Film Fridays - Great Opening Scenes...

One of the rules of scriptwriting, novel writing, and, well, pretty much any form of creative expression whatsoever beyond graffiti and writing haiku, boils down to - start with a hook.  It's almost a no brainer - the introduction to your film should be visually interesting, something that will catch the viewer's attention, and indicative of the experience to come.  Hopefully, this will give the audience of movies like White Chicks time to rethink their choice for the evening. 

However, your introduction cannot be TOO important to the film - after all, people are still coming into the theatre, they haven't given your production their full attention, and so on, and so forth.  I actually sort of disagree with this reasoning, because I figure if you're late, you should suffer the consequences.  But, unfortunately, I don't write the rules, and so directors have to cater to people who are dead set on that extra large coke and popcorn.  So, most movies are made to allow the gluttons some extra time to get a headstart on an early grave. 

Paradoxically, the first few minutes of a film are both some of the most important minutes... and some of the least important. 

Now, I'd like to think most movies do a pretty decent job of this - they set up the tone of the movie, they catch the viewer's attention, and they're not so important that someone walking in a little late is going to spend the whole film playing "catchup".  If the movie is a comedy, there will be some great opening jokes.  If it's an action, there'll be an explosion or someone getting shot in the eye.  And if it's a drama, the opening scene will involve some actress's naked back.  And possibly a butt shot of the male lead.  This goes all the way back to Bambi, I think.

However, how many films have great opening scenes?  Surprisingly few.  I mean, those scenes that everyone remembers, these quintessential film moments that are just plain genius.  I can think of many films I absolutely love (High Fidelity, The Princess Bride, and even my beloved Bladerunner) that have "only okay" introductions. 

I have a list of some of my favourites, but if I posted them all at once, this post would be a million pages long.  Instead, I'll choose three (in no particular order), and list some of the others some time next week.  Possibly on installment number two of this new "film friday" feature. 

One last note:  these are movies that I believe have great introductions.  That does not mean they are necessarily my favourite movies of all time

1.  Saving Private Ryan (1998), Directed by Steven Spielberg

Okay, admittedly, the scene I'm talking about isn't actually the first scene - technically, the "first" scene is instead a shot of an old man in a graveyard, looking at a grave.  The camera zooms in on his eyes, and then we see the eyes of Tom Hanks on the beaches of Normandy, some fifty years earlier.  This scene then goes on to express the absolute carnage that was Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944.

And it's a long scene, well over twenty minutes.  And it consists of these small vignettes of unnamed characters dying in a brutal landscape that no man should ever have to endure.  I remember having to watch this scene in a grade eleven history class, because my teacher was sick and tired of the kids either making light of the second world war, or being completely oblivious to what actually happened.  No one laughed during that screening, not even the usual high school douchebags.  I know a few girls were crying by the end.  There was silence in the classroom when the picture showed.

That opening scene is powerful in a way films very rarely are.  It manages to capture scenes of complete chaos in such frequency that each viewer only catches about half - there is just so much on screen that it overwhelms your senses.  A man has his arm blown off, and grabs it as if it were his rifle.  Two men take cover from machine gun fire behind an anti-tank mine, but it is only large enough for one, so the larger man pushes the smaller man out in the open to save his own life.  The gates open for a landing craft, and the entire cargo is cut down by machine gun fire.  Men jump out of their landing craft only to drown in the water as bullets cut through the ocean.

The camera work is shaky, as if it were through the eyes of a soldier on the beach.  It doesn't rest on one spot, and it is up close to objects that are never fully in frame.  You don't get wide vistas - instead, you get a close, cold, look at the shadowy faces of soldiers fighting - and dying- around you. 

You see this, and you know it is powerful.  It does not glorify war.  It does not show nameless characters getting cut down while the hero emerges unscathed with the sound of a full symphony playing.  Every face looks the same - watch the scene, and see how many times you can pick Tom Hanks out from the rest of the crowd.  He's just another face.  Veterans who were there have said that no movie has ever been able to catch that feel, but Private Ryan has come the closest.  The real "longest day", however, was much worse.

2.  The Lion King (1994), Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff 

The opening scene for the disney animated movie The Lion King begins with the sun rising on the African Savannah, and the sounds of an African Chorus.  An african woman begins to sing about "The Circle of Life" as animals from throughout the Savannah are moving towards the same goal.

We see millions of birds flying over a river delta in a scene that I would see years later in the BBC documentary Planet Earth.  We see carpenter ants in focus, moving along a branch, before they go out of focus to show the zebras herding by below (remember, this is animated - think of how much work it took to build in a focus effect, all for the sake of the shot).  We see the lions standing proud over their cub, and then see an ape take the monkey, walk up a long stand of rock that will feature throughout the film.  Even the heavens part, sending a ray of light upon the lion cub.

And then the ape presents the future king to the animal kingdom.  Zebras, gazelles, elephants, and giraffes bow.  And the camera pulls back, and on a single drum beat, we are given the title of the film:  The Lion King. 

This scene so perfectly captures the nature of the film that it was used as one of the theatrical trailers for the film, in its entirety.  Open with the sun, cut with "the Lion King", and the release date.  The song ("Circle of Life") won an academy award for Elton John and Tim Rice, and the animation was, at the time, some of the best animation ever made (and I'd still say it ranks in a top ten list somewhere). 

The great thing is, if you caught the opening scene, you knew you were in for a treat.  Plot elements were introduced (there is a Lion, he is king of the jungle, and he has a son), many of the important characters are shown, and a sense of drama is built upon.  But if you missed the scene, you would still be able to pick up on the movie later on (which is even more essential for movies aimed towards children). 

3.  Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), directed by John Hughes

Comedies rarely have great opening scenes. They also rarely have great camera work (it gets in the way).  In fact, the comedy genre is perhaps unique in that it is a genre in which the director tends to have less importance than the main actors and the script writer.  Really, an ideal comedy director tends to get the shot in focus and then step back. 

Because of this, comedies usually have scenes that are forgettable.  Often, for comedies to work, the opening scene has to establish what is "normal", for the later events of the film to disrupt that routine and produce comic results.  Tragedies also suffer from this, which isn't surprising, considering that they are just the other side of the same flippin' coin (as Woody Allen once said "Tragedy + Time = Comedy"). 

And then there's Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  The movie opens with a monologue that introduces our main character.  There are numerous Beatles' references, which foreshadow one of the best scenes in the movie.  There are shots of Chicago's suburbia.  A plot exposition by Ferris ("this is my ninth sick day this semester").  Many jokes.  And a light-hearted attitude that really jumps into the plot.

And, like all good comedies, it establishes the character.  It exceeds in doing so - few comedies have ever done better.  John Hughes made a brilliant decision, here.  The opening scene of the movie was actually the last scene shot, after Matthew Broderick had been playing for the character for six weeks or so. 

And then, of course, the scene ends with a cut to Ben Stein, and the infamous "Bueller.....?  Bueller....?" scene that stretches on uncomfortably long (and, of course, gets funnier and funnier as a result). 

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