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Openers

You might wish to set your DVR to record two films back-to-back on TCM tomorrow: Citizen Kane starts at 1:45, followed by The Searchers at 4. If these are not the two finest American films ever made, they're top five. Coincidentally, I've been thinking about both a lot lately, and was rescreening them this week. They have two of the most distinctive openings in movie history.


Let's start with Citizen Kane.



Note the pace of the approach to Xanadu. Welles and his DP Gregg Toland are in zero hurry to get you to that castle. Films tend to have a prevailing way of transitioning. With Star Wars (1977), for instance, it's the soft-edge wipe. Godard likes jump cuts. Citizen Kane transitions through dissolves, and that visual motif is started right at the very beginning of reel #1. It takes ten dissolves to get to the light in the window going out. The next dissolve takes us inside Kane's room, only you don't know it at first. The light throws you off, until you realize that because this room is now dark, and the moonlight is outside, the light coming in must be from an outside source, which means we are inside. Clever, no? The twelfth dissolve is to the snow of the snow globe, which, fascinatingly, appears to be outside of the globe itself, and on Kane's person. The camera pulls back--no dissolve--then jump cut to the lips, cut to the hand, distorted lens-view of the nurse coming in from the floor--so much in this film will be shot from the floor and below the floor. Was someone else in the room? Or could the nurse hear the seemingly whispered word of "Rosebud"? Someone heard it, we know that.


Then, The Searchers. This film opens like a Pandora's box of the West is being opened, and out is going to come all that is inside of Ethan Edwards, who is riding back to the homestead.



Your eyes need to adjust to the light, as they would when you go from a dark room to a bright space. Notice, too, the rippling on the dress. You won't see rippling on clothes like that anywhere else in film. Kubrick kind of does it in Barry Lyndon at one point, but even though everything you're seeing here is real--as in a location--it looks otherwordly. It looks, in fact, hyperreal, which basically means that something is rendered so realistically as not to look realistic even though it's hyper-realistic. It's also worth mentioning that as famous as Welles and Kane were for deep focus, those first shots of Ethan Edwards approaching in The Searchers also utilize deep focus.