You wouldn’t credit it

Why should cinemagoers have to endure the narcissistic display of endless opening credits? They're distracting, artistically unacceptable mood-killers.

John Lewis

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I hate film credits. Not the credits at the end of the film. These are fine if you want to know who played whom and the details of the songs on the soundtrack. It is the credits at the start I can’t stand. They just get in the way of what you want to do, which is to watch the film.

Why do opening credits exist at all? It is out of vanity. Filmmakers know most of us leave the cinema when the film ends and the closing credits begin. So they inflict credits on us at the start. But we know the stars – they’re usually the reason we’re watching the film. And if that kind of thing matters to us, we will already know the director and the writer. But we also get the names of the makeup artist, the hair stylist and the costume designer. Worse of all, we learn the names of the assistant producers, the co-producers and the executive producers. Once I saw the name of a co-executive producer – or was it an executive co-producer? And we can’t avoid them: opening credits are compulsory whereas closing credits are optional.

There are two sorts of opening credits: stand-alone and embedded ones. Stand-alone credits are shown before the film begins. They are nothing but a series of names and titles against plain, decorative or animated backgrounds. Old black-and-white films always have them. Even today, art house films and pretentious movies use them. Stand-alone credits began small, but over time they got bigger and bigger. By the time of the first Superman film in the 1970s, they were ridiculously long.

Directors realised the audience resented waiting through credits for the film to begin. So they devised the abomination that I call embedded credits. These are credits that appear after the film has started. They are always a distraction. This is artistically unacceptable. What kind of cinematographer wants their name to spoil the beginning of a film? Yes, I know all about the brilliant opening of A Touch of Evil; but it would be better if the credits were not there. The languid beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West perfectly conveys the energy-sapping heat of the desert, but was in fact probably chosen as an ideal setting for the credits. It would be better without them. They sabotage the mood. They obstruct what we are seeing.

Embedded credits ruin the opening of films in many ways. Often, the real action is postponed until the director’s name has appeared, and in the meantime we get a short travelogue of the local area. Usually the camera shows us a city or town from far away and then zooms in over the tops of the buildings before descending into the street where the hero lives. It’s so unoriginal we end up reading the credits out of boredom. Sometimes the real action starts halfway through the credits, generally just as those for the actors have finished and the name of the composer is about to appear. I suspect there are fights in the cutting room about this.

Sometimes each credit brings the action to a temporary halt so we can read the name without the interference of entertainment. And sometimes the credits appear at strategic points during the opening scenes. So, for example, the credit for the screenplay might pop up after someone has been shot. A bit much to kill a character to highlight a writer’s name, but that’s how desperate some of these people are. Whatever form they take, I am always thankful to learn the name of the director; for this means there will be no more bloody credits!

There is a type of embedded credits I find especially annoying. The film has a fascinating opening free of any attribution. The audience is lured into a compulsive drama. Then out come a string of credits! I call these delayed credits. They are really sneaky. If there must be opening credits then I prefer the stand-alone variety, since at least the film itself remains pure and unsullied. It’s like preferring the DJs who think the music they’re playing is good enough not to talk over.

Why don’t I watch my all films on DVD or video? Then I could fast forward through the credits. However, this only works for stand-alone credits. If you skim through embedded credits, you risk missing a vital detail of the story, such as who really murdered the one-legged dentist with a stammer. In any case, some films can only be fully appreciated in the picture house. I’m thinking particularly of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now.

In conclusion, I challenge all the filmmakers of the world to be brave and restrict their credits to the end of a film. All I want at the start of a movie is its name. Let it speak for itself.

John Lewis works for the University of Liverpool. His favourite film directors are Michael Powell and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Previously on spiked

Guy Rundle argued that recycling old techniques passes for cinema experimentalism today. Emily Hill made notes on an adaptation. Nathalie Rothschild discussed the ‘art house ghetto’ and proselytising directors with Josh Appignanesi. Or read more at spiked issue Film.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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