Jim Emerson, the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and a 24Lies reader to boot, has a fascinating project going on at his Scanners blog, focusing on opening shots. It’s a truly wonderful read with many remarkable contributions (don’t skip 24Lies author Bob Cumbow‘s take on that famous Steadicam shot in John Carpenter’s Halloween).
I made a personal contribution with a description of the opening shot of Ken Russel’s Altered States (1980). Here it is:
Altered States opens with the image of a fluorescent, egg-like shape surrounded by darkness. It is a window. From below, in comes a floating human figure (William Hurt as Prof. Eddie Jessup), who appears to be immersed in liquid. Surrounded as he is by the dark oval frame of the window, he resembles an embryo inside a mother’s womb. The camera slowly tracks back to reveal that Jessup is inside a horizontal tank in an empty room. As it tracks back even further, the viewer detects the edges of a second window, rectangular this time. In front of that window sits a bearded scientist in a laboratory, who carefully monitors the room with the tank holding Eddie Jessup.
In the film, science tries to discover the essence of the Self by use of altered states of consciousness. The opening shot prepares the audience for this very process by taking the viewer through different layers/windows of consciousness: from the symbolic birth of the Self, via self-awareness, to self-examination; from subjectivity to objectivity. The soundtrack amplifies this trajectory, going from bubbly water effects and steady breathing through an oxygen mask, to the buzz of lab equipment and clicking of buttons.
For many more examples, visit Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog.