Rewind: The Dying Art Of The Main Title Sequence

The lack of main title sequences is going to forever change the moviegoing experience ... and not for the better.

It's a slow time of year for movies. Hollywood is preoccupied with

giving itself awards right now, and it's going to be another few months

until the big buzz films start their seep to ubiquity. But if you do

find yourself plunked down in a multiplex this week, the odds are about

50/50 that whatever movie you're going to see will be missing one

element: main titles.

The main title sequence, that happy marriage of words, music and image,

is becoming a thing of the past, and, without being overly dramatic,

it's going to forever change the moviegoing experience ... and not for

the better.

In early cinema, titles were mostly perfunctory hand-painted cards. It

wasn't until the late 1950s and '60s that they evolved into small set

pieces of their own, thanks mostly to the pioneering work of graphic

designer Saul Bass. In films like "Vertigo," "The Man With the Golden

Arm," "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and the original "Ocean's 11,"

Bass utilized a stark, expressionistic design sense combined with

groundbreaking typefaces to create opening sequences that were

Editor's Picks: Stylish Sequences

as

exciting as the films to follow. Other trailblazers included Pablo

Ferro, who created legendary titles for Stanley Kubrick's "Dr.

Strangelove" and Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia"; and Maurice Binder,

whose seminal work on the James Bond series set the template for how

action films should get under way.

Even as recently as the mid-'90s, main titles were still going strong.

Working with director David Fincher, Kyle Cooper brought an edgy rock

aesthetic to the art, creating revolutionary titles for "Seven." And Fincher's 2002 film, "Panic Room," features some of the

most amazing credits in the history of cinema. CGI firm ComputerCafe

created architectural letters that seem to float in front of the

buildings of Manhattan, matching the lighting and shadows of the

background. Startlingly beautiful, the titles are a modern-day, high-tech

version of Saul Bass' classic opening sequence to Alfred Hitchcock's

"North by Northwest," where flat letters followed the contours of the

windows on a New York skyscraper.

But as the general public's attention span shortens, main title

sequences are becoming scarcer. Many films, especially action flicks,

now start with simply the title of the movie. While the rationalization

is that the story can get going more quickly, is that a good thing?

Seeing a film without main titles isn't like missing the title page in a

book, it's like skipping the whole first chapter. More than even the

trailer for a film (which is often misleading), the opening-credits

sequence can set the tone for what's to come. It allows the audience to

settle in and recover from the barrage of advertising they've just

endured, to prepare for the cinematic experience that's getting under

way. A really good main title sequence is like a fabulous appetizer

before a meal.

And main titles don't even have to be splashy to be effective. Witness

"The Shining" (1980), where the opening credits simply roll vertically

as we watch, from high overhead, the Torrances drive their beaten VW Bug

through the mountains toward the remote Overlook Hotel accompanied by

the film's terrifying theme, "Dies Iraie." The tension builds for three

minutes, to the point that when the seemingly innocuous card stating

"The Interview" appears, we're already freaked out.

But splashy is fun, too. While I'm hesitant to mention "Superman: The

Movie" again in this column, the 1978 film's opening credits caused a

sensation in their own right. Cleverly contrasting an old-fashioned

black-and-white introduction, the long sequence, featuring block letters

dramatically swooshing across the screen and through outer space over

John Williams' majestic theme, was often mentioned in reviews of the

movie and has been imitated in comic-book flicks ever since.

But if films are going to eliminate opening titles, they should do so

altogether, rather than tacking them on at the end of the movie, as is

the common practice. The pace of main titles is an anticipatory

escalation, building blocks of information, laying a foundation for the

story. By putting individual cards for each major star, writer,

producer, director, editor, et al at the end of the film, the balance is

even further thrown off. Call me crazy, but didn't it seem as if the

black-and-white main title sequence of "Kill Bill Vol. 2" was designed

to come at the beginning of that film, rather than after an already long

cast listing at the end of Quentin Tarantino's 2004 epic? Of course,

retaining single credit titles is all about assuaging the egos (and

contracts) of the principals involved in the project. But if the

presumption is audiences don't care to know who the music supervisor is

at the beginning of the movie, why do they care at the end?

That rare breed of movie geek who sticks around through the end credits

(whether it's because there might be more movie tacked on, a la "Dawn of

the Dead" or because they genuinely wanna know who the matchmove

supervisor is) has to be a patient soul to begin with. Ever since the

precedent was set of crediting every single person who came within 10

miles of the production of a film, this can be a major time commitment.

Now, with the complete credit roll following the main titles at the end,

viewers have to endure the same credit repeated numerous times within

the same sequence. It's beyond monotonous listing five different titles

for the same auteur who wrote, directed, adapted and produced the

movie ... why can't multi-taskers like Guillermo del Toro take a page

from Ed Wood's book and slap all those credits on one card? It goes

instantly from being tiresome to impressive.

Sadly, the future of the main title sequence seems to be as bleak as

that of 2D feature animation, the indie record store or Verne Troyer's

dignity. How far can it go? Well, while it currently seems unthinkable

to imagine a James Bond film without a post-prologue credits segment

featuring a hot tune, incredible visual effects and silhouettes of naked

ladies, it's conceivable that the day could come where all we get is the

iconic shot of 007 shooting down the barrel of his enemy's gun at the

outset of the movie. Movies have become so formulaic that it'd be a

tragedy if one of the last bastions of true creativity in film became a

quaint anachronism. Saul Bass is rapidly propelling at right angles in

his grave.

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