Monday, August 3, 2009

The Beauty Of The Opening Shot 1: Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

In which we irregularly take a look at the very first shot of films from around the globe.

By Lars Trodson

Years ago when I took a film class the instructor said the single most important shot in a movie is the very first one. I’ve always believed that, and to this day any movie I see I make a mental note of the first shot. Did the director make the most of it? Hardly ever is the answer yes, but I’d be hard-pressed to say whether that was any guide to how much I ended up liking the film.

But it struck a chord with me anyway. The first shot is the equivalent of the opening line of a novel, the first notes of a song. And so I thought I’d take a moment to recognize what may be the best opening shot in a film from the past five years, and that is the simple shot of the triple decker seen right at the beginning of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

This type of building is so iconic to the kind of New England neighborhood that this Dennis Lehane story takes place in it almost seems like it’s a no-brainer to use it to set a mood -- but to put it that way takes away credit where it is due. It’s really a perfect opening shot. Kane had his closed up Xanadu -- the McCready’s of “Gone Baby Gone” have their 3-decker.

It’s no surprise that a recent New York Times article (June 19) profiled this particular emblem of New England -- and that it has fallen on hard times:

“In Boston, three-family homes represent 14 percent of the housing stock, but made up 21 percent of foreclosed property in 2008, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development,” according to the piece. “While extinction is unlikely, the blight could forever change some neighborhoods where the triple-deckers are tightly packed, strikingly uniform and vital to the sense of place.

"The boxy homes, which typically have flat roofs and tiers of porches, were built starting in the late 1800s to house the immigrant workers pouring into New England. They were a clear step up from tenement blocks, having private bathrooms and windows on every side."

In Affleck’s film, he and cinematographer John Toll (two time Academy Award winner) lovingly expand on the opening shot. The two apparently just set the camera up and let the film roll trying to capture the faces and the look of the neighborhoods of the story. The faces of the people found in those neighborhoods -- Affleck knew you couldn't fake those any more than you could fake that indelible accent. So he didn't try. The faces, and the houses they disappear into, with their porches, flat roofs and mini-societies inside, are perfect.

And he switched the narrative structure of the book by adding in a moody monologue by the film’s main character, a small time private eye by the name of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck).

As we see the some of the sad, burnt out faces of Boston’s outer neighborhoods, and listen to Copland-esque score by Harry Gregson-Williams, Kenzie says this:

“I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city. Your neighborhood. Your family. People take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls. The cities wrapped around those.

“I lived on this block my whole life -- most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks -- and then fell through. “This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest how you can get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children: You’re a sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

It's a beautiful opening, and then we softly segue into one of those triple-deckers, the scene of a crime that is about to unfold.

See the opening scene below: