For it might be at first thought that the whole kingdom of imagination was one of deception also. Not so: the action of the imagination is a voluntary summoning of the conceptions of things absent or impossible; and the pleasure and nobility of the imagination partly consist in its knowledge and contemplation of them as such, i.e. in the knowledge of their actual absence or impossibility at the moment of their apparent presence or reality.

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

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  1. Taiwan, ca. 1920: Hidden behind the small wooden theater, waiting, Li T’ien-lu holds his beloved puppets. Only a few meters away, the fireworks are going off, informing the populace that the puppet theater is in town and that the artists are ready to start. The puppets too are waiting, and in a matter of seconds they will come to life thanks to Li’s unsurpassed artistry and dexterity. Before the deafening sound of the fireworks reaches the most distant corners of the humid valley, the musicians begin with their bells, cymbals, and percussion. Li’s own voice rises fending the air. The show begins. An entire scene unfolds before our eyes in an unedited, stationary shot. As the scene comes to a conclusion, music marks the ending and the curtain is drawn. Over the same music, the image fades to black and there appear on the screen three red, large Chinese ideograms—literally, “Play, Dream, Life.” Their presence carries a strong ritual significance. The film begins.

  2. Thus ends the prologue to The Puppet Master (1993), by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Rolling the title over the diegetic sound of Li T’ien-lu’s musicians, this exquisite prologue makes explicit a suggestion that is the starting point of this essay: just as in the puppet theater, the music we hear during the credits of a film is a culturally coded, socially recognized sign, playing a specific ritual function. To Li’s audience within the film, the music indicates that the game of make-believe is over, sanctioning a shift back to a normal mode of perception. To the spectator of Hou’s film, the same music is instead an invitation to pick up where Li’s audience has just left off. By cleansing our current auditory field and creating a new sound environment, the presence of the music sanctions our own readiness to turn from mere bystanders into genuine appreciators of a representation, to cross the threshold that leads into a world of appearances. Music, we surmise, is an invitation to imagine, to transform the ensuing sounds and images into paths accessing imaginary places, people, stories.

    Beginning Credits

  3. It is now commonplace to claim that music was a necessary component of many ancient rituals, sacred and secular, public and private. But there can be little doubt that in many cultures music was present when initiating an individual to different kinds of rituals. Music—or something we would now define as such—must have helped the participants to revive long forgotten memories, for instance, to strengthen their sense of belonging to a community, to feel the potency of the Gods, or to let themselves loose into a world of fantasy (whether freely and privately, or in a socially coordinated fashion, as in modern spectacles).

  4. Many modern-day rituals still begin with the sound of music: parades, religious celebrations, and performances of all kinds. Differences among these rituals notwithstanding, the continuation of this practice in so many different social occasions betrays a link between them, and it is a hint that at one time the spheres of the magical, the sacred, the civic, and the fantastic were not as far apart from one another as they seem today. Many of us have lost awareness of the secret relations that evolution, culture, and history have woven among our rituals. Many may not even suspect that they are rituals at all, or that they fulfil ancient, deep-seated needs. Only rarely do we experience deference and trepidation for that moment in which we prepare ourselves to participate in them.1

  5. Our perception of something as seemingly prosaic as “credits” music at the opening of a film is directly affected by this kind of situation. In the very distant past, no longer accessible to our memory, music must have been understood as possessing a direct illocutionary force: invitation, persuasion, permission, or even command (in the form of sound) to engage in imagining.2 Given that performances have long become a common, habitual, social phenomenon, such illocutionary force has naturally lost much of its impact. True, under special circumstances music will silence a chatty audience or direct its attention to the fact that a spectacle is about to begin. Perhaps children experience the fullness of that address when they first become acquainted with cinema. But films soon become a habit—all the more so in our consumer society—and thus in our everyday experience the power, urgency, and freshness of that initial address has inevitably been lost.3

  6. Sometimes a director styles the credits sequence in such a way as to revive part of the secret excitement that should be inherent in the passage into the realm of imagination. I have already referred to the prologue of Hou’s The Puppet Master. The beginning of Woody Allen’s Another Woman, a work from a very different cinematic tradition, also comes to mind. Like Hou, Allen begins the film rather abruptly with a pre-title sequence. We hear the voice of Gena Rowland’s character over a shot of her downtown apartment in New York. She says who she is and what she does in a plain, inexpressive tone. Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the pre-title sequence ends and the credits start rolling in the format familiar to Allen fans: white credits in a small-sized, elegant font over a deep-black screen. The soundtrack plays Erik Satie’s Troisième Gymnopédie, as orchestrated by Debussy, giving full expression to Allen’s yearning for “prelapsarian” movie magic.4

  7. Allen’s musical choice may not seem very original—not only are the Gymnopédies Satie’s best known pieces, but they also have been exploited as a paradigm of cheap, easy sentimentality by the recording industry (an ironic fulfilment of Satie’s own nightmarish vision of the commodification of high art). In a more conventional credits sequence, the choice would have seemed predictable, the effect trite. However, Allen manages to turn a potentially weak beginning into something highly noticeable and powerful by simply moving the credits after the pre-title sequence.5 The delay caused by the pre-title sequence heightens our expectation for the credits proper. When the credits do begin, they naturally come as a release of previously accumulated tension. Moreover, the plainness of the décor and lighting, the abruptness of the editing, and the austere tone of the voice over in the pre-title sequence sharply contrast with the lyrical, euphonious nature of Satie’s music played in the credits. The slow-paced, rocking accompaniment figure, played twice alone (as in the original), is the initial lure we sense. When the notorious melody begins unfolding, the spectator is literally plunged into the poetic world of the film. Satie’s beautiful melody is rejuvenated and the role of music as a powerful mediator between spectators and the story world is greatly enhanced.