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Friday, 21 January 2011

Response to 'Watching' Documentary

Today we watched the BBC2 documentary 'Watching: Beginnings', which explored the notion of film openings. Thomas Sutcliffe explained the need for films 'to seduce their audience into long term commitment. While there are many types of seduction, the temptation to go for instant arousal is almost irresistible'. What he means by this is that whilst some films may go straight into an exciting opening to thrill the audience, an opening that builds up the audience to want to continue watching is better. This 'instant arousal' is risky, as suggested by director Jean Jacques Beineix, as you'll have to 'answer the questions', which you may never be able to achieve. If a film peaks in the opening, then the rest of the film will have the audience waiting for something that will never happen, which will just lead to disappointment.

"...a good beginning must make the audience feel that it doesn't know nearly enough yet, and at the same time make sure that it doesn't know too little"

Why? If the audience knows too little, then they won't have any interest in the film; but if the audience are fed the information slowly, building up the tension of finding out how the plot will unfold, then they will be eager to carry on watching.

Critic Stanley Kauffmann described what was once called 'the classic opening' - 'a film began with an establishing shot of New York City ... then the camera went up a building ... then it went in the window, then it went past the receptionist desk to the private office and there sat Cary Grant'. What he means by this is the fact that once film openings would always tell its audience where the film was taking place, the occupation of the character, etc. where everything was what was expected.

The title sequence by Kyle Cooper for the film Se7en is one that is well-known; it is unsettling but exciting, and so effective because it wakes everyone up and feels like it is part of the film. Another opening is that of Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil. Welles originally wanted no titles or score over the opening, but Universal Studios disagreed. Needless to say, Welles wasn't pleased (to the point of his writing a 58-page memo to the head of production); he wanted to plunge the viewer straight into the plot, without unnecessary distractions.

A favourite trick of film noir, as observed in the 1995 film 'Casino', is to begin a film with the ending. The result is a film comprising of flashback(s) leading up to the events shown at the start. Arguably, it is an effective technique; if done right the viewer will be left wanting to know what happened in the lead-up to that scene.

"'s also a quality many great beginnings share, they feel like a destination as much as a departure point, looking ahead to what is to come"

The opening to The Shining is full of suspense, and is a prime example of how you can take a seemingly ordinary opening and turn it on its head. 'On first sight the beginning ... is merely picturesque, the easy uplift of a helicopter shot; but on a second viewing, you can see that the screen is full of omens'. Through the striking scenery the camera sinisterly follows the car from above, 'like a predator', and we notice that the only other cars are driving in the opposite direction. It's clear that they're heading for disaster. Kubrick wanted 'to establish an ominous mood during Jack's first drive up to the hotel - the vast isolation and eerie splendor of high mountains, and the narrow, winding roads which would become impassable after heavy snow'. It is these subtle clues and foreboding mood that creates an unnerving opening to an equally unnerving film.

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