In my short time in the iO West community I have become increasingly aware of a closeted distrust of Harold openings. If we don’t “hate” them, we are at least “burdened” by them, like they’re some imposing obstacle we need to clear before we can get to the good stuff. No one says they “like” them. I hear there was even a debate amongst the teachers on whether or not Harold openings should still be taught at all.
“I think we forget that people are coming to watch us do comedy,” a team member once said. “We don’t want to turn them off.”
I don’t know about that. People are going to UCB to see comedy. People don’t really come to watch us at all. They should call us Natural 11.
One of the big problems I have, and that I suspect many other iO West performers have, is that we don’t have a very clear picture of what a good Harold opening should look like. Yes, at some point when we were students we saw Trophy Wife, King Ten, or USS do a great opening, but we could never figure out how to make it work for ourselves. Every coach and teacher had a different metaphor. Time after time, we leapt into the abyss, fell on our faces, and watched our numbers decline and our teams get cut. The occasional good opening? Surely a fluke. Eventually, we started avoiding “organic openings” – a pejorative term that has now entered our lexicon – and simply gave up, settling for a much more practical Living Room or Pattern Game.
We also stopped watching Trophy Wife, King Ten, and USS. But that’s a different blog.
While at the movies recently I stumbled across a new way of looking at Harold openings that has helped me, at least, give a face to this ambiguous beast. I am probably not the first person to have this idea. And yes, it’s just another metaphor. But if it made sense to me, it might make sense to someone else.
Consider, if you will, the opening title sequence of David Fincher’s film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
There are a number of elements to this sequence that I think make it an excellent analogy for a great Harold opening:
-It’s a full sensory experience. It begins with close-up shots of inky black textures – water, scales, leather, tar, skin, metal, fire. Then we start to see flashes of faces, hands, insects, birds, plants, wire, rope. It all builds up to a cacophony of violence: a woman’s face exploding as she’s struck by a man’s fist, wires snaking up to a person and strangling him, a drowning man, a mouth coughing up wasps and metal objects, a jagged needle poking through skin, a fiery head melting down to a skull, men’s fingers burying a woman’s face and peeling it off. The music – Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on vocals – surrounds us and complements the violent imagery. You have an emotional and physiological response to experiencing this. It makes your flesh crawl.
-It’s exciting. Despite how uncomfortable and disturbing the images become, you can’t look away. It says to the audience – “Hey! Look at me! This is going to be very interesting!” It opens the piece.
-It’s abstract, and comfortable with being abstract. It knows that the following two hours will be nothing but scenes, so it embraces the opportunity to be something completely different and weird for a moment. In fact, we barely see any human forms at all – just a variety of textures and close-ups of body parts. This isn’t two minutes of logic – it’s raw emotion. Fincher called it “primordial sort of tar and ooze of the subconscious… sort of her [Lisbeth’s] nightmare.” In a way, this sequence tells us exactly the kind of person Lisbeth Salander is.
-Unlike the rest of the show, but specific to the show. Aesthetically speaking, the sequence looks and sounds nothing like the rest of the movie. As a movie, Dragon Tattoo is slow, muted, and icy. There’s a lot of people sitting in frozen cabins and flipping through old pictures. Led Zeppelin permitted the use of “Immigrant Song” only for the trailer and the opening titles – the most memorable song in the movie itself is Enya’s “Sail Away.” Yet the opening sequence’s images and music complement the film’s story, characters, and subject matter perfectly. Only this story could have followed that opening sequence. (Interesting note: Dragon Tattoo has three major storylines – the mystery of the Vanger family, Lisbeth’s conflict with Bjurman, and Blomkvist’s conflict with Wennerstrom.)
-Never abandons its pattern. Despite the variety in texture and imagery, it all feels part of the same pattern. The music doesn’t suddenly switch to a Beach Boys song and the imagery to a warm sunset because Fincher worried the audience would tire of two minutes of the same stuff. Instead, he doubled down, dug deeper, and made his first choice rich with detail. Eventually, we make some interesting connections as a result.
-Does not explicitly say a thesis statement; merely suggests a subject matter. The objective here is not to lecture us on human nature, or how the world should be. That won’t be clear until we meet the characters and see how their actions affect the world around them. For now, this title sequence merely sets the tone: we know this film will explore subjects of violence, violence against women, sex, female empowerment, the power of technology, etc. We know everything will have a dark, sexy, S&M kind of vibe to it. It makes that promise to the audience, and the following two hours deliver spectacularly.
Now, obviously films and Harolds are two completely different art forms that are judged by very different criteria. Not all films require thematic opening title sequences. And sometimes, thematic opening title sequences are a little off-putting. Many Bond films come to mind, where we’re forced to watch some bizarre, unrelated images while Madonna or Sheryl Crow hits us over the head with the movie’s theme, which is conveniently also the movie title. Bleh.
But really good opening title sequences, like the one for Dragon Tattoo, at the very least give us a tactile model of something to strive for. It’s an example of something artsy, abstract, and uncomfortable, but also something we can all agree is fucking awesome. So why are we so afraid of it? Is your Pattern Game that much more interesting to watch?
If we don’t shy away from attempting to improvise Oscar-worthy scenes with Pulitzer-worthy dialogue, we ought to set the bar high for Harold openings as well. Don’t ask me how we clear it… but I figure the first step to any group endeavor is visualizing the prize. Once we accomplish that much, I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to get there.