Too many of today’s movies have something missing. It’s a conspicuous absence, although the average moviegoer probably doesn’t notice. It used to be one of the most essential, obligatory cinematic identifiers, integral to any film’s artistic fiber. Can you guess what I’m referring to?
Yes, the opening credits sequence seems to have all but disappeared from our movie landscape, one that apparently no longer has time for such quaint formalities as a proper introduction, or even the common courtesy to let us know just what kind of talent has put together the work we’re about to watch. Instead, today’s films rather throw us right into the action, placating and exacerbating audiences’ increasingly short attention spans in the process. What’s even worse is that the trend reveals, perhaps, a cynical resistance toward acknowledging the movie as a movie – such an archaic concept, apparently – preferring to treat it as something closer to “life,” a two hour shot of reality unencumbered and undiluted by the creaky, yesteryear artifice of a credits sequence.
I call baloney. There’s a reason James Bond has endured on film, and it doesn’t even have to do with shaken martinis, Aston Martins, or the suavity of Sean Connery. No, it has to do with the iconic credits sequences that begin (or help begin) each of his movies, dreamily oscillating collages that stand alone on their artistic merits while simultaneously setting the tone – mood, motif, narrative – for the films to follow. And where else would the famous Bond songs play but over those seductive images?
Think about Saul Bass, whose sharp, graphic, instantly recognizable paper-cut-out designs so ingeniously foretold the mischief and mayhem of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Or the lurid, off-kilter pop of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder credits, invariably different depending on the film, always conveying exactly the right feel for his edgy political modernism. Even the most banal, routine opening titles from a 1940s MGM production beat a black screen or an abrupt dive into the film. Hollywood used to do some pretty clever and subtle things with its credits back in the day. Pages would flip to reveal cast and crew; fun illustrations would accompany names as they slid down the screen; borders and fonts would change according to the given film’s style and content; and sometimes, the titles were even interpolated within significant locations, objects, and actions, lulling us into the atmosphere of the picture while giving us a taste of future motifs.
At their best, credits not only give us time to appreciate the film’s hardworking collaborators, they permit us to patiently enter the movie’s headspace, to get a feel for its images, rhythms, and themes before they’ve even been laid out. They set the stage. It is no slight on a film to say one of its most memorable parts was its opening credits. Despite the occasional modern film that indulges in a dynamite opening titles – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s manic Pop Art color slides, Moonrise Kingdom‘s bright multihued cursive and retro copyright notice, even Nebraska‘s spare but evocatively off-center white on black – it is becoming a greater and greater rarity to see current movies upholding this most cinematic of traditions. At the most you’ll see a simple title card. Sometimes, that can be enough. Often, I’m left wanting more.
What do you think? Do you similarly miss the once-prevalent opening credits sequences? Or do you prefer the way today’s films privilege an instant submersion into the narrative?