Post #9: An Ode to the Opener
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday September 28 2014
In post #8 I discussed the opener (AKA “the credits sequence”) of HBO’s Carnivàle, which got me thinking about the function of openers in general. Like most things in life, some openers are good, some terrible--and some excellent. Some are uninspired--with words superimposed on the first scene of the film or episode--while others are self-contained nutshell expositions of the multiple hours of the work as a whole.
The best openers add something to the film or episode that they preface. Take the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk (dir. Louis Leterrier), for example. You may question the value of the overall movie, but the first three minutes are...well...incredible. In a wordless montage of around three minutes, the film encapsulates the events before those of the film proper. The origin story of Bruce Banner’s research and accidental transformation into the Hulk unfolds in seconds rather than being the central narrative event of the first film about a superhero--a typical device that here is smoothly and thankfully eliminated. Easter eggs abound: a letter from Nick Fury, the then-head of the now-dismantled S.H.I.E.L.D., putting the Banner at “THREAT LEVEL RED”, a reference to the Hulk's rampage in the Canadian woods (he fought with Wolverine there in The Incredible Hulk #181), and blueprints of a weapon later used on the Hulk are stamped as the “property of Stark Industries.”
All nerdery aside, The Incredible Hulk’s opener is successful for two reasons. It shows narrative dexterity, but it also tells the audience that this cinematic version of the Hulk (rebooting Ang Lee’s 2003 effort) is the “real” one. After all, this movie’s title is the actual name of the Hulk’s monthly funny book, and the references to comic book history cement Leterrier’s claim (Lee’s film fell short in this department).
But this opener is most successful artistically in its charting of the difficulties of Bruce and Betty’s relationship. At the beginning of the sequence she watches him concernedly from the safety of an operator’s booth as he undergoes gamma radiation experiments strapped to a chair. He winks at her reassuringly, but the music suggests his confidence is ill-placed. In his first transformation into the Hulk, however, we see her (in Hulk-O-Vision!), bloodied, on the floor with books and equipment in disarray around her (figure 1). We see a green hand reach toward her (is he still possessed by uncontrollable rage, or has the man broken through the monster?), and her father, also injured, pleads with the Hulk to stop. In the next shot Banner is at Betty’s bedside in the hospital, clearly in agony over hurting his girlfriend, when her father shows up, his arm in a sling, and angrily kicks Bruce out, having a soldier tail him as he leaves the building. These scenes in the opener increase the pathos of Bruce’s struggle, both in terms of his relationship with other human beings and with larger forces that seek his research for their own purposes. These of course become larger themes in the film, and so the opener’s brief exploration of them serves as a poetic prelude.
Television openers fulfill a slightly different function, because they’re necessary appendages to all episodes in a series, a series that may be airing over several years. While films are released once (usually), television series can spool out over a half decade or more. That means that they change, not only because their characters change (hopefully) but also because the real world changes as well. Some openers appropriately don’t change, as in Carnivàle, which expresses eternal nature of the conflict between Good and Evil that the series documents, Films have a specific release date and can’t change (or at any rate not much) to match differing historical circumstances at the time the home video version comes out or when/if it is re-released in theaters. The Star Wars films are an example how determined creators can change the content of their films to keep up with technological innovations, but the alterations were fairly minor additions to scenes, like making the Ewoks blink (or perhaps this was a major change, depending on how much you want to buy into George Lucas’ interpretation of the Ewoks as the Viet Cong).
On the other hand, major events, such as the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City in September of 2001, caused the removal of images in films like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman but other directors, like Cameron Crowe with Vanilla Sky, refused to capitulate to history (this listing of films with the Twin Towers in them is instructive, as is this Entertainment Weekly piece about television).
A striking example of an opener changing is HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), which shows Tony Soprano driving from New York to New Jersey, passing by various landmarks and locations (see the embedded video above). The opener remained unchanged for the most part for the 86 episode-run, including the shots of James Gandolfini, whose physical appearance is quite different in 1999 and 2007. Most of the landmarks along his journey either didn’t change meaningfully between the years of production, like the Statue of Liberty, or were not famous, like the “Pizzaland” store (sorry, New Jerseyans, maybe this is famous?), and so most of the audience wouldn’t have been the wiser. But the Twin Towers, reflected in the car’s side-view mirror for a brief instant [see header image], were no longer part of the New York/New Jersey skylines during the airings of seasons 4 through 6.
At a gut level, the removal of this shot from the openers of season 4 through 6 makes sense, and at the time creator David Chase justified his decision as respect for the grieving families. Particularly because the series is set where the tragedy happened, this is an especially sensitive matter. In terms of the narrative, however, it is less cogent, since the characters, especially Tony himself, are preoccupied with 9/11. In a series that ponders what it means to be “Made in America” (the title of the final episode), the Twin Towers receding from view in a car mirror is an encapsulation of The Sopranos as a whole. The decision to remove the shot of the Twin Towers thus reboots the past in a sequence that otherwise remains unchanged. Tony’s meteoric rise and fall is the centerpiece of The Sopranos, but the Twin Towers are an important (symbolic) part of his (and, by extension, America’s) story.