Saturday, August 23, 2008

Movies About Movies Blog-a-thon: The Opening Scene of Day for Night

Movies about the filmmaking process is one of my favorite subgenres of film. Even when they are bad, I'm always fascinated by the process of getting a story filmed and all the things that can get fucked up between the sheet and the celluloid. I love the bitterness of Sunset Boulevard and its portrayal of the Hollywood Dream gone terribly wrong; Singin' in the Rain showed just how awkward the conversion to talkies were and poked fun at the stiffness of the early ones; Sullivan's Travels set out to prove that comedies are just as important to audiences as serious, high-minded drama; Sherlock, Jr. showed that, even by 1924, people were living vicariously through film. The film I chose to talk about, however, is basically a love letter to the filmmaking process and how even when it kicks you in the ass, you would do anything for it: François Truffaut's Day for Night.

There are so many layers and so many things that can be discussed from this film, that I decided to make it easy on myself and discuss one small section of Day for Night. A nearly impossible task, mind you, but I've narrowed it down to the brilliant opening sequence. It is very short, only about a minute or so, but it comments on so much about the nature of film and sets up the rest of Day for Night and the rest of its film-within-a-film Meet Pamela.

The film's opening credits. I love how the sound waves are shown in these frames as a way to prove that Truffaut is the ultimate film nerd (even more so than Tarantino and Kevin Smith) and will stop at nothing to immerse us into what's rattling around in his brilliant mind.

The first shot. Day for Night starts off with a long take of a bunch of random people doing ordinary, everyday things in some random town. It's quite a nice shot and everything, but what exactly is Truffaut doing? This is supposed to be a film about the movies, not about nameless people living a normal life. The first 45 seconds leave you confused until.... breathe a sigh of relief because you finally recognize someone: Jean-Pierre Léaud! Now that we've seen our star, Day for Night is finally going to get off the ground and go on with the story. Or so we think. The camera follows Léaud for a few seconds but then drops him to go back to capturing the crowd for awhile longer. Then we get our first cut...

Léaud is back, now standing head to head with some guy we don't know the identity of. No words are spoken between them. Then...

SLAP! And, in sync, with the sound cue from Léaud's slap, we cut to...

Truffaut himself yelling "Cut!" In case you're as confused as I was during the first time I saw Day for Night, the film immediately cuts to....

A zoom out from the previous scene showing us that everything shown to us previously was all only a movie. It's the perfect sort of reality-bending trick than can only work in the movies.

Truffaut's point in using this as his opening is to lull the audience into a false sense of reality. From the opening shot, we think we're going to be watching one type of movie and just as we're starting to put things together and try to understand what's being presented, it's all being pulled out from underneath us with a little "gotcha!" from Truffaut.

I think it's also interesting that this opening is a further example of Truffaut's thesis that the cinema is more important than life. In real life, this scene would be nothing special, something we see every day on the street. But, in the context of Day for Night, it's immensely more fascinating because we are trying to put all of these clues together to try to make some kind of story out of the visuals. And, admit it, who doesn't find the moments after Truffaut yells "Cut," when he shows what is going on behind the scenes and the extraordinary amount of work it takes to make such an innocuous scene an exhilarating rush of deeply involving?

I could go on and on for days intellectualizing Day for Night, but I think it's quite wise to stop right here. If you haven't seen this gem of a movie, what the hell are you waiting for? Go out and see it so we can discuss it.

For other entries into Goatdog's Movie about Movies Blog-a-thon, head over here to the headquarters and check them out. I haven't read them all yet, but the ones I have clicked on have all been fascinating and quite diverse. Enjoy!


MovieMan0283 said...

Enjoyed the breakdown - this really is one of the warmest films about films (a rarity in the genre).

I'm going to be tackling some of the films you mentioned in my upcoming Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series; you can check out the first of them - and my entry in the Blog-a-Thon - here:

Vera said...

I'm so glad you wrote about Day For Night. I think it is too often overlooked. I just love it.

ed said...


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