly descend as if it is disappointed that the boy is gone.
Forgive me, but how can I avoid anthropomorphizing the balloon? It moves so gracefully, like a dancer in the air. Its string twitches like a cat’s tail. It catches the breeze and is buoyed along, only to descend a few moments later at another train station.
I’ve had several people ask, while watching the film with me, just how they controlled the balloon. I hope I never find out. I suspect they just let it go… but then, it behaves so perfectly.
This station is above ground, and the balloon has a few moments to meander about the platform as if waiting for the next train. Another train passes in the opposite direction, but the balloon stays, sinking down low to the tracks as if in anticipation.
How does one choreograph a balloon?
When the new train arrives, the balloon is caught in crisscrossing currents of air and begins to bump against the windows, one after the other, as if eagerly searching for the boy.
I don’t know about you, but these images achieve something quite unlikely. They make me feel like a kid again. That is, in part, because Hou has removed me from the fast, urgent pace of my life (and the fast, urgent pace of the movies I’m accustomed to watching). He’s training me to meander, to see things I might otherwise miss if I’m among the rushing masses.
And there is so much more to see. Notice just how many red balloons, real or merely suggested, tease the screen. Red lights. Bright red dots in incidental advertisements. A bus passes a few minutes later, and big balloon shapes of all different colors are painted down its side. And don’t miss it: You’ll glimpse a banner advertisement on the side of the bus, a poster for yet another movie: Children of Men.
Oh, give me a break. Really?
Hou never shoves these details into our faces. His camera moves with the lazy grace of a balloon on the breeze, hypnotizing us into a state of carefree wandering, kindling our curiosity: What’s around this corner? What’s through this window? What surprise is waiting to be found in this reflection or down this alley? What’s behind the big red door?
Are these all just happy accidents, these frequent nudges to consider the film’s theme? Or did Hou set this all up and then turn it loose with such mastery that it seems like the clamor and rush of real life?
* * *
Both films will make good examples for the discussions I hope to lead next week. I’m excited about it not because I have any expectation of getting people to see what I see, but because I usually find that those who are watching for the first time see all kinds of things I missed on my first several viewings. It’s a discipline that sends me back to the incidental moments of my own day a little more inclined to slow down, to notice things.
There’s a nest in the budding tree outside my window. Most people will think it’s a bird’s nest, but I know it was built by a squirrel. I watched it happen one morning. It took about four hours watching this animal stitch the thing together. It’s lasted through all kinds of storms, and now it rests in the middle of those bare boughs, a sphere of dark red leaves. I remember that I noticed it come into being the morning after I saw Flight of the Red Balloon for the first time. I wonder if I would have missed it otherwise.
There is a child’s shoe sitting on the median strip of a busy street about five minutes from my home. It’s been on that strip for three weeks, and no cars have knocked it off, no pedestrian has bothered to pick it up, no weather has washed it away.
I feel like I’m starting to wake up to more of the myriad, intriguing details all around me because gifted filmmakers like Hou and Nichols are training my senses to notice things. They’re reminding me how to see as I once did. Those filmmakers are a rare breed — artists who are patient, observant, and willing to treat their audiences as intelligent, curious, and able to think for themselves.
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What movies have caught and held your attention with perfect opening imagery? Which have reminded you of just how much can be achieved in a few moments of carefully crafted camerawork? Which have assured you, from the first step, that you’re being guided by a master?
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.