Music moves me – duh – and that is like having a window opening on a heightened reality, but the effect is fleeting: When the music ends, the magic, the uplifting, vanishes and the window slams shut. Words, on the other hand, by the nature of how they work, emotions evoked by dint of carefully laid out thoughts, have a more lingering effect. — Yann Martel
Enter the theater, descend a ramp, climb the steps to find a good seat. If we’re lucky we’ll be running late, cutting it close, so maybe we’ve missed most of the commercial noise that litters the last few minutes of mental prep before a movie begins. The lights dim down and we’re led into trailer territory, the last distractions to bug us. Then the light source shifts. Studio logo rolls up. The film we’re there to see finally comes alive. We’re pulled inside another dream, one of a thousand dreams we’ve all seen and shared onscreen.
We might start a series to take a closer look at how credit sequences are put together. A movie’s opening shots can clutch us tight by the hand or hold us by the throat when done right. Good directors use those moments to ease us into the proper frame of mind while we’re still suspended between between light and dark, between reality and dream state. Great directors grab our attention with flash and dazzle. Genius directors do all those things and then go a step further, setting up signposts to guide us through the journey we’re about to take together. As the credits roll in the first four minutes of Life of Pi, Ang Lee lays out a tidy diagram of the visual schemes he plans to employ and hints at some of the themes we’ll explore. Right away he begins to engage our minds so we’ll be revved up in the right gear when the story proper gains traction.
It wasn’t until the second time I saw Life of Pi that I noticed the very first shot features a hyena emerging from behind a bush to look around and regard a grazing giraffe. For a hyena, he appears to be a placid mellow fellow — and why shouldn’t he be? He’s safe, secure. There’s no threat or danger in sight. His habitat is so lush it might pass inspection as a real forest if not for the barred fence and stone wall in the background. He’s a happy hyena because all his needs are satisfied. No reason to be defensive because he’s not hurt. No need to stalk prey because he’s not hungry. Of course, all this will look a whole lot different in future viewings, won’t it? Next time we’ll know the bad news in store for this hyena, but even in the midst of all this serenity Ang Lee has already introduced us to a villain in the first 15 seconds of nimble foreshadowing. Another thing we see is how “Fox 2000 presents” hangs projected on another plane, thrust forward in 3D relief. Cool enough, but I’m a 3D skeptic. I knew going in that Ang Lee had said he didn’t think he could tell this story as well without 3D, so on first viewing I was anxious to have him prove it to me.