Thomas Sutcliffe: Invasion of the film snatchers

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I went to see Martin Scorsese's The Departed last week, checking in for the earliest public screening at the Odeon Holloway along with a handful of zealous Scorsese completists and - I'm guessing here - Jobseeker's-funded cineastes. The film itself is a Christmas stocking for the Scorsese fan - predictable in its contents and thematic bulges but no less exciting for that, and generously stuffed with cinematic treats.

But what struck me first was that I was surprised by the beginning. I don't mean that Scorsese has come up with anything particularly remarkable for his opening sequence (I have a vague memory of an iris-out from one of the characters standing in front of a Boston police building); it was just that the film began before I expected it to. The lights went down, they ran the Warner Brothers corporate ID (the one in which a glassily distorted image of Hollywood Sound Studios resolves into the armorial crest) and then the credits appeared, white on black. And, seeing this, I realised how rare such an experience is these days.

The Departed, after all, boasts no fewer than six production companies on its IMDB listing, including Vertigo Entertainment, Initial Entertainment Group and Plan B Entertainment, all of which presumably have their own lustrous corporate puffs, rich with computer graphics and high-concept logo animations. And generally speaking you would get all of them in succession before you get the film; a jostling queue of visual bombast, accompanied by pompous digitised fanfares or blaring crescendos of engineered sound - all of which are designed to persuade you that the company in question is a big Hollywood player.

Not for nothing are the television versions of these name-plates known as "vanity cards". Some of these corporate idents are even quite pleasing, viewed solely as an exercise in computer animation or image projection. But for anyone who cares about watching films, they are a parasitic blight.

As Scorsese will know better than most directors, the old corporate logos had some claim to contribute to the effect of the film that followed. For one thing, they were pretty modest - little more than a publisher's colophon and almost as negligible in their impact on the audience. For those who did notice them, however, they could actually convey a message beyond that of commercial property rights. Because the studios each had a house style and their own favoured genres, the sight of Paramount's snow-capped peak, or MGM's roaring lion, or RKO's bleeping transmitter tower could work like a Pavlovian bell, loosening the digestive juices for the gangster movie or musical that was to follow.

But they were never actually competitive with the opening frames of the movie in the way that many modern production logos are. Most television vanity cards follow the production rather than precede them, where they can provide a last little twist of valediction (I'm actually rather fond of the vanity card for JJ Abrams' Bad Robot productions, which features a tiny red metal man zipping through what looks like a Hawaiian cane-field). But even if they're terrible it hardly matters, as the programme they are detracting from is already over.

Movie production logos, on the other hand, invade a far more sacred space - that deliciously poised moment after the lights dip and before the film itself begins. One of the things that's precious about this passage of time is its very brief deferral of pleasure... the fact that we sit there anxious to get under way, and to have light flicker into life on the screen. We are never quite as visually susceptible as in those first few seconds after the darkness - and it's a susceptibility the best directors can use to brilliant effect.

But it's a lot harder to do if the blank wall of our expectations has been graffiti-ed over with flashy corporate me-toos, scrabbling for our attention and absolutely shameless about the devices they'll employ to win it. It would be absurd to expect them to be modest, of course, since modesty is a vice in Hollywood rather than a virtue, but I do occasionally wonder whether some of the independent production companies might demonstrate their passion for film-making by letting the film-maker have first crack at the audience's imaginations.

Instead, week in and week out, we get a set of false starts as images of portent turn out to be just yet another self-advertising puff, of interest to no one but the company's board of directors. By the time the film starts a precious kind of eagerness - and openness - has been squandered. I like to think Scorsese had enough clout to fight back against the money men. It's just a pity that all films can't open in quite such unpolluted style.