House of Cards, Sleight of Hand –Ed.

I re-read this old post in light of today’s widely reported allegations against Kevin Spacey. Now I know why the opening credits are so creepy.


Think the opening credits for House of Cards is just some anodyne tour around the nation’s capital? Not so.

One minute into the 90 second clip the camera pans desolate tracks. It’s night. All is still, the music foreboding. A locomotive blows through timed to a sudden guitar chord—sound and vision merged for a dramatic second before the tracks go empty again. The music pulses low and ominous.

Soon after a horn peels in martial tone, saluting the statue of General Grant high up on his horse. The horn and military man work in concert unifying sound and image.

The audio buzzes in hellish frenzy. The screen zeroes on a shadowy demon (the statue is Thales, a philosopher-electrician, not the devil but demonic nonetheless). Sound and vision subtly collude in these final seconds, producing certainty that what follows will be the cold calculations of evil minds, deceptions making an inhuman city a place of dread.

These flourishes in the final 30 seconds got me watching the whole thing closely. It’s mesmerizing. DC moves from day to night in under two minutes, devoid of humanity but scurrying with the anonymous, quickened movement of cars and aircraft, lights and shadows, water and wind.

You didn’t see the wind? Let’s walk through it.

It opens with a distant, somber horn on a panorama of the Roosevelt and Memorial Bridges crossing the Potomac. Cars speed along to simple 2-note trills. A drumbeat—precise—and on cue light shifts to shadow in the windows of DC row houses (7 seconds).

At 14 seconds the flags are waving to the sound of a horn. With the horn come the statues: General Winfield Scott Hancock high up on his horse; a cavalry charge, sword drawn, bugle out. It’s a military campaign, this opening, and war is on the make in sound and vision.

Then come the lions (21 seconds), heads high and tuned to the low eerie voice—a synthesizer? a choir?—whose breath seems to move the trees, quickened winter wind moving barren branches.

During the next 30 seconds the shadows take over. Darkness moves in. The sharp angles of federal bureaucracy. A statue of Chief Justice Marshall. The strings play, make the highways pulse, the city’s arteries running with blood.

At the minute mark its the train; the horn and General Grant; the ghoulish turn to a low camera angle on Thales looking very much like the devil himself.

A final chord as a spotlight fires to life in the foreground of the capitol.

Its a tight, precise edit job, and the result is a sly, purposeful, cunning montage.  As sly, purposeful, and cunning as Frank Underwood himself.

The best 90 seconds on t.v.

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