Where Credits Are Due
I was wondering if some of you could describe your opinions about opening credits in films. Personally, I prefer when a film throws the viewer immediately into the story instead of a prolonged, laborious title credit. However, some films have managed to create entertaining opening credits (Fight Club, Harold And Maude), while others manage to have amazing end credits (Brewster McCloud, Dogville). I realize that identifying those that made the film possible are important, but shouldn't the story come first? What are some of your favorite credit sequences?
Sean O'Neal responds:
As you say, I'm sure the hundreds of people who slave away in airless editing rooms and spend their whole day worrying whether Eddie Murphy's coffee is lukewarm, just so they can see their names onscreen in Norbit, would argue that credits are important. But they're mostly listed at the end, so that rarely affects getting to the story. I agree that titles can be sometimes be tedious and even extraneous, particularly if a movie is immersive from the first frame—The Godfather, say, or Citizen Kane. But I also think that opening credit sequences (if done properly) can be a vital part of establishing a movie's identity, sometimes more memorable than the film itself.
Few understood the importance of credits as well as famed title designer Saul Bass, who once said he saw his job as "conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it." Any best-of list would have to begin with Bass' work—particularly The Man With The Golden Arm and Bass' collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. Bass illustrated that the right title sequence can set a mood that lasts throughout a film, even long after it's over. Where would Reservoir Dogs be, for example, without its iconic opening credits? Or any James Bond film, for that matter? Recent Bass throwbacks like Catch Me If You Can have made good use of their title sequence through animation that hints at the plot to come. Then again, sometimes all it takes is a song: Everything about Dazed And Confused is said in that one opening shot of a GTO circling to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." Furthermore, anyone who says their blood doesn't pump a little faster during the title sequence of 9 To 5 is a damned liar. (Or possibly anemic.)
As for end credits, you have to give it up for Burt Reynolds and his use of outtakes. They've been copied by everyone from Jackie Chan to Pixar to Will Ferrell, who even slipped a Smokey And The Bandit II blooper into Anchorman. And sometimes, these are better than the actual movie. (Then again, they can also backfire—see Being There.) The Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team's pioneering of gag credits is also noteworthy, as is the winking, postmodern approach taken by Gremlins 2: The New Batch (later copied in Finding Nemo). Sometimes the credits even offer a rewarding denouement to the story, as in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or This Is Spinal Tap. But my personal favorites are those that simply revisit the characters you've grown to love over the course of the film, such as Dazed And Confused (again) or Clue. Credits like that go a long way toward creating a life for those characters when the picture ends, by turning them into icons. And such simplicity works: Does it get any better, for example, than the final shot of The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension?
Finally, I'd like to point out one of my absolute pet peeves when it comes to credits: Having all the cast members do a "wacky" dance to a Top 40 song. This rarely works—The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a sublime exception—and it's usually further proof that the director cares nothing about creating a lasting impression or identity for the movie. Which is what the credits are supposed to be about, after all.
Baby You Can Crash My Car
During the '90s, I always used to love watching 120 Minutes on MTV. It was about the only jewel left on the station by that point. My question is about a music video that appeared on there some time around the mid to late '90s. I don't recall the artist or song, but the video, I remember pretty vividly. It involved a homeless man walking along a tunnel, muttering under his breath to himself. Cars are whipping by him at a fast rate, and every so often, one will actually hit him. But he'll just get up and keep walking like nothing happened. The video ends with him standing in the middle of the road with his arms outstretched, and a car smashes into him, like it just hit a wall. It's bugged me for the longest time who made this video. Any help would be awesome.
Josh Modell replies:
Those were the days, weren't they? 120 Minutes played some fine stuff, a tradition not really carried on by Subterranean, which seems to play the exact same videos every week. (Thank God for TiVo, which allows it to be watched in 10 minutes or less.) Anyway, the video you're looking for is by UNKLE, featuring Thom Yorke of Radiohead on vocals. It's called "Rabbit In Your Headlights," and it was one of many successful collaborations on the first UNKLE disc, Psyence Fiction, which matched DJ Shadow and James Lavelle with various guest vocalists. UNKLE continues—weakly, without Shadow—but never matched its first full-length. Never matched this song and incredible video, either! Here it is.
Small Is Beautiful
I'm trying to find the name of this song and the artist who does it. The only lyric I remember is "Make way for the little guy," which was followed by a pretty cool guitar riff. It was a rocky, techno-y, sing-speak kinda song. It was from a car commercial for a Mini, I think. (I remember it was a small car, hence "the little guy.") The commercial played in movie theaters before the movies, and it was around '99-'02. The singer had a deep voice and sounded like the guy from Alabama 3 (the Sopranos theme folks). There's a distinct (and embarrassing) possibility that it's just a commercial jingle I'm rockin' to, but I don't think so. If you could point me in the right direction, I'd be much obliged. Thanks!
Donna Bowman points:
You must embarrass easily, Shaun. Here at The A.V. Club, we aren't ashamed to shake our booties to ad-rock. (Or Ad Rock.) And the song you mention is a choice cut. The only problem with its jingleosity is that there's only 60 seconds of it:
In yet another example of both all good things (and all Ask The A.V. Club questions) coming from our neighbors to the north, this eye- and ear-catching ad titled "Anthem" was created for Mini Canada in 2002 by the Toronto-based ad agency TAXI. More to your point, the music was composed by Chris Tait for Pirate Radio And Television, a supplier of music and voiceover content. You misremembered the tagline—it's "My money's on the little guy"—but you got the awesomeness of the tune right.
The talented folks at Pirate aren't limited to one style, as you can see by taking a look at the catchy ditty they composed for Maynard's candy—a song that turned out to be so popular that the company licensed it to a Toronto pop group, who released it as a single.
Done With Mirrors
In the Robert Zemeckis movie Contact, there is a fantastic camera shot that still mystifies me. The father of the young Jodie Foster character has just had a heart attack, and she is running upstairs to the medicine cabinet. The camera stays in front of her, continually moving backward as she moves forward. She runs up the stairs and turns, down the hall toward the bathroom. As she approaches and reaches for the cabinet, suddenly a mirror image of her hand comes from the edge of the screen to meet her outstretched hand at the cabinet doorknob. The perspective seamlessly shifts such that as she opens the door, we're suddenly looking over her mirrored version's shoulder into the cabinet, and we realize that the camera has somehow flipped 180 degrees via the cabinet door's mirror, and we'd only been seeing a reflection of her approaching from the hallway. Very disorienting and awesome. How did they do that?
3, 2, 1… Noel Murray:
According to visual-effects supervisor Ken Ralston (in an interview posted on the Society Of Camera Operators website), the gag was pulled with bluescreen and a lot of compositing. The initial part of the shot was filmed normally, with the actress reaching up to nothing. Then the camera was trained on a bluescreen "mirror," and pieces were added as follows:
"We started with full blue in frame, and on the dolly, pulled back, and out of the bluescreen. During this move she reached up, (shooting over her left shoulder) she grabbed the real knob and pulled the mirror open. She grabbed the medicine and left, and someone slowly, just by hand, close the mirror back, just at the right speed, and that was that element. Then we shot an element of the wall, which had the photograph of the father and daughter on it, and placed it on the blue screen area on the return of the mirror to its closed position. We also added dirt and a beveled edge on the mirror."
Understand all that? Then you're a smarter person than I am. But here's a more interesting question, to me, at least: Does a shot like this, with all its trickery, ultimately defeat its own purpose? In other words, does creating something that makes people go "How did they do that?" effectively pull the audience out of the story, and remind them that they're watching something artificial?
I know people who feel that the long, spectacularly choreographed tracking shots in last year's Children Of Men and the upcoming Atonement are too show-offy and dramatically ineffective, for the reason I cite above. Personally, I watch movies for a variety of reasons, and one of them is to see amazing performances. A complex piece of camera/effects work is just as much a "performance" as anything the actors do, and though I wouldn't want every movie to consist of wall-to-wall bravura, I also wouldn't want directors to completely eschew them as "too theatrical." Whether viewers are gripped by a story or gripped by an impossible feat of logistics, the emotion is the same. But it's a thin line to walk, to be sure.
Next week: Critical payola, the superiority of modern film, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.