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The Varieties of Cinematic Experience

FIVE WRITERS TAKE ON FIVE DIFFERENT WAYS OF WATCHING A FILM.

The Varieties of Cinematic Experience

Various
12 Snaps

On Opening Credits

In the beginning, watching our first films as children, everything is strange. A lion roars listlessly through a hole, searchlights scan some implausibly monumental lettering. The logo having done its inscrutable thing (what is a twentieth-century fox, anyway?), we are subjected to lists of personnel before the story can begin.

 It seems a strange way to grab your public’s attention, as if this article began not just with the name of author, but editor and typesetter and paper manufacturer and where the trees grew.

In the beginning, as the credits drip by, filmmakers have found they can serve up almost anything: an abstract film that sums up the mood of the feature to follow, a humdrum series of events establishing the main character’s routine, documentary shots of the city where the action is laid. Things that would be rejected by audiences if they happened later, when the story’s begun, are cautiously welcome at the start, with a typographical alibi.

In the beginning, movies had no credits. But audiences came to recognize their favorite players, leading to a demand for information. Also, the film companies liked to put their stamp on their product to combat piracy. Soon films began not just with titles but with lists of cast and crew.

By the coming of sound, these displays of printed matter were long enough to require illustration—for ­instance, Dracula (1931) inscribes its makers’ names over a cobwebbed candle. So the idea of the title sequence as a means to establish mood was well established by the time things got crazy in the ’50s and ’60s. Sometimes a film might run through its dramatis personae in a series of portraits, where the actors smile shyly or engage in some character-appropriate bit of business. In the Flash Gordon serial (1939) kids’ matinee audiences could get in some preemptive cheering and booing before the characters had even done anything to deserve it.

With a few exceptions—The Palm Beach Story (1942) begins in media res with a frantic slapstick chase, freeze-framing at intervals to permit the insertion of text—films did not alter their approach greatly for two or three decades. The illustration might be moving now—a nocturnal road rushes at us in On Dangerous Ground (1952)—but such movement was smooth and constant, eager not to distract us from the written word.

Saul Bass, a graphic designer, did more to reinvent the movie opening than anyone else, with ambitious sequences for Preminger, Hitchcock, and others, developing the title sequence into a miniature film, an abstract overture to the main feature. Sometimes, the sequence became so impressive by itself that credits were un­desirable: the opening of West Side Story (1961) features only Bass’s graphics, with no names at all.

François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) shows another approach: empty the trim bin through a projector. A collage of bits and pieces from all over the story, Truffaut’s chaotic opening pauses to inject moments of ­order: a character appears as the actor’s credit comes up, or a strumming troubadour fills the screen to accompany the credit for la chanson. The tension between simple illustration and gloriously jumbled joie de vivre creates an exuberant explosion of energy.

By this time, anything goes. Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) begins with Zero Mostel singing and talking to us. “Documentary” shots of ancient Rome are interspersed, sometimes illustrating the lyrics and sometimes not. Shots of other characters in the film, as Zero introduces them, might qualify as flashbacks, while a Jules et Jim montage of highlights from later on (including several gags that never made the final cut) might be called flash-forwards. What, then, to make of the shots of Zero cheating at dice, which soon evolve into the film’s dominant narrative? These are apparently a different present tense, running parallel to the one where Zero is singing to us, but completely unconnected to it. Meanwhile, the producer’s credit is super­imposed over a shot of a sedan chair, while the director’s appears over another chair on a collision course with the first, a cheeky comment on the fraught nature of the shoot. In just a few minutes, the language of the Broadway musical adaptation has been forcibly mated with that of Alain Res­nais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), proving Lester’s point that the opening sequence is often the point where the filmmaker is most free to establish the nature of his ­movie—by any means imaginable.

It’s strange how un-strange credits seem: how is suspension of disbelief supposed to work if the action starts while superimposed lettering is telling us that these people are actors, that their clothes are costumes, their apartments are sets, and the whole thing has been photographed by William Fraker, ASC? But we don’t mind. We even allow titles to interact with the film’s reality: the titles of Panic Room (2002) float serenely through New York like great calligraphic zeppelins, casting shadows on skyscrapers as if they had a claim on reality equal to that of Jodie Foster. When the credits of I Know Where I’m ­Going! (1945) appear physically written on objects within the opening scenes, it’s acceptable, due to some special dispensation granted to this kind of opening: true filmic reality hasn’t set in yet. But this kind of eccentricity does act as a fair warning that some unusual tropes will be on display in the rest of the movie.

What’s great about title sequences is that, as a formal convention, they invite experimentation. The strict limits imposed by legibility and contractual agreements about who must be credited encourage filmmakers to be inventive in purely abstract ways, since otherwise the first few minutes of their creation will be a ­pedantic drag. It’s a truism that these strangely redundant ­sequences—ads for the movie we’ve already paid to see—sometimes cram in more invention than the movie they introduce. But we forget how eccentric the whole idea of the credit sequence is, like a theater program performed as part of the play, or a meal signed in ketchup by the whole kitchen staff.

David Cairns

On Michael Curtiz

My real education in classical American cinema began when I broke my leg. Immobile, well cared for, Vicodin-addled, and cable-connected, I found myself able to follow only the outlines of plots, and many of those outlines I may have mistaken. Instead, I drifted atop textures and grain: the arc of a painted eyebrow, the toothy polish of bathroom fixtures, a wash of strings above the lacy shadow of foliage, a glazed and glinting pond, the endlessly intriguing bottles and labels and magazines glimpsed at the back of a drugstore set I’d encountered before, would encounter again, but would always gladly revisit, grateful to trace once more with the mind’s finger the chrome brim beneath the cushion of the stools that lined the soda counter. I’d known Howard Hawks and John Ford but only now grew to appreciate studio craftsmen like Archie Mayo and Lloyd Bacon. Ah, Mayo and Bacon—just add George Brent and you’ve got yourself a sandwich. (George Brent always reminds me of a big loaf of bread.)

But the director who delighted me the most consistently was Michael Curtiz, perhaps because he approached his material much as I did. Curtiz occupies an odd position in critical surveys inflected by auteurism. He directed too many good movies to be dismissed (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Mildred Pierce are his), and his films do in fact display a stylistic continuity, especially in their obsessive devotion to depth effects: piling on planes of light and shadow to thicken atmosphere, plotting elaborate diagonal tracks through spaces crowded with people and/or furniture to lend density to his casinos/casbahs/living rooms. But auteur theory hinges as much on personality and thematic through-lines as on distinctive style, and here Curtiz is elusive. Perhaps he represents a special breed—the semi-autistic auteur—since his criteria in choosing projects (as far as choice was possible within the studio system) seem to have been based more on the environments the script would allow him to create and dwell within than subsidiary matters such as cast or plot.1

He was perhaps the perfect director for a studio that had little patience with rebellious talent. Curtiz was proficient or better than others in a remarkable number of genres, and as the roll call of his most famous films easily demonstrates, capable of flinging himself whole-­heartedly into positions of romantic extremity. His filmography is full of surprises, from The Kennel Murder Case (1933), a Philo Vance programmer that springs to life in its fetishistic attention to objects (in one sequence, the miniature that had earlier been used to represent a building exterior is brought into the story proper to facilitate one of the crime reenactments), to Roughly Speaking (1945). I’ve never understood why the latter isn’t a Holiday perennial on the order of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe it’s due to the film’s peculiar emotional tone, a blend of echt-American optimism in the almost frightening drive and resilience of the central character combined with the story’s emphasis on continual failure. It never hits Capra’s extremes of despair and uplift, keeping to a middle register of disappointment and persistence.

But where is the uniquely Cur­tizian sensibility in all of this? If we assume a midpoint between the grace and delicacy of Roughly Speaking and the Boy’s Own flamboyance of Captain Blood, would we find him there? Do we see him more in Rick’s long night of reminiscence in Casablanca or the persistent sadism that marks many of his films?2

It could be all or none of the above. I maintain that we must look for him in the shadows and find him in the vague perfume of exoticism he brings even to domestic interiors. If there is a single representative Curtiz film, it would be Passage to Marseille (1944), an anthology of Hollywood styles, nesting story within story, genre within genre, and committing to each for its duration before moving on, bound only by webs of light.

1. Memo from Jack Warner to producer Hal Wallis re: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936): “I had a general conversation with Mike Curtiz in the usual Curtiz manner in the dining room at noon, and all he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say a word about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz—as he always will be!” There is a rich store of Curtiz anecdotage, most of it centering on the Hungarian-born director’s mangled English and autocratic behavior on set. My favorite involves an actress (Bette Davis?) who, at the conclusion of some extravagant emoting, looked up to gauge the reaction of the director, only to find Curtiz gazing entranced at the key grip, as the camera completed a complicated dolly.
2. Memo from Hal Wallis to Curtiz, re: The Sea Hawk (1940): “I am quite concerned over the amount of whipping you are doing in the scenes in the galley. In almost every scene you have these men going up and down in long shots, medium shots and close-ups, with the whips coming in and hitting the men as they are rowing…. You have far too much of it, and it’s going to become offensive and repulsive.”
B. Kite

On Double Features

Attending a double bill these days is an act of devotion, a genuflection before an eye-patched auteur or blood-spattered genre. These two-barreled day-wasters are now the preserve of repertory houses, but at one time they were everywhere, when the weekly dose of B-movie pulp, newsreel, and high-toned prestige pic was the studio-mandated regulation. 

Now it’s one and done since the double feature went the way of the drive-in. Today, a double is the domain of the movie-lover, the nerd, the completist. (We’re talking theater-mandated twofers only, of course, as multiplex screen-jumping presents its own à la carte thrills.)  But when all the preliminaries have been decided, the sight lines approved, and the nearest patrons smell-checked, the question looms: what do we do during intermission?

It has a lot to do with scheduling, and demands a supple, logistical mind. Have the programmers given you ten minutes or half an hour? One has to swiftly calculate the cost-benefit analysis of hoofing to a pizza joint versus settling for popcorn, or gauge the probability of seat loss against the health benefits of exiting the fetid air of the theater. These tactical maneuvers are matters of personal philosophy, and become even more burdensome when accompanied by an actual live-flesh date. What to do with that interstitial moment after you’ve decided to mesh your unique obsessions with those of another human body? The writers of this double-authored essay engaged in multiple cinematic flirtations before being tested, and blessed, by a twofer. It was fated in the stars, or at least in the twinkling eyes of Sam Fuller.

We met at work, at a microscopic film distribution company. Our first date was at Manhattan’s Film Forum, watching a manic John Barrymore belt out a rousing election anthem in the B musical Hold That Co-ed. We instantly recognized the melody from the Hennigan’s Scotch jingle on Seinfeld. Mutual smiles. Too-close seats.

After a few tentative admissions of our celluloid crushes—Rob could quote The Naked Gun verbatim, Andrea could choreograph her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—we took the plunge: a double bill at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, screening Fuller’s first two features, I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona.

After thrilling to the sweaty intensity of the opener, we enacted a light-headed homage to its stogie-chomping director, buying some cheap cigars at the corner deli and lighting up under a portico down the street. We had a luxurious twenty-five minutes between features, ­tickets for the follow-up in hand, and a beady sun beating down on us. Our faces were as drenched as John Ireland’s in James’s guilt-ridden finale, as our smoke curlicued into the sky. 

We slowly realized we were loitering in front of a group home, after the inhabitants began to peer out the windows and mutter obscure hostilities. An intermittent water droplet attack from the air conditioners above drove us back to the theater, feeling sheepish and satisfied. 

As Vincent Price conned his way through The Baron of Arizona, we marveled at our luck: Andrea was shocked that Rob would choose this tobacco-stained, potty-mouthed, squinty-eyed urchin to keep for his own. Rob was aghast that a beauty like her would waste a day in the dark, and then gamely light up between blackouts. We were married two months later.  

R. Emmet Sweeney

On Sleeping Through Movies

Falling asleep at the movies may seem like a passive-aggressive act against the work in question: the response as lack-of-response, the dozer’s head jerking forward and back in nodding rejection of the cinema product. Under the right circumstances, though, it’s an indicator that the sleepwatcher is deeply, palpably inside a well-maintained dream machine—she’s falling into a movie, not out of it. Straight off a plane with my time zones jumbled, I conked out for almost the entire run-time of Carl Theo­dor ­Dreyer’s witch-hunting tragedy Day of Wrath, jolting awake just in time to see old woman Marte tied to the stake and toppling into the flames. I watched the whole thing on DVD later, but that screaming shock-cut remains the eidetic, definitive experience of the film. David Lynch’s Inland Empire was similarly concussive: I gasped awake to an extreme close-up of strobe-spangled Laura Dern, her smear of red mouth pulled into a rictus of disgusted terror. She and I enacted the quintessential morning-after nightmare: waking up next to a total stranger.

Werner Herzog’s Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, left plenty of what Lynch would call “room to dream”: On first viewing, I dropped out somewhere around the anecdote about crossing Africa in a garbage truck and blinked back into recognition for the Weddell seals’ underwater electro-pop performance. The gorgeous benzo-properties of the seals’ uncanny symphony penetrated my personal haze to create a swirl of delicious confusion, an altered state. (Not just Where am I?—although that’s certainly Question 1—but also Am I swimming? and Who are the seals? and Do they have instruments?)

For a few films, sleep seems almost prescriptive. The subcutaneous power of Olivier Assayas’s elusive thriller demon­lover is to evoke the muffled paranoia and autonomic misanthropy brought on by extreme jet lag—or rather, the film attains this power if you can’t stay awake in it. A friend and I fell asleep at Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (we also woke up in tandem, as if our interior alarm clocks were synchronized) and agreed later that the accidental slumber party was apt for the film’s hallucinogenic daisy­chain of rotoscoped philosophical encounters. I’ve seen the film several times on disc since then, but those viewings don’t have the same physical, synesthetic dimensions of that first, early-­morning screening, when the movie seemed to buoy the audience on a gently undulating wave of sound and vision—one with an undertow. The last shot is of Wiley Wiggins borne aloft into some kind of oblivion, beautiful and terrifying: a dream before dying, or maybe only a dream, and the feeling that you’re moving while you’re sitting still. 

Jessica Winter

On Sleeping Through Movies pt. II

As Young Man with a Horn (1950) begins, a boy runs through an alleyway, the shadows dark and high. The Foley track is off-sync, and too loud: his steps clatter independent of his feet. The studio set is shoddy, and overlit. I doze. When I open my eyes, the boy has grown, and turned into Kirk Douglas. He’s a ­Trumpet Man, ­trouble for love-sunk Doris Day. I’ve missed what his specific problem is, but every time I nod off, then come to, he’s packing a valise in some skid. Douglas and Day belt it out for the crowds. Grand music halls. Ritzy clubs. Soulful “Negro” dives. The Trumpet Man’s packing, and Doris is pleading again, as if in an endless Möbius strip.

With startling infrequency, a voice-over narrates. Lauren Bacall appears on-screen, quotes Freud, and slinks  back off again. This means she is a lesbian, I later learn. But I sleep through that part. More happens. A bandleader complains. A sainted mentor is hit by a car. The film goes on for fifteen hundred hours.

The Foley is still skewed.  A knock precedes the hand that makes it. The Trumpet Man trades milk in for java, java for drink. Finally, the Trumpet Man expires. ­Doris sings. No, for a moment, he’s up again—a coma of a ­coda—regarding the camera with a fixed, necrotic stare.

It’s not a great film. Not even a good one. Maybe, in fact, it is no film at all, but a portal backstage to where a life is made. When it’s done, footsteps are sorted back to actions, footstep-sounds back to the sound bin. Shadows are folded. Light and dark are separated, to be used again. Words are swept up, crumbled off the plots that we have pinned to them.    

Shelley Salamensky
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