Sunday, 7 September 2014

Don't Be Late For The Movies

If you turn up more than six minutes late to the movies, I say, don’t bother going in. Here’s why

Aside from the painful social encounter of forcing everyone on your row to do the awkward knee shuffle so you can stumble in the dark to your seat with the obligatory, “sorry, sorry” which is invariably met with a passive aggressive “it’s fine” from the people already seated, there’s an even bigger price to pay, for turning up late.

In most (good) mainstream movies the opening sequence is top-loaded with a wealth of information that sets up the film in terms of themes, style, stars, content and story. Far from easing you into the movie, these first few minutes are the most important part of the film and missing them means you’re missing out on an vital part of the experiencing leaving you half a beat behind everyone else (that, you know, turned up on time). Some movies even go as far as to overture the whole story in those first five or six minutes.

Missing the beginning of a film is as significant as missing the end. Imagine walking out of The Usual Suspects just before Verbal finishes giving his evidence. You’d leave thinking, “that was a weird film”.

The beginning lays out the film's stall, let’s you know what’s in store, whetting the appetite for the two hours ahead. Not seeing the start of a film is like a waiter taking your order without first offering you a menu.

To show you what I mean, here’s a breakdown of the first six minutes of three of my favourite films, Ghostbusters, Terminator 2 and The Shawshank Redemption.

The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont (original show runner for The Walking Dead) opens with the 1939 rendition of The Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care” which immediately places us in time – we assume the 30's or 40's, along with the Art Deco style credits which also let us know Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are the stars. This, in itself indicates, this film's unlikely to be a National Lampoon-style comedy.

It is night. The camera pans to show Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne sitting in a car staring intently at a house. We don’t know whose. He takes an item from the glove compartment. It's wrapped in a cloth which he unfolds revealing a small revolver. The cloth is an important detail as it suggests that he is not a thug but an everyman who probably has this small handgun for security purposes only, tucked away at the back of his sock drawer. Dufresne takes a consoling swig of bourbon, so, something has upset him – a lot – judging by the gun.

We then cut to Dufresne sitting in the witness box at his trial which we learn is for the murder of his wife. Again, this short scene is loaded with detail. We learn the specifics of the case through Dufresne’s steely testimony and the prosecuting lawyer’s cross-questioning. We also discover more about the type of man Dufresne is. Cold but according to him, not a murderer. And smart too with a quiet defiance. He’s on trial for his life yet when the prosecutor suggests it’s a little convenient that the unused gun Dufesne claims to have thrown into the Royal River (placing the action in Maine) cannot be found, Dufresne snaps back that as he is innocent, it is decidedly inconvenient for him.

As well as setting up the pertinent details of Dufresne’s case this opening sequence also suggests his subsequent innocence with the song, If I didn’t Care, whose lyrics place a question mark over his apparently obvious guilt.

We then meet Morgan Freeman taking the first of four parole board interviews and with that we are introduced to two important characters, Red and Shawkshank itself. And that’s what you’d miss if you arrived just six minutes late.

The opening of Ghostbusters, directed by Ivor Reitman, is a masterclass in visual storytelling. There’s a wealth of character and story information crammed into this slick opening sequence beginning with a wide shot of a gothic-looking municipal building. The camera slides past a stone lion, a reference to the two lion-like monsters that will terrorise New York later in the film. The camera settles on the engraved words, New York Public Library.

We then see an atypical librarian complete with sensible bob and drab cardigan, wheeling a wooden trolley between tables collecting books. She descends the stairs to the basement as the eerie score creeps in. As she moves between the cramped shelving, behind her, a book slides unaided from one shelf to another. She is none-the-wiser but we, the audience know, something very bad is about to happen. This is a perfect example of dramatic irony, where the audience know more than the character they're watching. We want to scream “Lady, get the hell out of there!!” but by the time she turns, the books are already nestled in their new location. “Run lady!”

Interestingly, there hasn’t been a word of dialogue at this point and there hasn’t even been a funny moment. This confident filmmaker is letting us know that, yes, this film may have several powerhouse comedic talents among its number but it’s also gonna be scary too.

In blissful ignorance our intrepid bibliophile goes to the desk to complete her task but while she is occupied with her filing, the neat little drawers beside her (of which we see there are many) begin to slowly open, again, unaided, fluttering index cards into the air.

The librarian, now justifiably a little concerned, hightails it but in her panic gets lost in the cramped maze of shelves in the basement of this old, old building.

She turns a corner and is confronted by – something. We don’t know what. All we see is her terrified face and her hilarious scream. “Waaaaaaaauuugghhh!!!” OK, we know now, this movie might be scary but it’s also definitely a comedy. The iconic Ghostbusters sign comes into frame and the even more iconic theme tune strikes up.

It’s now time to meet the main characters. Again this is a skillful piece of visual storytelling. Repeating the gothic foreboding of the library, we’re now at the Weaver Hall – Department of Psychology – a sign tells us.

We cut to a door that reads “Paranormal Studies Laboratory” under which is daubed in red spray paint “Venkman – Burn in Hell”. At the bottom of the glass, are the sign-written names of all three doctors and indeed lead characters Igor Spengler, Ray Stanz, and last of all Pete Venkman.

A hotel ‘do not disturb sign’ hangs from the door knob, a nice additional detail indicating that whatever studies are taking place in these offices and whoever these doctors are, they are far from orthodox in their practices and they are royally pissing people off. This is verified when we meet Venkman conducting his “experiment” with the beautiful blond subject and her suffering colleague who has been electrocuted by Venkman several times, in the name of science.

We learn that Venkman is manipulating the results in favour of the pretty young test subject, leading her to believe she has psychic abilities. This whole charade tells us everything we need to know about Venkman. He himself doesn’t take paranormal studies seriously and is simply using it as a means to meet gorgeous women.

Having had enough of being electrocuted, the fuzzy-haired subject unplugs himself from the nodes telling Venkman to keep his five bucks. “What are you trying to prove here anyway?” He screams hysterically at Venkman. Even with this, Venkman is mocking him but offering a measly five dollars to be electrocuted!

Enter Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stanz, excitably telling Venkman that they finally have a real case to investigate and that Venkman is coming with them this time. This subtle dialogue suggests Venkman has managed to slither out of all the other encounters, implicitly setting him up as the skeptic who wants to stay and finalise the details of his date with the pretty blond non-psychic.

Ray tells us that Igor is already there, obviously an organized man, keen to get cracking and with that we get a snapshot of all three characters who will be our heroes for the next ninety minutes but you missed it coz you arrived seven minutes in!

James Cameron’s Terminator 2 opens with a shot of a busy metropolis, cars, heat haze, a dusty urban sprawl, more than likely American.

We cut to children playing on swings with a menacing droning score in the background. The image whites out and cuts to a night time scene. We see the shell of a burnt-out car with a skeleton in the driver’s seat. As the camera pans left to right it reveals an urban desert and we hear Linda Hamilton’s haunting voice over telling us that “three billion people’s lives ended on August 29th 1997” in a war that would become known as Judgment Day. The survivors, she tells us, now face a new nightmare, the war against the machines. At which point a metallic foot slams into frame symbolically crushing a human skull. Ouch. The ground is littered with a sea of skulls, the unburied dead, as strong a statement about war as could ever be made.

You can have no doubt as to the style, content and tone of this film by now. This ain’t gonna be no comedy. This bold palate of images, voice over, the promise of a battle yet to be won, tell the audience to strap in for a cinematic thrill ride.  

In the background, missiles and explosions light up the night sky and we get a glimpse of this post-apocalyptic nightmare where man is waging an almost unbeatable war against the very machines he created.

We see the same swing park from earlier, buckled, broken, kids' bikes, a roundabout, all warped and damaged by war, by the apocalypse, or by both, who knows.

We pan up to see the terrifying skeletal frame of one of these machines Sarah Connor refers to in her voice over.

The humans are putting up a valiant resistance. We see they have fight but may be no match for the fire power of these ruthless machines as we see a soldier obliterated in one shot, by the enemy.

But seconds later a rebel shoots down an airborne machine – an indication that perhaps, they can be beaten, a small glimmer of hope?

We cut to an underground tunnel, following a man in military fatigues moving with purpose. He is saluted by every soldier he passes in this cramped passageway. He’s the head honcho then. No dialogue required. Everything about his status is informed by how he is treated.  

Sarah Connor tells us that two terminators were sent back through time to destroy the human Resistance, the first to strike at her unborn son. It failed, she says defiantly, the second to strike at her son John as a child. This lets us know, this is where the story will begin.

She also informs us that “as before, the Resistance sent a lone warrior to protect John.  “It was just a question of which would reach him first”.

This sets up our anticipation as the audience and is a great example of the first six minutes being the menu. In her brief monologue Connor is our morose Maitr’d offering “Race against time, anyone?” or "try our special, psychopathic killing machine from the future against a kid”

The appetite is well and truly whetted in this sequence and she’s brought anyone who didn’t see the original Terminator film up to date with as much information as they need for T2 to make sense.  But we’re not done.

Over a screen full of engulfing flames, Arnie’s credit is superimposed. Clever timing. Is he the killer or the lone warrior who will save John? The assumption is, he will reprise his role as the murderous machine but who knows.

A metals shutter clamps closed revealing the embossed words Terminator 2, Judgement Day, flames lapping around the edges once again overturing the end of the film when the Terminator is lowered into the molten metal, flames lapping up around him one last time.

The images dissolves into the children’s park once again, this time engulfed in flames. This is a reference to Sarah Connors’ waking nightmare, that she will not be in time to save her child – representative of future generations, from this dystopian nightmare that she alone can prevent. Following on from the biblical imagery connoted by Judgment Day, this flame-filled frame looks like hell.

And finally, from the flames, a menacing image emerges, the metallic skeletal face of the unmasked Terminator, it’s red eyes glowing amongst the flames. The camera zooms in then cuts to a steely blue night time scene at a truck park.

An electrical disturbance lets us know that something wicked this way comes. A naked, crouching Arnie appears in the midst of this truck park. Killer or warrior? We’re about to find out.

So, my friends, there you have it, that, in a (big) nut shell, is why it’s not worth going to the movies if you’re gonna be late.

I’m off to see Ghostbusters as it is its 30 year anniversary and its playing at m local cinema! Who ya gonna call?!

Other posts you might like: Really Love Film - a short blog about the movies, What's Happened To The Movies - a lament about some hit and miss blockbusters and To Be The Actor's Actor - about the late Philip Seymour Hoffman

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