As far back as we go, we’ve been making copies of ourselves. Whether for historical record, communication or art, recreating the self through imagery is literally as old humanity itself. Barf. Now, what does that intro – which I would label as ‘too grand’ on a college paper I’m grading – have to do with the masterful first seven shots (and the following fifteen that make up the fantastic three minute and twenty second opening sequence) of M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS?
If we fast-forward in our image making to the advent of photography, we reach the moment where the copy was no longer created – and therefore skewed – by the human hand but instead by a machine. You know, Benjamin’s whole schtick. The ‘aura’s gone, man!’ Photographs weren’t an approximation of reality, they were an objective recording.
They screamed, ‘this happened!’ Happened because they also, by nature, became a record of the past. A moment frozen in time. Enter Barthes.
Because of the inherent ‘pastness’ of the photograph, Barthes made the connection between the medium and death. That moment has come and past. Only a remnant remains. A tombstone. The depicted no longer exist as they were in that moment. They were made ghosts. The ‘flat death’ as Barthes would say.
This intellectual bond between photography and death was made even stronger with the creation of motion pictures. Their movement suggested life being lived unlike the stillness of the photographically deceased.
The point? When used in film, photographs often represent death. Sometimes literally, others figuratively (Rocky looking at his childhood self – all that potential, all those dreams, in a way, that kid, all dead and gone) and this can be illustrated by juxtaposing the photo (death) and film (life).
Of course, this analytically neat dichotomy was disrupted with the advent of live TV and streaming, as their being in the permanent now can have the same effect on film as film had on photography. And yet Snapchat and the like with their filters and product placement have already thrown the objective authenticity of livestreaming into question.
Things move so fast!
But we’re talking film theory so let’s not overcomplicate Barthes view of the photo as a death certificate (or dive down the rabbit whole of what he and/or Benjamin might make of photoshop or worse, Tarkin in ROGUE ONE) and get back to the opening of SIGNS.
The first shot is only twelve seconds. It’s silent. Yet it contains more information than most expository exchanges. You just have to read the si- uh, visual cues.
No fade in, we snap into the first picture. It’s a backyard fit for a happy family. It’s littered with signifiers – the crops are plentiful and create a private oasis touched by sunlight with swings, a treehouse/jungle gym, a picnic table and, for the grown ups to sit by as they watch the kids play, one of those clay stove-things.
Truly picturesque. But empty. And just then we retreat through a pain of glass distorting the image. It’s colder back here. The life has been drained. The window frame doubling as a picture frame – the drapes adding to this effect, making it ornate – this is merely photo of a once happy family’s backyard.
A remnant. The past. And to hammer this visual metaphor home, Shyamalan then cuts to an actual framed family photograph for the second shot of SIGNS.
But before diving into the second, let’s recap all the info we’ve learned in one not particularly lengthy shot. Set on an idyllic family farm but perhaps things are not so idyllic anymore. That, on top of perfectly setting the mood and tone, was accomplished (if not confirmed) in twelve seconds without sound.
And speaking of confirmed and seconds, shot two shows a portrait of an idyllic family. Beautiful mom, Father father, boy and girl. Lovely. Or at least it was when the photo was snapped. Now, the father wakes up in a panic, his worried face blocking out the moment they were together and smiling.
That two shots. Twenty-two seconds. Still no dialogue. All we’ve heard is a gasp.
Shot three? That’s a confirmation of suspicions shot. He’s alone in bed. That beautiful family frozen in time on his bedside table doesn’t exist anymore. She’s gone. Did she leave? Maybe but why keep the photo so close?
The lighting suggests something darker. Literally. There are two bedside tables, each with their own lamp and lampshade. His is noticeable brighter. Almost looks like the light is on. No doubt hers has gone out. And what of the kids? Twenty-seven seconds.
Shot four, five and six are linked with four being a set-up returned to shortly after. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The father (that’s all we know, he’s a father and a Father) has calmed but he leaves to check on the kids. In shot five, he listens at the door. Now we know at least one of the kids is alive.
And happens to be able to draw the future? Cheeky Shyamalan posted a kids doodle of an alien – with something like ‘he wont-to-the beach’ scrawled on it – on the door. Not framed. Not photographs. Drawings. Could they also be markers of the past? Sure. But the way they are displayed (the outside of the door, haphazardly) suggests this is an ongoing practice. It’s alive in a way the photos are not.
Six is another confirmation shot. Any questions you had about the kid(s) being alive and living with their father (maybe shot five’s drawings are signifying like photos? Does his face seems mournful not attentive? Perhaps that untouched dead kid’s room cliche?) are squashed when he picks some children’s clutter up off the floor of the hallway.
47 seconds. One gasp.
The seventh is most heavy-handed of the bunch but I buy that a mark in the shape of a cross would remain if you took the actual cross off the wall after years of having it hanging there. Either way, it’s an effective and efficient way to show that our father/Father has lost his faith and, two plus two, it probably has something to do with his dead wife.
The only shots that contain Christian symbols are the second, showing him happily rocking his collar for the family portrait, and this one, highlighting his apostasy. That’s a big shift in five shots. Hm. And that dark lampshade is also back in frame and quite close to the cross-mark. I wonder if his wife’s absence is related to the loss of faith?
And then, a child screams. His gut was right. Something was wrong. Whatever woke him up and took him to listen in on his kid’s door wasn’t imaginary.
57 seconds. Still no words has been spoken.
The audience has learned more from this silent minute than an extended, ham-fisted exposition scenes. It’s all in the filmmaking. Just using the language of cinema. And Shyamalan studied the greats like Dr. Steven Spielberg.
An amazing opening seven shots. You can stop now or…
I’m not going to be as detailed discussing the rest of the opening sequence cause, well, I’ve spent way, way, way too many words already but there’s still some great work to mention…
The eighth, ninth and tenth shots are the concerned and amplified versions of the fourth, fifth and sixth. In fact, the set-up for four and eight (as noted above) is exactly the same to illustrate the father’s urgency the second time we see it.
And it also culminates in the first time one of these frames are broken as the father formerly a Father busts through the doorway. His head peering inside and no longer squared in by the doorway. He and the framing are alive. In flux. You know, that thing I said about photographs versus film. We’re only ten shots in and it only takes three more to introduce new character in a way that makes him feel fully-fleshed out.
The eleventh shot once again puts us behind glass looking through a frame. I’m certainly stretching it when I point out that it looks like one of those collage picture frames you fill with extended family. Like a brother. Or uncle.
But this ‘photo’ of a shithole stirs to life when said brother/uncle hears the aforementioned scream and flips out of bed. Shot twelve, now inside the room, breaks all the frames – his face half off-screen – and gives a fuller picture of this new man, one that includes a half-eaten apple and a half-a-bottle of booze.
The thirteenth shot is brilliant. No other way to say it. It’s perfect visual storytelling. It connects Character 1 (former-Father father) with Character 2 (Uncle/Brother) both emotionally and geographically. Former-Father father bursts out of another ornate frame (finally coming back to life?) and onto the front porch before the camera swings to layout the entire area; barn on one side and Uncle/Brother’s shithole on the left.
It also has our first line of dialogue which confirms everything the visual cues have been communicating thus far. The line, “where are they?” is simple but solidifies our suspicions that the family from the photo is ‘dead,’ now former-Father father and Uncle/Brother are raising the kids (both alive, ‘they’) after the loss of their mother. Sure, that last bit hasn’t been 100% confirmed but all evidence points to dead not gone.
The next three shots (fourteen, fifteen and sixteen) establish the corn field and how even in daylight, it’s hard to move through and you can only see what’s right in front of you. It’s treacherous. And it surrounds them.
In the seventeenth, we meet the girl from the beside table photo and she’s shot like a ghost hovering in the distance. The older brother-little brother bond between former-Father father and Uncle/Brother is also wordlessly established. The family is coming alive. But not exactly the one from the photo. And we get another full line! The wonderfully jarring, “are you in my dream too?”
Hm. Does the enigmatic Bo (looking just about the right age to be the artist who drew pictures we saw in shot five) copy what she ‘dreams?’ Or maybe she’s not dreaming these things? What has she seen? This unsettling first line makes us think there’s something a little off with this one. But before we can think on that weird question too much, Morgan calls for “Dad!”
In the eighteenth shot, Morgan is also given some dialogue atypical for a youngster and succinctly lays out one of the main conflicts in SIGNS. All the former-Father father cares about is that his kid is literally unhurt, instead he’s met with “I think God did it.” Morgan wants to return to being that family in the photograph. Back to a time when his father was a Father and believed in God.
But his dad can only respond with blank facts, “did what?” No mention of God. Cue the Spielbergian son mimics the father head turn action which leads directly into four shots (nineteen to twenty-two) that build upon Morgan’s spiritual confrontation with his dad and reveal the film’s biggest theme.
The former Father-father apprehensively approaches and then steps into a clearing in the cornfield where he sees a bunch of it has been trampled. Into a perfect circle. Otherworldly. Oh, and the dogs are barking (just like Morgan said) and animals always know when shit’s going down before we do. But what he can’t see is what’s revealed in the twenty-second shot. Minute three. The film’s central idea: we can only see what’s right in front of us, not the whole picture.
An argument for having faith if I’ve ever heard one. Hammered home by SIGNS’ first aerial shot, one that floats in a way so disconnected from the precision in the previous twenty-one it calls attention to itself. This is important. It reveals the part of the picture that can’t be seen from the ground while also hinting that, even at this vantage point, there is even more going on out of sight.
Infinite zooms?! The truth is out there! Maybe…
Fade to black. Sequence bookended. Maybe should have been a cold open?
Either way, brilliant filmmaking. In just three minutes and ten seconds (twenty-two shots) the foundation is laid and it’s solid. And more importantly, it was done cinematically. The only fault I find is not calling the film, ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MEL G.