For openers

Lecture examines the art of title sequences

Called "the beautiful bastard child of the medium" by design writer Peter Hall, the artistic significance of the opening title sequence has often been lost on the movie industry itself. "It's an irony of this trade that the title designer's name is most often left off the credits," notes writer/curator Ken Coupland, a fan of this often neglected form. But this cinematic black sheep may finally be integrated into the family fold in the High Museum's "For Openers: The Art of Film Titles" program. A touring lecture/screening originated by Coupland and David Peters, "For Openers" is a tribute to some of the old-school and johnny-come-lately pioneers of the form: Saul Bass (Vertigo), Pablo Ferro (Dr. Strangelove), Kyle Cooper (Se7en) and the team of Randy Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett (Clockers).

Ken Coupland, a design writer for Metropolis, Graphis and Critique, will attend the Atlanta stop of this national tour, screening 30 title sequences and analyzing their importance, from the phenomenon's dawn in the '50s, to its technology-defined renaissance in the '90s.

An effusive cheerleader for the credit sequence, Coupland has seen his enthusiasm echoed in the design community.

"I call it 'crack for designers,'" jokes Coupland. "It's got everything: the glamour of Hollywood, motion and color and sound."

Like most connoisseurs of these film prologues, Coupland credits legend Saul Bass as "the grandfather of modern title design" whose contribution to the form's evolution can be seen in multiple examples of his work in the "For Openers" program. A veteran of the advertising business, Bass started in the film industry in the '50s designing movie posters. But Bass quickly made his name and launched a widely imitated phenomenon by designing the stark, arresting graphics for films like The Man With the Golden Arm, Vertigo and Psycho.

Bass worked in film title sequences into the '90s in several memorable collaborations with director Martin Scorsese, including Coupland's personal favorite, 1991's Cape Fear, whose title sequence, Coupland lamented, was "too heavy" for inclusion in this retrospective.

Evidence of Bass' unique style is one of his late-career jobs for Scorsese, 1995's Casino, which will be featured in "For Openers." Like most of Bass' title sequences, which set the mood for the films that follow, Casino also establishes one of the central themes of the film, of a man unable to resist the allure of his Las Vegas empire, no matter what the costs. The sequence opens with a pimp-attired Robert De Niro in Pepto-Bismal jacket and tie projected like a rag doll in the sky after his car explodes, the flames of the fire transforming into the tawdry neon of the Vegas strip. The violence behind all of Vegas' glitz is tersely conveyed as De Niro's body floats against a starburst backdrop, a body trapped within the organism of Vegas. Bass' mastery of the form was not only a form of technical and visual proficiency — the adman's ability to boil down complex ideas to their visual essence — but a talent for picking up on some of the themes of films and offering engaging subconscious "teasers" of things to come.

Film titles were initially seen as a more savvy Madison Avenue approach to film marketing (designers like Bass often hailed from the advertising world), linking poster art, advertising and credits into one uniform package, a strategy design historians like Hall have seen as part of an effort to differentiate the film experience from the style-hampered TV experience.

Specially designed credit sequences quickly replaced the credits-painted-on-glass perfunctory sequences of the past, as bare-bones as a novel's title page. But as the movie industry fought a new enemy — television — film was suddenly using every resource available: wide-screen, adult subject matter, 3-D and any gimmick or novelty to lure couch potatoes away from their La-Z-Boys.

These new, slickly designed credit sequences helped ease audiences into the mood of the film itself. Coupland likens the effect of credit sequences to an early stage of sleep, meant to lull audiences into the dream state of the movies themselves.

"I believe that a great title sequence almost literally hypnotizes you," says Coupland, "especially with the work of Saul Bass where there's a very strong repetitive swirling motion and abstract things that happen, that's putting you into a dream-like state."

"For Openers" will cover Saul Bass' heyday during the '50s and '60s and also the contributions of a new crop of title designers including current wunderkind Kyle Cooper, the young turk whose distorted, scratchy techno-goth leaders for Se7en have become the new technology-based answer to the cool, streamlined effects of Bass' generation and whose maniacally cut-and-pasted montage mimics the toxic overload of the information age.

While the evening should be a revelation for the title-illiterate, it may also be an exercise in frustration, as these brilliantly executed mini-films lure you into the film's web, but fail to deliver the expected goods. "The whole evening is 30 scenes of coitus interruptus," laughs Coupland.

For Openers: The Art of Film Titles takes place Sept. 23 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium, High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. $5 general admission/ $4 students, seniors and museum members. 404-733-4570.