Let it roll!

He wrecked 'popcorn time' and turned the humble credit sequence into a film-goer's fetish, says Jonathan Romney. All hail Saul Bass, the Matisse of the movies...
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The Independent Culture

Even in the bygone days when audiences truly had faith in the mysteries of the silver screen, movie-goers couldn't always be relied on to respond to a film's opening, "Hey you!" flourish. Even the 20th Century Fox fanfare or the roar of the MGM lion wouldn't necessarily make them sit bolt upright. Indeed, it was once common practice - as recently as the Fifties - for screenings to begin while punters were still settling into their seats or opening their popcorn (hence the term "popcorn time"). The curtains would remain closed while a film's opening titles were projected, only opening for the first scene. The titles - more or less fancy lettering on a plain or decorative background - were prey to the whims of the projectionist, and as often as not remained unreadable.

Even in the bygone days when audiences truly had faith in the mysteries of the silver screen, movie-goers couldn't always be relied on to respond to a film's opening, "Hey you!" flourish. Even the 20th Century Fox fanfare or the roar of the MGM lion wouldn't necessarily make them sit bolt upright. Indeed, it was once common practice - as recently as the Fifties - for screenings to begin while punters were still settling into their seats or opening their popcorn (hence the term "popcorn time"). The curtains would remain closed while a film's opening titles were projected, only opening for the first scene. The titles - more or less fancy lettering on a plain or decorative background - were prey to the whims of the projectionist, and as often as not remained unreadable.

Today, the increasingly impatient medium of cinema expects us to jump to attention at the very first flicker of light, and will do anything necessary to make that happen. We now more or less expect, at least with Hollywood productions, to get something extra for our money when a film starts: it might just be a snazzy little flourish of graphics, or even effectively a mini-movie in itself. Opening titles can be as elaborate and opulent as the legendary series of abstract guns-and-girls fantasias that Maurice Binder created for the James Bond series, or as stylishly witty as the pastiche early-Sixties animation that kicked off Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can. Alternatively, we might get a single concise signature image, such as the ominous emerald curtain of tumbling ciphers that establishes both the digital theme and the hyper-modern mood of The Matrix.

If one person can be held responsible for ushering in the age of credit titles, that honour surely falls to New York-born graphic designer Saul Bass (1920-1996), the subject of an exhibition that has just opened at London's Design Museum. Martin Scorsese called Bass "one of the great American artists", while one critic dubbed him "the medium's Bach and Barnum combined". Bass is widely seen as the past master, even the true originator, of the title sequence - although the credit should be shared, since the Sixties, by his wife Elaine (née Makatura), his close collaborator.

Trained in New York, Bass moved to Los Angeles after the Second World War to work on still images for film advertising. He came to believe in the importance of finding a single strong image to encapsulate a film's theme and mood - "a metaphor for the film, rather than an actuality from it". His ideal was the "single appropriate image", as opposed to the distracting cacophony of the old "See! See! See!" method for selling films, as he called it: "See the missionary boil in oil! See the virgins dance in the temple!" Hence his image for Otto Preminger's all-black Bizet musical Carmen Jones in 1954: a single rose starkly outlined in black, against a filmed background of red flames. Bass had designed it as a still image, but suggested to Preminger that it would look even better moving. "The very first pieces of film that I did," Bass said, "were really graphic designs translated to film. Graphic designs that moved. That was a very new notion." Carmen Jones was the first of the title sequences which Bass envisioned as a sort of "overture", to catch viewers' imagination and immerse them in the mood of a film, "settle them down and create a sense of anticipation". That way, he said, a film could "hit the ground running". Even more influential was Bass's second job for Preminger the following year, the drug drama The Man with the Golden Arm. Bass used a stylised image of a junkie's arm in jagged black; on his equally famous poster, the arm was boxed in with heavy black lines. Animated, the lines take on their own life, slicing across the screen to Nelson Riddle's urgent, ominous horns, before converging in the arm shape. "It conveyed the distorted life of an addict in a metaphorical symbolic way," Bass said. This sequence proved to be something that viewers wanted to see in its own right - once they were pointed in the right direction. According to Bass, Preminger was so annoyed that the sequence was still being played over closed curtains that he issued instructions with prints that the projectionist should not start the film until the curtains were fully drawn. Popcorn time had had its day.

The great Bass credits come in several periods and styles. There were the stark, hard-edged images for Preminger in the Fifties, which we now think of as quintessentially jazzy - partly because they influenced a generation of LP sleeves, partly because of the soundtracks they accompanied. Or, indeed, that accompanied them: this was the first generation of title sequences in which images and music were fundamentally inextricable from one another. Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) was a case in point, setting a cartoon silhouette of a dismembered body against Duke Ellington's austere orchestrations.

Bass's graphics, said critic Jim Supanick, "looked like what Matisse might have done if he'd grown up in the Bronx and had listened to jazz and wasn't so effete." Bass also excelled at the jovially urbane, although this mode has dated less well: for Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch (1954), he created candy-coloured doors flipping back to reveal the titles, setting the perky tone for a brash bedroom comedy. In Ocean's Eleven (Lewis Milestone, 1960), the ethos of the quintessential Rat Pack caper was encapsulated by flickering animated dots, evoking the lightbulb lettering of the Las Vegas casino marquees.

More durable was another mode of austere classicism. For Preminger's Exodus (1960), Bass provided a severe variant on the Carmen Jones fire, this time with a yellow flame on a blue background, evoking remembrance and the Holocaust. Even bigger on classical severity was his sequence for Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus in the same year, a film for which Bass - credited as "visual consultant" - also directed some battle sequences. Spartacus uses compact lettering against blown-up details of Roman sculpture, with only one animated "trick" at the end, simple but dramatic - an emperor's bust crumbling to fragments, prefiguring the film's theme of rebellion.

But it was for Alfred Hitchcock in the early Sixties - in Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho - that Bass evolved his most exalted, sophisticated and altogether disturbing form of abstraction. Vertigo, with its swirling geometric vortices engulfing the screen, almost physically pulls you into the picture, disorienting you and filling you with queasy apprehension. Psycho (1960), with its racing parallel lines and fractured lettering, was the prime example of how simple abstraction could prime an audience for a state of anguish: it was also the perfect complement of image and sound, with Bernard Herrmann's strings anticipating the slashings in the Bates household. Hitchcock's relation to Bass, the latter said, was "that of patron to intelligent, talented student". In the case of Psycho, however, the master seems to have learnt much from his "pictorial consultant", who devised the famous shower sequence. Some hardcore Hitchcockians have questioned Bass's account, but he maintained that he showed Hitchcock his rough cut and quite alarmed him with its violent staccato pacing.

Although Bass's philosophy was always to serve the movie, some of his sequences altogether eclipsed the films they were made for. Among them is his tour de force for MGM portmanteau That's Entertainment Part II (1976), which riffed on a selection of classic-and-corny Hollywood credits styles, from Garbo's name against a pressed rose in a book, to sentimental sweethearts Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy spelled out in petals on a pond. Perhaps his great stand-alone anthology piece was the nocturnal stroll of an alley cat for Walk on the Wild Side (1962), a sequence so striking that people paid to see it specially, then walked out of the cinema.

That, indeed, was one reason why Elaine and Saul Bass stopped doing titles between 1979 and 1987. Influenced by their innovations, emulators had tried too hard to impress, and the couple felt the art had been devalued: "It got to a point where it seemed that everybody got up there before the film and did a tap dance." During this time, Saul Bass & Associates kept busy with corporate imagery and logos for companies including AT&T, Minolta and United Airlines - hardly such a jump, for what was the notion of the single image, if not the understanding that a movie, like any other product, was susceptible to branding? The Basses also made several corporately commissioned shorts, including the Oscar-winning Why Man Creates (1968), an essay on invention and innovation that was probably better than the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation deserved.

The Basses were tempted back to Hollywood in the late Eighties, and - now credited as "Elaine and Saul Bass" - created some of their most striking and elaborate work for Martin Scorsese. Their first titles for him were neat and to the point - the hard sans serif capitals of Goodfellas zipping across the screen like nervous traffic - but they went on to achieve an ornate new glory. Casino, artfully echoing Bass's Exodus and Ocean's Eleven titles, had Robert De Niro's silhouette tumbling past the distorted flickering lights of Las Vegas, before crashing into a sea of flame - an image of the character's descent into the inferno.

Elaine - the musically astute one of the duo - had the idea of setting the titles for Scorsese's The Age of Innocence to the overture from Faust, giving the film an operatic severity while evoking secret passions burgeoning beneath the conventions of 19th-century social propriety. These titles overlay period calligraphy, lace and flowers that open in a crescendo of swoons, before a withering dandelion introduces the final note of time and transience - about as dense, yet germane to the narrative, as a credit sequence has ever been.

Today, the Basses' legacy has become so much a part of the film-going experience that - whether or not we get fancy titles - a film simply doesn't work unless it has at least a lucid idea of what its titles are intended to do. Better a plain functional list of names than a mish-mash of imagery that tries and fails to get us excited: even Woody Allen's insistence on plain white-on-black, set to a vintage tune, owes much to the Bass tradition of setting the appropriate mood.

They still sell popcorn in cinemas, and people still eat it through the titles - although these days, the soundtrack is so loud that no one need be distracted. If Saul and Elaine Bass have had a bad influence, it was that their achievement opened the way to the "tap dance" pyrotechnics they so deplored. Bass's emphasis on the single strong idea has also been seen, by some critics, as initiating the age of "high-concept" cinema, where one idea that everyone can get is all that matters.

But the Bass aesthetic was about more than just simplicity: it was about the complexity within the simplicity, about understanding a film's deeper meaning and aspirations, and about offering audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key that would strikingly but discreetly give them a hint of what to watch for. Bass's ideal, he said, was "a simplicity which also has a certain ambiguity and a certain metaphysical implication that makes that simplicity vital. If it's simple simple, it's boring."

AFTER BASS CREDIT CLASSICS

Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Titles: Kuntzel & Deygas

The tradition of animated credit sequences reached a high point in the Freleng-De Patie cartoons for the Pink Panther series - another example of credits that overshadowed the actual films, and even spun off into a separate TV series. These days, cartoon titles tend to be knowingly retro, notably in Catch Me if You Can, which stylishly encapsulates several of the film's themes - elusiveness, imposture, pursuit and a Sixties dolce vita background - as well as achieving the impossible in making Spielberg look hip.

Spider

(David Cronenberg, 2002)

Titles: Cuppa Coffee Animation

A classic example of the Bassian single strong image. Damp stains on decayed boarding-house wallpaper become ominous Rorschach blots - perfectly describing the film's seedy English setting, and setting us up to enter the mindset of its mentally disturbed hero.

Ed Wood

(Tim Burton, 1994)

Titles: Robert Dawson/Paul Boyington/ Cinema Research Corporation

The actors' names on gravestones, a giant octopus, massed flying saucers, and lightning bolts over Hollywood - and all (apparently) in one seamless take. A brilliant pastiche, and a sequence that Edward D Wood himself might have dreamed of, on several times the budget of one of his own films.

Bad Education

(Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)

Titles: Juan Gatti

The "uniform edition" titles for Pedro Almodóvar's films have one purpose above all - to let you know you're watching "una pelicula de Almodóvar". An example of film titling as couture-style labelling, the Almodóvar credits mix fashion-magazine lettering and colour schemes with kitsch-punk imagery derived from Madrid's late Seventies movida subculture. The latest example, the black-and-red starkness of Bad Education, pays direct homage to the Saul Bass/Bernard Herrmann killer combination of the Hitchcock films.

Seven (David Fincher, 1995)

Titles: Kyle Cooper

Kyle Cooper's creepy, scratchy, deliberately cluttered titles for Seven are a film-within-a-film, in a style separate from, but akin to, the main film - an overture which is also a variation. Images of scissors, stitching and scribbling evoke a killer's dark work, as well as the dark art of movie-making. Seven kick-started an entire Nineties school of psycho-killer title sequences - the neo- Psycho school, if you like.

The Saul Bass exhibition runs at the Design Museum, London SE1 (0870 833 9955), to 10 October. For more information on Saul Bass, go to www.saulbass.net. For more information on the exhibition, visit www.designmuseum.org

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