5 Questions: Annette Insdorf Offers a Primer in Understanding a Film’s Opening Scenes

November 15, 2017
Annette Insdorf

Photo Courtesy of Columbia University School of the Arts

Annette Insdorf has been a professor in the film program at the School of the Arts for 30 years, teaching Cinema History to undergraduates in the fall and Analysis of Film Language to graduate students in the spring. Next semester her courses will include one on Polish cinema with a focus on the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

The author of Francois Truffaut; Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust; Philip Kaufman; Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has; and Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski, she has seen each of her books become the definitive text on its subject.

In her latest book, Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes, she discusses some key first moments in film and invites audiences to turn their initial impressions into a deeper understanding of cinematic technique. In October, FilmStruck, the joint venture of Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection, launched a new series based on the book in which she introduces eight influential films.

Insdorf, who also hosts the Reel Pieces screening series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, will discuss her new book at Lincoln Center on December 3. She recently gave Columbia News a brief primer on how to interpret a few instructive opening scenes.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for Cinematic Overtures?

A. The idea of anchoring film study in the power of opening scenes is part of how I’ve been teaching for decades. I’m a firm believer in close analysis—in letting the text lead us rather than imposing our expectations or opinions on a movie. My classes often begin with my introduction, followed by screening the film in its entirety. During the lecture or discussion afterwards, I often rescreen the first few minutes because they offer the keys to unlock the rest of the movie.

I developed a film series rooted in this pedagogy when I was asked to deliver the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lecture at Columbia in November 2014. My three presentations— “Opening as Prologue,” “Opening as Misdirection” and “Opening as Action”—included numerous film clips. Reshaping the lectures into a book meant finding a new and more coherent structure, which led to eight distinct approaches to opening a motion picture.

Q. How do viewers process an opening scene and the cinematic world they are about to enter?

A. After going into a dark, silent space with strangers, we tend to respond to films intuitively from the very first moments. Emotion precedes intellect as we give ourselves over to a combination of visual, musical and sensory presentation. In addition to establishing the tone—whether tense, ironic, romantic, frightening, comic, nostalgic or self-conscious—the opening makes us aware of point of view: Who is telling the story? Whose perspective will we be sharing?

Q. Can you give an example of a strong opening sequence in a film that leads a viewer to trust the filmmakers?

A. One of the most famous opening sequences is in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil [1958]. It consists of a 3-minute, 20-second unbroken take that establishes the camera as a mobile narrator. It’s not merely self-conscious virtuosity, but the introduction of stylistic and thematic elements that will be developed throughout the film. The black-and-white lighting is narratively organic, often creating shadows in front of the characters. Their moral ambiguity is expressed by the intermittent illumination—the play of dark and light—around them. The camera actively follows a hand, a car and then two couples crossing paths as they approach the border between Mexico and California. As the camera moves from a close-up of hands setting a bomb, it creates tension and suggests the forces that tick away under the surface of relationships.

The man who sets the bomb runs away, followed by his shadow on a wall (an expressionistic detail that recalls film noir), and the camera then rises after the bomb is placed. It moves away from the car to reveal the Mexican border town, which gradually fills up with people: the frame expands to encompass pedestrians and even goats, establishing multiple axes of vision. The camera descends to follow Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, who pass the car. This intersection leads us to fear not only for the couple in the car (the targets of the ticking bomb), but also for the “innocent” pedestrians. Everything is presented in one take, maintaining tension and spatial unity. After the bomb explodes, the film shatters into fragments.

Q. Conversely, what is a film with opening shots that intentionally mislead viewers?

A. I appreciate Philip Kaufman’s cinema in general, and Rising Sun [1993] in particular, because it acknowledges the potential duplicity of recorded images. Kaufman’s film deftly juggles at least four strands—a murder mystery, a satire on American business confronted by Japanese investment, a mentoring relationship in which a feisty detective is paired with a mysterious sage, and an exploration of whether we can believe what we see. Beginning with the sound of Japanese taiko drums as the camera zooms into red on a black screen, the movie’s opening sequence unsettles the viewer.

A jarring human yell accompanies images of ants roasting in the sun before being crushed by horses’ hooves, a dog carrying a hand, then a woman tied up on horseback. The shocking accumulation of stylized images seems to be from a western, but the camera recedes from a screen in a karaoke club. This film-within-a-film turns out to be the background for the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” sung by the character of Eddie and four Asian American men doing backup. Kaufman reminds us that there is always something we are not seeing beyond the immediate frame.

This opening sequence also introduces the theme of untrustworthy video images. The displacement of Cole Porter’s music performed by a “yakuza” barbershop quartet offers a witty preparation for the juxtaposition of cultures that the film will explore. As the camera moves further back, we realize just how partial our perception has been: In what seemed like a nighttime scene in an Asian city, the character of Cheryl—fed up with Eddie’s singing—gets up from the bar and goes out into a brightly lit Los Angeles. Kaufman shows us that we have to stay on our cinematic toes, not taking anything for granted.

Q. What do you think is the best opening scene of any film? Why?

A. I’m proposing one of the best opening scenes, as there are many examples. The Tin Drum [1979], directed by Volker Schlöndorff, is adapted from the novel by Günter Grass. It begins with a riveting sequence, that has nothing to do with the novel’s opening scene, of a man observed behind a door’s peephole. In a vast field, a peasant woman allows a fugitive to hide under her huge skirt.

As the police arrive, she keeps eating potatoes, hot from the coals, while the police pierce carts of potatoes with their bayonets. Once they leave, the fugitive emerges sheepishly from her clothing and, in accelerated motion, they continue together through the field. The haunting music and the evocative cinematography add a fairy-tale quality, slightly speeded up like celluloid in the silent era. The chilling voice-over narration of the protagonist, Oskar, combines a child’s timbre with an adult’s comprehension.

Oskar conjures up a time before his birth, his omniscient voice occasionally suggesting a demonic presence. By inventing the peasant woman, and ending The Tin Drum with the same figure, the film assumes a cyclical form that is quite different from the novel’s linear structure. Schlöndorff thus foregrounds female continuity within nature, unlike Grass’ focus on a solitary male. The film revels in elemental imagery, juxtaposing within one frame the nourishing earth, billowing smoke (fire and air) and, finally, water in the form of sudden rain.

—By Eve Glasberg