Friday, May 30, 2008

Opening credits.

Regular readers of this blog, if such a specie exists at all, must have gathered by now that I fancy myself as something of a movie buff. For instance: Even today, if a movie catches my eye and interest, I tend to watch it intently paying particular attention to the sub-text. Watching old Hollywood movies on TCM of late (and on TNT in the eighties), I realised that the emergence of opening credits as a work of art is a fairly later phenomenon – a post-Saul Bass phenomenon, you may confidently aver, of course not forgetting John Whitney, the clockwork and mechanical analogue computer animation pioneer. In fact, the Whitney title sequence for Arabesque (1975) is looked upon by some as the (what pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell would call) virtual “tipping point” of computer animation. Bass who, I suspect, may have had massive delusions of grandeur (he claimed he “directed” the shower scene in Psycho – Janet Leigh and others denied it cast before us you-know-who these pearls of wisdom about movie titles designing: "My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it." And: "Design is thinking made visual." Big words. Impressed? But then you must never forget Bass was originally and off and on a commercial graphic designer with an awe-inspiring line-up of award-winning logos who won a niche for himself in The Art Directors Club (New York) Hall of Fame. “…in an environment full of clutter, the first impression of the film in the movie theater, or on the television screen, prepares the viewer for what is to come just like the cover of a book. … film credits fulfill the important role of outlining the filmmaker's intentions and setting up the expectations of those watching.” That’s precisely how Melis Inceer justifies the cinematic credit title sequence in her 2007 thesis submitted to the University of Pennsylvania, An Analysis of the Opening Credit Sequence in Film. If “Never judge a book by its cover” is advice worth following, does it apply to its cinematic cousin? One example that coms readily to mind is The Pink Panther series featuring Peter Sellers. Let me confess that I used to rave about it once upon a time. A recent viewing made me do an about-turn. Now I feel the only worth watching part of the series are the credits. The rest is limp and vapid comedy that doesn’t quite work. The only original and inventive touch of humour (or, is it merely wit?) is the way Inspector Clouseau speaks English with a ludicrous French accent. The verbal or phonological slapstick (“massage” instead of “message” and so forth) stops being amusing after a while, though. And, why a self-respecting Parisian should condescend to use the unequivocally abominable language of Shakespeare is the moot question never answered throughout the series. Willing suspension of disbelief is the order of the day, I reckon. Coming back to the theme of this post, though, when all is said and done, I begin to wonder if too clever opening credits are not affectation, style posing as substance – somewhat akin to a Flash intro to a website. Am I sounding too cynical? I shudder when I recall the pathetic amateurish title credits Films Division of India used to make hapless moviegoers watch in the sixties and seventies. Saul Bass it wasn’t. Not even 007's Maurice Binder. What was worse, when the FD opening credits were merrily rolling along, all seemed lost, sort of. One was left desperately hoping the earth would open up and swallow the miserable watchers in the dark. In the Hollywood movies of 30s and 40s, they started telling the story straight off after quickly giving credit where credit was due. And, the movie ended when there was no story left to tell. Movies were as simple and as unaffected as life itself, remember? Being artless is real art, I guess.