Criterion Corner #10: The 10 Greatest Opening Sequences in (Criterion) FIlm History

Criterion Corner #10: The 10 Greatest Opening Sequences in (Criterion) FIlm History

Oct 04, 2011

Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!

A few years ago I shared a pre-dawn subway ride with a young man and woman, both of whom were bleeding identically from the wrist. I was tipsy and riding high on the swagger of someone who's triumphed over the attrition of a long New York night, and that was enough for me to break character and ask them what the mess they were making on the floor was all about. I mean come on, if you're gonna spill bodily fluids all over a Manhattan subway, at least do it right on the seats like everybody else.  Turns out they got matching tattoos, pretty standard stuff. All the same, it was hard to ignore that soft note of regret -- I assumed they shared a mutual shame over the Comic Sans font that they had forever committed to their flesh, but no, the silently festering doubt was a result of the fact that they were on a blind date. They didn't even know to whose apartment they were heading, just that the night had seduced them both and wasn't gonna let them go or forget about it. The moral of the story: You can never shake a strong introduction. The other moral of the story: Love hurts, but idiocy can get infected.

It's not so different with films: The ones that stay with you tend to leave their mark early and get under your skin (ha, like a tattoo!) before you know what it is you're really watching. Brilliant opening sequences -- be they predatory or merely precise -- tend to be unified by a shared appetite for destruction. Regardless of whether a film's first salvo blasts a portal into another world or merely slips the viewer down the rabbit hole, the ones that prove most engaging tend to so steadfastly believe in their own reality that they don't offer the viewer shelter from life as they know it so much as they decimate it completely. To steal someone away into another place -- even with their consent -- is an inherently violent act, and it's the films that aren't afraid to get a little pushy that tend to keep their hold on us.

So without much further ado I present to you the 10 greatest opening sequences of films in the Criterion Collection, a hopefully handy guide for anyone flittering around Hulu Plus in search of something into which they can disappear completely (and all 10 of these films are indeed available for streaming on Hulu Plus). These are the films that don't let you get away with just sticking a toe into the water, the films whose very presence on the Internet threatens the meager productivity of your universe every time you fire up your browser, the films that don't suck you in so much as they blot everything else out. 

10.) EUROPA (dir. Lars von Trier) 1991

Certain films are often described as "hypnotic," but Lars von Trier's dreamy formalist freak-out literally begins by hypnotizing its audience. We're locked into the POV of a train gliding through a thick darkness as Max von Sydow's mahogany voice rolls us into another world. The shot holds for over two minutes, but the constant forward movement never gives the impression that we're laterally progressing across the unseen terrain -- Europa isn't a place to which one can simply travel, but rather a twisted realm into which one has to be lulled, seduced, and ultimately trapped.

It's a bold and potentially silly gambit, but while subsequent von Trier films would outdo this fevered fantasy with overtures far more brash and self-insistent (his recent Melancholia obliterates all of his characters before it's even introduced them), the impish Dane has yet to match the dislocating power of Europa's introductory moments, a gilded invitation to von Trier's most beautiful ambush.

9.) THE SILENCE (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1963

What people often ignore about Lars von Trier is that -- for a cagey little bastard whose films are so inimitably his own -- his work is no less candid about his influences than the films of someone like Quentin Tarantino, but where Tarantino was inspired by the ghosts of culture and excess, von Trier's cinema is touched by nuance and nihilism. It's no accident that iconic Bergman actor Max von Sydow -- who doesn't physically appear in Europa -- narrates that film's opening moments, as it feels as if von Trier didn't shoot it so much as he collected it from the residue of the similar sequence with which Ingmar Bergman began his vaguely apocalyptic miasma of sex and self-doubt, The Silence.

Over the credits we hear a ticking stop-watch, and then when the films begins proper we open on a sleeping boy in a lush monochrome train car. By the time he stirs awake a few moments later it's already palpable that we've been spirited away to a strange place, but the stop-watch goes quiet and Bergman snuffs out the sound where von Trier began to layer it thick. The camera pans around the small train cabin, introducing and then carefully isolating the two blonde sisters who sit beside the boy in the same languid shot, and as they jostle for the boy's attention (and the camera's gaze) the space by which the women are unified makes them feel more contentious and removed from each other than any cut. And while that may sound hyper-analytical to the point of joylessness, the genius of Bergman's direction lies in how all of this can be felt without being studied, in how all of these divided planes of action and the furtive glances that bind them together create the coarse psychosexual slipstream that these sisters will ride from here to the heart of oblivion. The tension that Bergman's camera creates between them is so rich that he spins an entire post-apocalyptic world from the terse geometry -- by the time he shows his cards a bit and allows for a brief, Muybridge-like glimpse of tanks outside the train, we're so convinced of an imminent doomsday that the actual weapons of war seem redundant. 

8.) WALKABOUT (dir. Nicolas Roeg) 1971

A brick wall. The camera tracks right to reveal a bustling metropolis as a digeridoo huffs on the soundtrack, the call of the wild that refuses to be buried or diminished. Buildings and legs, as if human action and societal growth are meaningfully entwined. Young girls sitting in a classroom, huffing rhythmically, exhausted and ridiculous. A young boy watches soldiers march by in perfect lock-step, and the girls' from the classroom begin to hum together -- droning on, they've been instructed to sustain the noise rather than eke out a melody from it. The dissonance builds. Another brick wall.
The camera glides right and suddenly we're in the Outback. There's meat -- meat and questions. Where are we, and is this where we should be? A triple homicide becomes a suicide becomes a fight for survival. Roeg's opening sequence expresses the discord of modern living without romanticizing the wild, revering the uncivilized world for its clear order, and suggesting how its violence allows paradise to occasionally poke through. No one has ever achieved so much by bouncing something against a brick wall.

7.) IKIRU (dir. Akira Kurosawa) 1952

Ikiru -- a deserving fixture in conversations about the greatest film ever made -- begins by systematically frustrating the hell out of everyone watching it. We open on an X-ray of Kanji Watanabe's stomach, which we're told by the narrator is plagued by a terminal cancer about which its host is completely oblivious. We're then introduced to the man himself (a drooping and defeated Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat stuck behind a desk, so ineffective and zombified that even the voiceover can't help but insult him. And then a gaggle of older women enter his office hoping to petition for a slump to be renovated into a park for children, but none of the city officials are willing to take matters into their own hands, instead passing the women from desk to desk in a runaround that Kurosawa allows to continue for almost 5 minutes.

The camera becomes a proxy for the women and the city officials scoff at their request directly into the lens, effectively transferring their mounting frustration to the viewer. It's absolutely maddening to watch, and it rolls on for so long that by the time Kurosawa returns to Watanabe, whatever sympathy you might feel for him has been completely eradicated. You don't hate him, you just understand that he's a being of negligible consequence. A few hours later, you'll feel differently. 

6.) HUNGER (dir. Steve McQueen) 2008

The clanging of pans builds into a steady roar and then we cut into a suburban Scottish bathroom, plain as can be. A stringy-looking man carefully prepares for his day -- he's paranoid (eyeing his quiet neighborhood before checking under his car for a bomb), his life mirthlessly sectioned and rich with sad detail.  The camera moves exactly once until it follows the man down the front hallway of Maze Prison, where he serves as a guard. Steve McQueen's meticulous compositions make it clear that the man was an accomplished visual artist long before he tackled this first feature, and the hugely evocative flurry of shots with which he begins Hunger don't only provide a harrowing and unexpected portal into the prison, but also cohere into a visceral portrait of an entire country turned against itself.

5.) NAKED (dir. Mike Leigh) 1993

It's tough to begin a film with a rape, and it's that much tougher to begin a film with a rape committed by the protagonist with whom the audience will be asked to spend the next 2+ hours. But David Thewlis' Johnny is a rare bird, and a mighty tough nut to crack. When we meet him, he's not just being cruel and abusive, he's also being expressive. This is who he wants you to think he is: A maelstrom of destruction who will do whatever it takes to make you as disgusted with the world as he is. Meeting him in the midst of a sexual assault is a bold choice, but in doing so Leigh immediately informs his audience that this isn't the kind of story that will have a happy ending -- reformation is impossible, and all that's left is to strip away at the ugliness until it rings false.

4.) 8 1/2 (dir. Federico Fellini) 1963

8 1/2 famously begins with some of the most striking images that Federico Fellini ever committed to film, a feat that in and of itself would qualify the movie's opening sequence for this list. But the enduring glory of the cinema's greatest dream scene rests in how those particular images -- their floating silences and reflections -- so comprehensively express the choking aimlessness of a man we've yet to even meet (so far as Guido Anselmi isn't a proxy for Fellini, himself). Until, of course, Guido appears, tugging on a rope that wraps around the left ankle of a man (is it Guido?) hovering far above the sea, sending him in a free-fall towards the ocean below.

Has a creative block ever resulted in something so damn creative? And is it just me, or did the shot of the arms falling out of the bus windows (and the subsequent image of Guido standing on top a moving car with arms outstretched) do more to inspire cataclysmic anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion than any other Western film ever made? ...Actually, that's probably just me.

3.) SEVEN SAMURAI (dir. Akira Kurosawa) 1954

There's something to be said for efficiency. Seven Samurai is 208 minutes long, and yet the fundamental conflict that holds its sprawling story together for almost 3.5 hours is perfectly communicated within the first five minutes, most of which are devoted to opening credits. A title card warns us of the roving bandit hordes and their thundering hordes, and when we hear them in the film's first shot their weight and terror instantly exceeds our understanding. The bandit leaders, feral and menacing on their horses, pause on the bluffs above a small village to discuss when they'll next pillage the village of its rice.

They set a date and ride off, unaware that a local peasant has been hiding nearby. A flurry of unusually quick cuts observe the villagers pitifully huddled together in the center of their hamlet, Kurosawa's camera already articulating the geography of this space which will eventually become so clear that the audience could accurately map it. Their fear and helplessness is immediately palpable, the lurking terror real and imminent. It's a simple hook, but the weight of the village's impending doom is tempered by disgust for their helplessness, and for the next several hours that dynamic will prove as interesting to navigate as the premise is easy to understand. 

2.)  F FOR FAKE (dir. Orson Welles) 1973

Orson Welles' wiliest film -- a slipstream into the very essence of illusion and deceit -- begins on the precipice of self-parody and then retreats backwards into genius. Welles' miasma of myths and fibs is so charming because its so damn simple, and with the opening sequence Welles is as forward as he can be about his means and intentions. He jovially introduces himself as a charlatan, indulges in the most banal sleight-of-hand, and he attacks the fourth wall with a broadsword, briefly cutting to images of film equipment and a gaggle of people purporting themselves to be the film's crew. Everything is illusion, except of course, what isn't.

Viewers paying careful attention will note that F For Fake's first few minutes provide the film its sturdiest foundation, and the subsequent 82 minutes follow reveal that illusion is second only to carbon in holding our world together. Although if the first few minutes don't do the trick for you, Welles cutting to a picture of his bloated late-era figure while referring to his crowd as "The beautiful people" should give you an idea as to the fun at hand.

1.) WINGS OF DESIRE (dir. Wim Wenders) 1987

Wings of Desire begins with an unforgettable 11-minute sequence that seems diffuse and disorienting until you realize that it's precisely the opposite. We open on a city anonymous, monochrome, and impossibly beautiful. A little girl crossing the street is stricken by the sight of an angel on a clock tower -- only children can see him. Wim Wenders' camera swoops around a number of seemingly random citizens, capturing their unfiltered interior monologues as the various people think about whatever. Breathtaking aerial photography shows us the city in its entirety -- it looks like Berlin, but those of us without an intimate knowledge of the city are more tipped off by the German voiceover than anything else. Peter Falk -- playing himself -- confirms our suspicions while on a plane descending into the city, but only in between thoughts of his grandmother.

And so on, we float about, as if nowhere and nothing is beyond our purview, not even the human heart (ugh).  For 11 minutes, we're treated to an angel's-eye view of the world -- we can see everything, but understand very little of it. It's all details and minutiae, but no feeling. All sympathy, but no empathy. Berlin as we see it here is too gorgeous by half, sublime and glistening but just a bit out of reach. And by the eleventh minute when Wenders drops us into a conversation between two angels, our envy for their grace and omniscience is tempered by something that we don't yet fully understand -- awe and pity are rarely so intertwined, but it's how Wenders inextricably laces them together that allows Wings of Desire to work both as a poem and also as a movie. 

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