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Understanding Film: The Opening Sequence

You only get one chance to make a good first impression— is an old adage that most of us heard on countless occasions. It is also a statement that can be easily applied to the world of cinema. Much care and thought must go into the opening sequence. The beginning is critical for not only setting the right tone, but also to seamlessly emmerse the audience to connect and respond emotionally within the visual storyteller’s world.   

In her commentary of Boys Don’t Cry (1999), filmmaker Kimberly Peirce states that at the beginning of each movie there is a minute and a half in which a filmmaker can do anything he or she wants to reveal main character’s mindset or fantasy of self. Boys Don’t Cry opens with a sequence of Teena (Hilary Swank) dressed as Brendon. The intent of showing this private moment is for the audience to connect to the Teena’s inner desire.


In her commentary, Peirce continues to site other great examples of effective opening sequences such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) in which Jake LaMotta boxes alone in a ring, suggesting that his ultimate fight is with himself.  A recent example I would include would be David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013). The film opens in a hotel where we see a reflection of Irving Rosenfeld as he prepares for an intricate and complex comb-over. Essentially the audience is getting a wink not to be fooled by this con man, even his hair is a fraud, and suggesting that ultimately things may not be as they appear. Great opening sequences can give us a quick breath into the character’s inner and outer world. Like Boys Don’t Cry, we often see is an honest moment of the character alone revealing their true nature. Typically around them are the symbols of their world and conflict. This is certainly true in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001). 

In the opening sequence of Ghost World, a camera tracks along electrical wires to a row of houses lit within by the glow of television. The transmission is a communication of isolated people in separate rooms, side by side, not communicating with anyone or each other. The pan along the windows is matched with video clips of an electrifying dance sequence from Raja Nawathe’s film Gumnaan (1965). Gumnaan is a take of Agatha Christie’s classic “And Then There Were None”, where eight people are left stranded on an island after their plane abandons them. One by one, they die.

The individuals introduced early in Ghost World seem dead, already. One by one, the windows reveal disconnected souls. We pass by a motionless smoking female, a disaffected man eating his dinner, an empty room where a table is set for one, and a set of parents passively watching television beyond the sightline of their rambunctious child. Each room holds the victims of the empty pursuits of the adult human experience– comfort, consumption, and reproduction. The pan stops with Thora Birch’s character, the almost adult Enid. Unlike the others, she has life and a spirit about her. She moves with exuberance within the vivid world of her wardrobe and bedroom. We are meant to wonder if she too will become a victim as she matures? In fact, will she be next, as the Christie classic overtone implies…is she the one before there are none?        

It is often stated that the true character of a person is revealed by what he or she does when no one else is looking. Although brief, the opening sequence reveals Enid’s eccentric charm as she dances by herself. She exhibits an inward intensity, we see that she is a collector of the unorthodox, and can infer that she is searching for identity and meaning. Enid’s dance moves mirrors the dancers in Gumnaan. This is our first example (and many more will follow) of her trying on a set of characteristics to see how they fit. We understand quickly that Enid is not like others her age. The film on her television, the music and her dance exhibit that she is more comfortable with the obscure and atypical. Behind her is a poster for Hollingsworth Morse’s PufnStuf (1970), which suggest a duality in Enid’s adventurous personality. Creators Sid and Marty Kroft’s H. R. PufnStuf is purportedly innocent in itself, but for many has not-so-innocent pro-narcotic interpretations. Some suggest that you don’t have to go beyond the lyrics of PufnStuf’s theme as an example, “Who’s your friend when things get rough? H.R Pufnstuf. Can’t do a little as he can’t do enough.” Enid’s room contains many toys (including H.R. PufnStuf merchandise) and collectibles, which both help to establish her desire to collect unconventional items and to help explain her forthcoming odd connection with Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi.

Perhaps it is only in Enid’s pursuit of the unconventional that will save her from losing her soul as she matures in the adult ghost world that surrounds her. Most people can identify with Enid - her feeling of displacement, uncertainty and like many film characters, an overwhelming sense of being an outsider. Terry Zwigoff gives his audience a lot of information and the foundation of his story in a very short period of time. The sequence is one worth revisiting as an effective introductory sequence.