Opening Seen: An Annotated Soundtrack

By Gabriele Caroti and Lili Chin

Opening Seen debuted in March 2008 at the Whitney Biennial, as part of a live broadcast on Neighborhood Public Radio, a guerrilla radio group which sets up temporary booths and broadcasts content via FM radio and over the Internet. It was then streamed a month later on Viva Radio, an Internet radio station where Gabriele Caroti hosted a weekly radio show called “The Thicket.” The annotations appear here for the first time at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s “Project: New Cinephilia” web site, along with the entire program, which is free to download.

An Italian suspense movie marks the journey for a sonic exploration of images; the only challenge is to see with your ears. Our passage into the realm of filmic sounds from opening scenes seeks new and random encounters where the esoteric and pop collide. But these aren’t just soundtracks, they’re suspense-less chases in early ’70s Po valley, pale and silvery moons in medieval Japan, Raquel Welch in stirrups, cardboard + rubber cement galaxies with mutton chops in tow, car crashes in Australian meadows, Alice in Wonderland, and more. Starring Amon Düül II, Jerry Goldsmith, Fumio Hayasaka, Mauricio Kagel, Carl Stalling, Daffy Duck, et cetera.

1. From Alice (1988, Jan Švankmajer)

“Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…’ But, I nearly forgot! You must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything!” The opening lines from the opening scene of Švankmajer’s debut feature is, ahem, Opening Seen’s proverbial maxim.  We force the audience to close its collective eyes by removing the image from the motion picture, thereby essentially creating something wholly new. By making this piece, we’ve discovered that although a visual art form, films without any images whatsoever can hold up on their own as purely auditory works, reinforced by the listener’s imagination—much more powerful than any singular image could ever be. And in the case of many of these extracts, they are stronger works than the original artifact as a film with visuals. (Gabriele Caroti)

2. From Revolver (1973, Sergio Sollima)/“Un amico” (Ennio Morricone)

I’ve probably watched the opening to Revolver (aka Blood in the Streets) close to twenty times. And I’ve never been able to get through more than half an hour. No matter—this is one of the greatest, strangest, most baffling openings ever. On a crisp winter morning, a criminal on the run (the swarthy Fabio Testi, a mainstay in later Monte Hellman pictures) buries his partner in an extremely shallow grave (really just a mound of rocks) at the side of a river. The scene is infused with such passionate, religious homoerotic fervor between the two it’s baffling; how can such emotional ardor seemingly out of left field take place in the beginning of a film? And the heights of their love couldn’t be expressed without the greatest Morricone opening music, a dramatic ascending orchestral (yet totally swingin’!) theme. Proof that “il Maestro” never reserved his best work for great cinematic treasures; his brilliance could be found anywhere, even under a pile of rocks. Decades later, “Un amico” found a much nicer home in the projection booth of none other than poliziottesco connoisseur Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And another tidbit: Revolver also stars Oliver Reed and the voluminous Peter Berling—of Fassbinder, Herzog and Sátántángo fame. (GC)

3. From Doctor Zhivago (1965, David Lean)

I remember my mom singing along to Doctor Zhivago’s “Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from a “Greatest Movie Themes” eight-track. The song made me very sad as it would signify her absence: that melody became my mother’s theme (in a sense, her musical equivalent) when she would drop me off at preschool. Not a celebration of her, but a mourning: the melody is bittersweet. She always loved very strong, sweeping melodies… I remember her humming along to “Michelle” and “Girl” by The Beatles from a cassette (not eight-track) of 1962-1966. This Zhivago clip is just dialogue and production sound. It doesn’t contain any of Jarre’s music. (GC)

4. From Marketa Lazarová (1967, František Vláčil), music by Zdenek Liska

Cited as the best Czech film of all time, Marketa Lazarová has been a cult film for many years. Although now available on DVD from a pristine master, only a few years ago the film was very hard to obtain. The first time I watched it was on a bootleg VHS copy. I’ve seen it twice since, finally upgrading to viewing it on the big screen, the only way that anyone should ever watch it. The dreariness of thirteenth century medieval Europe and its overt religious undertones, combined with astounding cinematography and an ominously beautiful soundtrack leaves me fantasizing about being transported into the past—effortlessly. (Lili Chin)

5. From Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi), music by Fumio Hayasaka

Foreboding yet traditional Japanese shamisen dissonance opens to an arid country side in sixteenth century Japan. Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, a timeless, haunting ghost story, was pretty much ruined for me when I saw it with a friend at a theater who basically kept yapping the whole time and questioning the film’s excellence. “Anthony Lane liked this?!” she would ask. That also happened to me again, with a different friend, and a different Mizoguchi film! (This time, Street of Shame.) Anyway, Ugetsu is basically the gauziest movie ever made. I’m serious. Name a gauzier one. I dare you. Oh and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers have a record and tune called “Ugestu,” one of the prettiest hard bop compositions ever. (GC)

6. “Brothers” (Ry Cooder)/From Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)

A longtime collaborator with Wim Wenders, slide maestro Cooder played with many, including Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Rolling Stones and Captain Beefheart. Based on a tune by Blind Willie Johnson, Cooder’s guitar at the beginning of Paris, Texas is obviously evocative of the desert backdrop of the American Southwest. With long drives and rustic abandoned landscapes, this film is a mesmerizing portrait of loss and discovery in a bleak and hot climate. (LC)

7. From Drip-Along Daffy (Chuck Jones), music by Carl Stalling

“Put down that comedy relief! I’m the hero of this picture!” Looney Tunes in a microcosm: from the breakneck speed, constant shifting of gears and Stalling’s manic music to the pure hilarity of the writing, the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall, and the amiable stereotypes. Plus, Paris, Texas and Drip-Along Daffy are the best pairing in this whole set! This clip is still my favorite out of all twenty of these. Seriously, it’s best movie of the bunch. Oh and we cheated here: this scene actually closes the cartoon. (GC)

8. From The Cars That Ate Paris (1976, Peter Weir), music by Bruce Smeaton

From Paris, Texas to Paris, Australia. One of the most messed up, shocking openings of any movie. The interplay between Smeaton’s impossibly funky into music shifts to a heightened, climactic car crash: the sound design lays bare atrocities brewing underneath. A dark comedy, so dark it’s not funny anymore. (GC)

9. From L’inhumaine (1924, Marcel L’Herbier), music by Darius Milhaud

Avant-garde sci-fi from the 20s, L’inhumaine caused a great degree of controversy when first released. A love story involving an opera singer during the age of evolving technology, with cubist set design by Fernand Léger and art deco architecture by Alberto Cavalcanti, L’inhumaine’s Milhaud score establishes modernity as it engages with early twentieth century aesthetics. If you like theatrical futurism from the turn of the century with elaborate sets and intricate deco costumes, you’ll fall under the spell of L’Herbier’s film and its craft. (LC)

10. From The Big Mess (1971, Alexander Kluge), music by Amon Düül II

Sci-fi follows sci-fi. Kluge’s obscure but incredible movie is a film set in 2034 is made totally lo-fi—essentially a collage. Combining intertitles with small sets, props and close ups of mechanical devices, Kluge builds a story about outer space, the Suez Canal and galactic battles, with a rare appearance by Amon Düül II. I remember watching it and seeing members from the band floating in “outer space,” perplexed and amazed at this odd juxtaposition where lo-fi fantasy meets kraut/psych/prog in our galaxy’s ether, thinking, “Oh, Kluge, you just push the limits and every step of the way… sublime imagination, beauty and always impossibly unexpected!” (LC)

11. “Main Title” (Jerry Goldsmith)/from Bandolero! (1968, Andrew McLaglen)

The composer of the pseudo avant Planet of the Apes score returns two months later with a jaunty opening featuring a killer arrangement: whistling, muted picked bass guitar, jew’s harp, and a melodica. From a film that I actually haven’t seen and have always been avoiding starring the most leathery of casts: Raquel Welch, Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin and George Kennedy. This has less of a personal connection to me than it represents an eclectic style of mixing that I embraced a few years back with disparate pieces of music fitting next to each other seamlessly. (GC)

12. From The Return of the Pink Panther (1975, Blake Edwards), music by Henry Mancini

Totally badass—one of the top five heist scenes ever. This clip suffers the most without the images. An all-black clad figure slides hundreds of feet on the ground using an elaborate pulley system, all done by shooting a small arrow from a steel crossbow. The figure then pulls out a precision instrument and comes away with a very large diamond. How cool is that?! The escape, heard here, includes a touch of slapstick and all takes place at the national museum of a fictional near-east country called “Lugash,” which appears numerous times throughout the Pink Panther franchise. Also stars the big-eyed beauty Catherine Schell who I was in love with as a 6 year old. I never fell out of love, either. (GC)

13. From Ratcatcher (1999, Lynne Ramsey)

Ramsey’s debut feature is set in an industrial, dreary and grey version of Glasgow, focusing on young boy as he grows up in a decaying landscape. The opening sets the stage for a daydreamed state interrupted by a frustrated mother. Poetic and melancholic, we experience desire of freedom and fear through a child’s eyes.  This overcast gradation of weathered industrialization both parallels and contrasts my impression of some American cities such as Buffalo and Rochester, NY. (LC)

14. From Is There Sex after Death? (1971, Alan Abel & Jeanne Abel)

Pretty much speaks for itself. A proto-Kentucky Fried Movie, a mockumentary shot in dingy 16mm following Dr. Harrison Rogers (played by Abel) of the Bureau of Sexological Investigation starring Buck Henry; Robert Downey, Sr. (as himself); Holly Woodlawn (as herself); Marshall Efron; Mink Stole (as a dominatrix); and others. Timeless tuba! (GC)

15. From That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Luis Buñuel)

In a world of eroticism and entanglement, Buñuel rediscovers his surrealist roots. Two female leads, one from France, the other from Spain playing the same role make this film strange and humorous in this tug of war filled with prolonged, sexual tension. As you hear car doors opening, footsteps and explosions, we realize Buñuel’s tradition of these desires must be set in a time of societal turmoil and unrest. (LC)

16. From Watermelon Man (1970, Melvin Van Peebles), music by Van Peebles

“Your teeth are very white!” “That’s the contrast!” Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface goes to bed and wakes up one morning looking like, well, Godfrey Cambridge, to his shock and his wife’s dismay. It’s amazing that a film with a very “visual” plot in this case really doesn’t really need images; Estelle Parson’s screech alone will make millions jump out of their respective seats. Although the film was actually based on a book by Herman Raucher, who also wrote the screenplay, Van Peebles is still the true visionary, simply by getting a major studio (Columbia Pictures) to produce and release it. Oh and the movie has nothing to do with the Herbie Hancock’s hard bop tune (Two films associated with hard bop in one mix! Wow!), but it needs to be noted that the director also composed the music to all his films and along with The Last Poets and the late Gil Scott-Heron, is one of the godfathers of rap. (GC)

17. “Tony’s Theme” (Giorgio Moroder), from Scarface (1983, Brian De Palma)

A dance floor prophet if there ever was one, Giorgio Moroder went from his early Südtirol days of schlager to a forward-thinking maven of four-on-the-floor experimentation—E=MC² was the “first electronic live-to-digital album”. This exemplifies his dramatic pulsating early 80s electro-disco style. Not his most memorable selection, this was a choice of utility as it fits perfectly inbetween Van Peebles and Kagel; the two provide hilarious counterpoints. Watermelon Man and Antithèse are both decidedly unserious. (GC)

18. From Antithèse (1969, Mauricio Kagel)

Although formerly known as an important twentieth century composer, Kagel also made wonderful surrealist films. Antithèse involves a mad scientist engineer surrounded by a world of instruments and mechanical devices. Witty and bizarre, Kagel builds suspense with shots of the fantastical interior as the scientist in his lab coat spirals into a bizarre psychic universe, searching for the audible source of his madness. The visual world of this film odd and wacky, reminding one of a sci fi world that you see in Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell or Marker’s La jetée. (LC)

When Lili showed this to me, my jaw hit the floor—a true masterpiece! (GC)

19. From Rabid (1977, David Cronenberg)

A horror film about a woman who gets into a car accident and has to have surgery.  She develops a growth and it turns people into zombies that feed off of each other. They all begin to bite others and the whole world runs amok. I’d rather not imagine a world gone wrong like this. That is all. (LC)

20. “Polyrhythmic Sexuality and the Three Boys” (Manos Hatzidakis)/from Sweet Movie (1974, Dušan Makavajev)

Controversial and banned when first released, Sweet Movie explodes with sexual and political energy. I’ve seen it a few times, and the film still remains bizarrely popular and entertaining on my roster of films to show friends. Makavajev’s provocative tale of Communism and commodity culture come to a head when a “virgin” Canadian beauty queen marries a tycoon. Viennese Actionist Otto Muehl makes an appearance in this powerful and bizarre Eastern European film. (LC)

Both enduring, contrapuntal, and a fitting closer! (GC)