Friday, April 08, 2005

The First 2 Minutes and 15 Seconds of Linklater’s The Newton Boys

The Newton Boys begins with a most unusual opening credit sequence - a sequence that has been rarely remarked upon. The Newton Boys is a highly mis-understood movie, partly because it crosses so many genre boundaries. For example, viewers have believed the movie to be, variously, a Western, a gangster movie and a crime/caper movie. Though, to some extent, it does partake of all of these genres, The Newton Boys systematically undercuts all genre expectations. Though the main characters are Texans robbing banks in the West and MidWest, the movie is set long after the archetypal Western and repeatedly focuses on technological developments (and even organizational developments of business and government). Though the main characters are gangsters, the movie portrays them more as a set of comedians than criminal-minded (the only person they ever seriously injure is a mistaken shooting of a fellow gang-member). More saliently, the traditional gangster movie follows a rise and fall narrative schema - which The Newton Boys openly flaunts, since the Newton gang (though they eventually are imprisoned for a very short period) is shown not as falling, but enjoying extended happy old ages (the movie closes with interviews of the Newton brothers well into their eighties). Cutting against the crime/caper genre (which often centers upon the intense difficulty of pulling off the theft), the Newton gang’s thefts seem comparatively easy and mostly a comic lark.

The film’s opening sequences are very unusual. After the obligatory current Twentieth Century Fox logo, the screen goes entirely black, while spritely Dixieland jazz begins to play. Again, this is heralding the difference between this movie and Westerns, which usually begin with old country ballads or Morricone music (usually pretentious and portentous, while Linklater chooses lively dance, almost comedic, music). Quite properly, since The Newton Boys is set in the 1920s, many decades after the archetypal Western - and much more accurately than The Wild Bunch, set in 1913 but whose opening sequence has anachronistic music.

A placard appears announcing that "Twentieth Century Fox presents" in an elaborate old-fashioned type on an ivory-colored card framed with an almost Art Nouveau border. Notice that Linklater uses the old corporate identity of Twentieth Century Fox almost as it would have been in the 1930s and does not identify Fox as a NewsCorp company.

A title card announces the title of the movie. Underneath the title, there is script reading "Passed by the National Board of Review". The National Board of Review (NBR) was the US de-facto censorship board from 1916 into the 1950's but has not had that function since then. This interesting sentence functions on several levels:

1. Any film from the era of the 1920s or 1930s would have had this very script attached to it, so Linklater is encouraging a sense of nostalgia.
2. Conversely, The Newton Boys would likely have been difficult to make under the NBR since it’s plot makes the Newton gang extremely attractive without much punishment of their criminal activities. It certainly would have been near-impossible to do so in the post-1934 Hays Code era. Therefore, the movie is announcing it was made in (or honoring) the period between 1916 and 1934 (the late silent and early sound era).

After the title card, soon appears a card announcing "The Players...". Then we are shown short black and white individual vignettes of the stars of the movie. Interestingly, the stars of the movie, though gangsters, are nearly all shown as pleasantly smiling at us, the audience (two even tip their hats directly to us). Except for one of the gang and the police officers, all the gang members are exceptionally attractive and well-groomed, friendly, and quite well-dressed in their vignettes. Except for the menacing gang member, none of the others are armed. The gang members are posed against differing modes of transportation, one against a train, another upon a horse, another in front of a car, another walking. Again, this cuts directly against the Western genre, where we are often initially confronted with a dirty, poorly dressed, poorly groomed, often menacing or surly hero usually mounted upon a horse (this distinction is also played up in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, whose clean-cut, well-dressed, well-mannered hero appears first on a train). Also, we are being alerted to the centrality of technology and modes of transport, which play critical roles in the movie. This players sequence is very theatrical and also harkens back to the silent movie era.

After a number of other placards announcing the directors, writer and other crew, a placard appears announcing that "This is the True Story of the Most Successful Bank Robbers in the United States". This placard reminds us of the opening verbiage sequences to many of the great gangster movies of the 1930s, but directly undercuts them as well. 1930s gangster movies usually had a segment of text introducing the story - but the text usually floridly condemned the evil of the gangsters (especially in Scarface, for instance). Here, Linklater opts for a very neutral and understated sentence, which can be seen as even slightly positive towards the Newton gang, since it praises them as the "Most Successful".

We next see an iris shot asymmetrically focusing on a black-and-white shot of a man walking. Iris shots are most notably seen in films from the late silent era. To begin with such an iris shot, Linklater is again harkening back to this era of film-making.

What does the opening sequence add up to? Linklater repeatedly, throughout the movie, sets up genre expectations, only to gently knock them down. This process begins with the title and opening sequence - a Western announced by jazz music and with automobiles, a gangster movie with friendly and polite gangsters and a very modern movie with many elements harkening back to early elements of the cinema (and even theater). Linklater’s title sequence tells that the movie is already beginning to explore its themes precisely by returning to and interrogating the very era where the genres Linklater is working both with and against were established - the late silent and early sound eras.


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