It is a pity when exciting things happen and you have not enough time to stop and think about them. I realised that just now, when I logged into my blog after many months of hiatus to find nice comments and positive feedback on a few of my earlier posts.

The thing is, I have been swept away by (mostly personal) events so that the time I didn’t spend sorting everything out, I devoted to actual publishing. No note-taking, no musing, no ‘idle’ reading, no blogging, just hardcore writing-for-publishing. Among the articles I worked on is a piece that appeared in May’s special issue of Frames Cinema Journal dedicated to “Promotional Materials” and edited by Dr. Keith M. Johnston. The issue, which includes eight articles and six interviews with media advertisers, is incredibly illuminating and, let me add, a valuable resource for those who want to familiarise themselves with this ‘nascent’ (though that would be a disputed adjective) field of research. Giving an in-depth review of the issue would be difficult, the approaches and topics of analysis being many and heterogenous, but I’ll paste a few quotations to give an idea of its richness and scholarly potential, which can be further grasped by taking a look at the selected bibliography compiled by Johnston in his introduction.

Among the many issues that stand out from the collection of articles is the one of what promotional materials actually do. Quoting Jonathan Gray (who has published extensively on the topic), Johnston sets the argument for the debate, writing: “Promotional materials may give us (limited) access to ‘how producers or distributors would prefer us to interpret a text, [and] which audience demographics they feel they are addressing’ but that should not restrict us to seeing them as exemplars of divination, when the texts themselves are multifaceted and layered representations of industrial and cultural information that flow and stretch beyond what the 120-minute feature might offer.”

And what their study amounts to in disciplinary terms? “Those of us working in this field might use different approaches, different terms and different methodologies, but given that the study of promotional materials is becoming increasingly central to a range of media scholars, what we really need is a decent name!” This is a particularly timely issue. Publications and scholarly interest in the analysis of promotional material have been mounting, as attested by the success of the Titles, Teasers and Trailers conference held at Edinburgh University on April 22nd and 23rd.

The first essay on Frames‘s list is by Fredrick Greene, who provides an intriguing historical mapping of the birth of the trailer in the 1910s. At that time and not unlike today, the trailer was employed as both a marketing tool for the still-emerging cinematographic industry and a propagandistic means to support American war efforts in Europe. On this latter aspect Greene contends: “What this awareness reveals is the ambivalent role of trailers within the arsenal of propagandistic speech.  For while trailers—then as now–are eagerly anticipated, consumed and enjoyed, their formal and formulaic self-referentiality (seen in taglines and inter-titles, discontinuous editing and graphic design) effects a constant interruption of visual seduction: they denaturalize themselves with marketing meta-content, creating distance from and resistance in the viewer who is thereby reminded of their casual if interested relationship to mimetic representation.  While trailers use visual means to produce somatic and haptic reactions in viewers  …  their manifest work is always already bracketed, received under stipulation and filtered through a skein of skepticism.  No one has ever been in confusion about their status as persuasive speech.”

According to Leon Gurevitch, the relationship between filmmaking and advertising is much more complex and reciprocally beneficial than most scholars and critics believe. “[I]n an era of high concept filmmaking we can see advertising, oddly, as a calling card to executives within Hollywood, not simply because the advertising industry might be a place where a director could “cut their teeth” but because their adverts might literally operate as a shorthand means of demonstrating their aesthetic, stylistic and even editorial vision for larger projects.” Advertising materials actively shape a certain discourse on auterism as a desirable feature and guarantee of pleasure for audiences, a concern that also animates Colleen Laird’s contribution (more below).

Daniel Hesford explores the aesthetics of promotional materials, focusing on the performative agency of trailers. By way of a comparison between the commercial and spoof trailers of Machete and other instances of trailer-making in the areas of publishing, videogaming and politics, he concludes that “the trailer has become a powerful and expressive tool, but its effectiveness is not restricted to feature film promotion. Indeed, the possibility of creating ‘cinematic performance’, by assuming the form of the trailer, is an opportunity for other texts to benefit from its affective potency and communicate with readers in the tense of desire.” I like that, in addressing performativity, Daniel expands on the temporal short circuit enacted by the trailer, where cinematic pleasure is not imagined to progress from ‘build up’ to actual excitement. He writes: “As performance, the trailer offers a new approach to Deleuze’s vision for cinema: a representation of time freed from the perceptive constraints of movement – and rendered as a process of ‘transformation or becoming’– from past, present and future. The spoof trailer exists entirely in the crystalline: exhibiting images from the past, during a performance in the present, towards a virtual future moment that will never come. It aestheticizes the virtual by promoting contemplation of the creation and future experience of a non-existent feature film.”

A concern with the temporality of filmic experience also inspires Ellen Wright‘s article “‘Glamorous Bait for an Amorous Killer!: How post-war audiences were Lured by Lucille and the working-class girl investigator”, this time to inform a study of the marketing techniques attached to Douglas Sirk’s Lured. A semiotic analysis of the materials contained in the pressbook shows that the film’s discoursive construction of the “working class girl investigator” absorbed and re-defined post-war representations of women in noir cinematography as either femmes fatales, or angels of the hearth. Wright notes that the marketing deliberately chooses to reject this opposition, employing glamour as “an acceptable marker to suggest female agency.” This discoursive analysis of female representations in Hollywood’s post-war advertising  is an indirect and interesting commentary to Barbara Klinger’s classical study of melodramatic characters and gender constructions in Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk.

It is also in line with Colleen Laird‘s essay on Japanese female filmmakers which places emphasis on the way marketing products stereotype the directors as “auters.” Auter is here not a neutral category, but a profoundly gendered one even when, as in the case of Nishikawa Miwa, one of the two filmmakers Laird writes about, the woman goes a great length to distantiate herself from gender identification. Laird’s essay is interesting to me particularly because it focuses on the uses of “lifestyle marketing” to establish a gendered auteuristic persona that polices the boundaries of spectatorial pleasures while actively shaping and reshaping not only the audience’s preferences, but their way of life, habits and, apparently, desires.

Once again, Klinger’s work on advertising, which find space in her latest book Beyond the Multiplex, informs Jonathan Wroot’s closing article on DVD’s special features of Japanese films. As with other promotional materials explored in this issue, the special features seem to work on multiple levels and for multiple purposes. Wroot explains that the stage greetings appearing in the bonus material “demonstrate a type of special feature that indirectly promotes its subject matter. And that does not mean the film text alone – it can relate to cast and crew members, production companies, and other interrelated media … there are multiple promotional intentions.”

Finally, there is my own contribution “Aspirational paratexts: the case of ‘quality openers’ in TV promotion” which developed from one of the last posts before the hiatus, the one on Homeland. What I did was pointing to an expanding class of ambitious opening title sequences, of which Homeland‘s is just one example, to contend that the ever more marked differences separating ‘regular’ TV fare from ‘quality’ productions affect as much the series’ text ‘proper,’ as its promotional apparatus.

Paratexts … mediate between the actual text and what lies outside it (its audience , its other texts, institutions); they also mark the threshold – i.e. the point of entrance and exit – and forge a ‘communicative contract’ between spectator and text as described by semio-pragmatics. T. Elsaesser and M. Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses, 42.

When I began watching Homeland, I had heard about it on the Net. Living in Italy, where new TV shows find their way on the tube only after winning large acclaim (meaning actual awards) elsewhere, I had only online reviews, forums and blogs to wet my appetite for it. Being also a very demanding kind of spectator, I looked for the opinion of “experts” and fellow “fans” to make sure that at least Homeland was worth the effort of actually, you know, getting hold of it. I turned, for example, to Metacritic and there I convinced myself that I had to watch it.

The show was in its second or third instalment and already I knew a lot about it – the ambiguity, the deceiving, the suspecting, the double playing, the espionage and erotic/sentimental subplots. I also knew of the excellence of its cast, of Damian Lewis’ incredibly restrained-yet-powerful acting and of Claire Danes’ bodily expressivity. And then of course I knew, and was pre-emptively hooked, by its treatment of post-9/11 concerns – the obsession with surveillance, the mediation and mediatisation of control, the underlying distrust, anxiety and paranoia of what was once called “culture of fear” seeping well past George W. Bush’s years to contaminate Barak Obama’s new beginnings of “hope” and optimism.

Homeland-prima-stagione-ok

All this I gathered, like I said, from reviews, fan forums and blogs of TV experts and aficionados. Like the paratextual platforms they are, these texts helped me to access and master a densely-packed storyworld, collecting numerous resources, mostly in the form of personal opinions, that enhanced my expectations of what would soon become one of my favourite shows *ever.* Jonathan Gray, Jason Jacobs, Max Dawson and Lisa Kernan have published many influential studies on this subject, turning to aesthetic and historical approaches to argue for an expanded notion of the televisual and cinematic text. Insisting on the motif of the boundary, that is, on the idea that the entertainment industry produces movies and TV shows as discrete entities, enjoyable precisely because of the unique (even when it is serialised) way they mix genre, cast and plot, the authors contend that paratexts police the thresholds of interpretation and cultural appropriation of said works. In this respect, they contribute to isolate and alienate movies and shows from critiques of standardization, banality, and cultural impoverishment. Paratexts institute and sustain industrial strategies of accumulation by indexing a preferred set of meanings and standards of value relating to the productions. The “communicative contract” that Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener mention in the opening quote is established through a semio-pragmatics of guided interpretation, preemptive codification, thematic inspection and focused reasoning that associates the pleasures of watching to a cognitive appropriation of the contents of entertainment. This is true, of course, also for the movies and shows proper, as an innumerable numbers of publications on “complex” storytelling attest.

This is to say that when I finally watched Homeland’s pilot I was already familiar with it. I had been educated. What I was not prepared for, however, was its opening credits’ sequence, that you can watch here: vimeo.com/37322770 [Wordpress refuses to embed it, apologies!].

Is there a way to describe it? In preparation of this post I took careful note of what goes on in its 88 seconds. I listed its high number of shots (some of them recurring in theme, look and style), editing, postproduction intervention on colour and texture, diegetic sound and accompanying soundtrack. Had I had more time, I would have put up a diagram of all the layers that make it up. Yes, because what make the sequence noteworthy are its density and the nearly-claustrophobic, certainly displacing/disturbing atmosphere that it engineers by jamming together heterogeneous elements. I counted about 70 shots. 80% of them focus on the characters of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the remaining reproduce actual footage of a performance by Louis Armstrong; a newscast in Arabic; a scene of Muslim women wearing burqas, Presidents Ronald Regan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, as well as Colin Powell, delivering televised speeches (that we hear only in ephemeral/decontextualized fragments) about acts of terror (Lockerbie, the first attacks to the World Trade Center, the second war in Iraq); and two scenes shot from inside a flying helicopter and from ground level.

The shots follow one another by way of cuts and fades. Sometimes, in the interval of fading, a third image is interspersed and overimposed that, before dissolving, produces an almost holographic effect. On these occasions, not only do the subjects of the shots lose their prominence by being displaced by something ‘other,’ the spectatorial mastery of the object of vision is bracketed by an overabundance of sensorial stimulation (something that is also obtained acoustically with the insistent superimposition of diegetic sound on a piercing jazz soundtrack). This affective intrusion also materialises as hypersaturation and chromatic aberration. Although the shots are in black and white, the use of colour in some of them, as well as in a few dissolves, is heavy. This effect is seemingly obtained by increasing the amount of cyan and/or magenta used in the black and white conversion of the images, or by overlaying a chromatic texture on them. Occasionally, a grain effect is added, as in some close-ups of Carrie’s face (in one case seen wearing headphones) and eyelid. Furthermore, and on the editing again, the sequence is realized, overall, to provoke an on-going impression of discontinuity. Not only is it almost impossible to assign consistency and coherence to the sequence of images, within those which appear as narrative fragments (because of the internal recurrence of subject and motif), some shots literally jump/shake before our eyes, drawing attention to their precarious status as objects of knowledge. This is, however, not the result of shooting with a hand-held device, although that too happens in the scene inside the helicopter. It is, rather, a performative gesture aimed at maximizing the effects of an openly cryptic spectacle. There is no consistent narrative here. Temporal and spatial coordinates evolve anarchically, going back and forth among locales and epochs (though the Presidents’ speeches are ordered diachronically) to consciously prevent audiences from analysing what they are watching.

The few comments I have encountered on the web about Homeland’s title sequence, which I have only just begun to sketch (though I’m hoping to further examine in a future essay), mostly refer to it as unnerving, the few positive ones admitting that it is “moving.” I am fascinated by these responses. The sequence does, indeed, escape definite judgement. It seems to me that it was not made to be hacked, decoded and decrypted, so much as to be absorbed, talked-back, visited again and again. As a paratext, this is a very peculiar one. How does it police the boundaries of interpretation, and how does it contribute to the accumulation of spectatorial knowledge that Matt Hills attributes to paratextual framing? I do not want to crack the code of the spectacle, so much as to enjoy it, repeatedly, on a weekly basis, for 12 weeks at least. But as a way to end this post, I would suggest that perhaps the performative force of this sequence is in the openness with which it acknowledges its own ambiguity, where sensorial stimulation and the short-circuiting of interpretive work feed the extratextual dynamics of cognitive appropriation and focused reasoning that has secured the farming of avid audiences for the past hundred of years.

Today I had the pleasure to attend Elizabeth Bronfen’s lecture “Hollywood Wars: Historical Knowledge of a Different Kind,” held at L’Orientale University of Naples. It was an enlightening talk based on Bronfen’s recently published book Specters of War Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict in which she argues that mainstream movies are filters that re-imagine war for different audiences at different times in history. 

As a media scholar who has written on the affective aesthetics of the ‘war on terror’ in contemporary television series, I was enthralled by Bronfen’s investigation of what she called the “effects” of war movies. Showing a selection of scenes from Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) and Sands of Iwo Jima (Dwan, 1949) she examined their formal properties, especially the use of the shot-reversed shot, eye-level shooting, the recycling of actual footage from the warfront and the insertion of an elegiac soundtrack. Through this formalist approach Bronfen articulated a reading of audiovisual montage as a tool of affective mobilisation, something that, in her words, “resuscitates intensity on screen.” 

The intensity she referred to was that of the past, something that, as in the case of All Quiet‘s World War I scenario, the contemporary audience has no means to have experienced in the first person. The war movies that Hollywood has been producing for over a century are indeed time machines that help history to come back and beckon us. Only, the historical archive that these films make up does not convey the actual knowledge of what happened on those battlelines, or on the homefront where wives were waiting for their husbands’ return. Bronfen argued that the “authenticity effect” of such narratives is inscribed in the cinematic representation itself. Through formal means, the images re-imagine and re-conceptualise past experiences that we will never fully grasp, if not in their “energetic” power of affection. 

I was fascinated. The notion of “second-hand memories” or reel memories, and of Hollywood’s remediation of past events intrigues me. Behind it lays the question of what is being remediated and through what means. Clearly, entertainment formats like the ones Brofen analyses do more than provide documentaristic accounts of actual events. Discussing a scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks uses a pocket mirror to spy his enemies hiding on top of a boulder, Bronfen rightly noted that there was nothing remotely realistic about it. Not only wasn’t that an actual mirror, but a periscope, but the whole idea behind the ordeal was absurd. It is the spectacularity and the theatricality of cinema that Spielberg is foregrounding here — the medium’s ability to zoom in on inconsequential details and maximise their emotive effects. 

When mimetic representation is not the aim, then, how do historical movies address the past? And what do they make of this refiguration? According to Bronfen, these narratives provide a “conceptual space where phantoms return to us and affect us.” These revenant presences (the dying and dead soldiers impersonated by John Wayne, Tom Hanks etc.) restore collective energies and give birth to a form of affective commemoration where knowledge is not elaborated, so much as “resuscitated” from what, quoting F. Jameson, she calls the “political unconscious.”

The seminar gave mea lot to chew on, especially since in the past few days I’ve been thinking about affective memory a lot for an abstract submission that I am *still* elaborating. Just yesterday it dawned on me that Brian Massumi too writes about “memory without content” in relation to affective transmission. Memory without content pertains to proprioception, a mechanism of visceral reactivity that the Science Dictionary describes as “the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. In humans, these stimuli are detected by nerves within the body itself, as well as by the semicircular canals of the inner ear.” Massumi, which refers to this also as a “perspective of the flesh,” is here elaborating on the gap between conscious perception and what Patricia Clough calls “the non-intentionality of emotion.”

If, as the latter scholar writes, media technologies are “making it possible to grasp … the imperceptible dynamism of affect,” how do we make sense of this manipulation of the micro-fiber/micro-texture of memory? I believe Bronfen’s focus on “aesthetic refiguration” would be a good starting point to articulate the concept of affective remembrance as something that operates on impressions, more than on expression, on activation, more than reproduction. 

The 22nd issue of Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture on Hyperaesthetics is finally out. It just happens that it features my essay “Sensory Regimes in TV Marketing: Boardwalk Empire’s Chromatic Enhancement and Digital Aesthetics” where I discuss how color creates a cohesive identity for Martin Scorsese’s show, while also being employed as a means to pre-emptively encourage affective bonds between the audience and the series in advance of broadcasting.

This is the first essay out of my new research project, am quite proud of it.

After taking a long pause from compulsive watching to focus on publishing (and vacationing), today I treated myself to the first two episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  I had read mixed reactions to it and was a little dubious to follow what I thought would be a self-congratulatory show overburdened by Sorkin’s trademark windiness, but my friends assured that it was good TV and it was too hot to do anything else, so I gave it a try. And it was good, indeed.

I had fun watching The Newsroom because it is well-acted, well-cast and has a pretty decent photography. Jeff Daniels’ acting the manic, self-centred Will McAvoy convincingly monopolised my attention, demanding the same amount of intimidated consideration from me that he seemingly imposes on his subjects at Atlantis Cable News. Sam Waterson, as Charlie Skinner, ACN’s division president, also won my favour by being very good at playing a closet-patronizing wacko, while Dev Patel (as Neal Sampat) was just too cute a geek not to love him as he did his best to respect everybody’s privacy by shrinking in his family-guy cardigans, or tip-toeing around the office always a minute too late not to overhear some gossip. Yes, those characters seemed to work and have potential for further development. McAvoy is evidently as bad a pain in the neck as he is because of some unknown event that has befell him in the past; with Skinner we might have less to investigate, but he needs to be there to take Sam by the hand and box his ears from time to time; and Neal, we all know that his stereotypical, subcontinental intelligence and technical knowledge will become invaluable at ACN.

So The Newsroom was good, as I said. I watched the pilot and then I felt like watching a second episode because it seemed to me that it got action. The built-up to the first airing of the new newsshow planted seeds in terms of characters’ background, and it also involved a little scheming that suited my summer needs. Yet, something else did not do it for me, and I am not referring to McAvoy’s grand lament about how America used to be the greatest country in the world, because that was just too sappy and biased and I am sure a lot of people have already rubbed that in Sorkin’s face. But yes, in part I am also referring to that because one of the things that made me want to write this post in the first place is how nostalgic the show is.

I don’t need to go over the plot of episodes 1 and 2 since the opening sequence self-evidently encapsulates my argument, broaching also on the asphyxiating sexism of Sorkin’s writing.

The intro is a 1:30 minute long tribute to the ideal of journalistic integrity, uncompromised by ratings and political partisanship, as it was embodied by anchors the likes of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite (the latter being mentioned by Charlie Skinner as responsible for ending the Vietnam war [or something along those melodramatic lines]). After an establishing shot of a satellite hovering over the Earth, the first half of the intro mainly shows black&white archived footage of old newsrooms in slow motion, enhancing the ‘vintage’ look of the shots by carefully foregrounding the customary horizontal bars that appeared on old television sets. Accompanying an extended pan over individual figures caught as they greet the audience, rehearse or prepare to go on air, a somber string/orchestral theme elevates them to the iconic status of emblems of a long-gone world and long-lost ‘morality’ (the episodes often referring in a derogatory tone to the turn news have taken towards ‘gossip’ and ratings-driven content). Furthermore, the slow motion and some other trick that I can’t name allow these figures to emerge from the background looking like papercut pictures, the better to aid a nostalgic approach to what they did and stood for. To contrast the unhurried quality of these first moments, the second half of the sequence cuts to more rapid shots from the actual show, resuming its colour and digital quality by allowing multiple images and typecast to overlap and dissolve, as to emphasize the hypertextual and multi-media context in which the characters move. Unsurprisingly, the second episode is entitled “The Newsroom 2.0” and revolves around an accident involving McKenzie McHale’s apparent ineptitude at managing her email account.

Which brings me to my second point: what’s with the women of The Newsroom? And more importantly, what’s with Sorkin’s sexism?! Again, look at the credits: not only is the time reserved to women on screen much shorter than that given to men, but 90% of the times the women we get to see are either flushed, distressed or competing for a man’s attention. The names of Alison Pill and Olivia Munn, acting respectively as Meggie Jordan and Sloan Sabbith, are both superimposed on scenes that represent them in moments of implied difficulty; Munn strutting out of an office frowning with a nervous look on her face and Pill acting the stereotype of the goofy college girl who wants to do good at all costs in spite of being unschooled, as her male supervisors/crushes apparently never cease to remind her. Then, a few seconds later, there’s Emily Mortimer (McKenzie McHale) talking over the phone with her head in her hand, and then more males: men’s hands and silhouettes and bodies just monopolising the screen. For the sake of fairness I should add that we get to see women three more times, in passing, once there’s a blond one doing the countdown and after that a few more  more Mortimer moments.

You really don’t need to be a feminist to question Sorkin’s views on gender equality.  A superficial comparison of shots with women and shots with men would demonstrate that the guys most of the times are either smiling or being satisfied with their work, as when Patel is shown looking at something on his computer with a look of pure awe on his face that reminds me of Bastian Bux of The Neverending Story.

Thus, if we want to stick to the opening sequence and treat it as a piece  of cinematography that establishes the salient features of the show while “wetting the appetite” of viewers for more, then what we learn from The Newsroom’s intro is that journalism and integrity are not the province of women. They suggest that not only is this a drama series about how cable television and newscast should learn from the past, but that it is run by men who, although subject to incredible loads of work, manage to stay focused while women stray the office looking something between self-indulgent, frenzied and distracted. The fact that the credits intersperse typecasts among the shots, blaring “news alert,” “special bulletin,” and “breaking news” in bright yellows, red and blues, links Sorkin’s gender politics to emotive issues of emergency and critical management where men seem to fare much better than women. After all, we do get to see McAvoy in distress, banging papers on his desk, but we are reassured that he knows how to cope with his anger when the next best shot is of him greeting his audience with composure from behind the same desk.

I can only hope that, in spite of Sorkin’s effort at passing male’s disembodied rationalism as a cure of idle gossiping in journalism and other fields, I will get to keep some of my unhealthy and unmediated passion for watching sexist TV in the next few days. August is going to be long, lonely and hot, better make do with what FATHER seems to know best for me.

Why should those who watch a film be interested in contract negotiations between actors, agents, and production companies as well as the union agreements on which these negotiations are based? But it is exactly this, dealing with this tension, responding to it, that is the task of the title sequence.

A few days ago, I stumbled into a minidoc entitled “The Art of Film & TV Title Design” which I have watched twice and plan on watching more. Not only is the documentary fun to watch, it is also instructive to learn about how credits are made and what kind of logic inspires them.

The video lets the creators of some great title sequences of American movies and TV shows speak of their work. These are Peter Frankfurt and Karin Fong from Imaginary Forces; Ben Conrad from Logan and Jim Helton, film editor of Blue Valentine (2010 dir. Derek Cianfrance). All of them are behind some very artsy productions. Imaginary Forces is responsible for the credits of hits such as Transformers (2007 dir. Michael Bay), The Pink Panther 2 (2009 dir. Harald Zwart), Boardwalk Empire (HBO 2009-), Mad Men (AMC 2007-), Hell on Wheels (AMC 2011-), The Pacific (HBO 2010), and more. Logan created the opening sequence of Zombieland (2009 dir. Ruben Fleischer) and a variety of commercial ads, and Jim Helton’s work on Blue Valentine is certainly a proof of his ability to create stirring audiovisuals compositions.

Watching the documentary, with its selection of moments from various title sequences, one is impressed by the degree of aesthetic refinement, inventiveness and heterogeneity in terms of montage, rhythm, photography, that they radiate. This is certainly nothing new. Entertainment media have long been an experimental ground to test innovations in audiovisual techniques, becoming, in the last decade, the platform of election of the digital/design revolution that Anne Balsamo discusses in her new book Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. My last post was about Saul Bass, the undisputed forefather of contemporary title design, who, starting in the 1940s, elevated a cinematic form, whose existence is tied to legal and economic exigencies, to new artistic heights.

So it is not like we didn’t already know that title sequences can be fun and beautiful to watch. What the academic in me brought home from watching the documentary is that not enough is being said about them. Although its short-form and short-time span qualify the title sequence as an “ephemeral medium,” the publications dealing with this topic, most notably Paul Grainge’s edited anthology Ephemeral Media, make no reference to them. You get scholars discuss different incarnation of media “paratexts,” meaning, in Jonathan Gray’s definition, the extras like posters, press reviews, making-ofs, DVDs etc. that provide the “early frames through which we will examine, react to, and evaluate textual consumption” (26),” but almost no literature in English has been published on title sequences proper.

It seems that the difficulty in exploring title sequences lays in their ambiguous position that makes them more than advertising, yet less than stand-alone productions. Whereas trailers, for example, are easily categorised as promotional material that must raise awareness and draw people to the theatre (or TV set, or video store or online aggregator), title sequences are unburdened with this task in that their function is to ease your dive into a world of fiction (at the same time as they straighten some legal matters concerning property rights). They are supplements, not advertisements. I know that a lot has been written about this and other related issues in German, so I’m hoping that one day I’ll master the language enough to read it, but for now I am left with very little knowledge on credits besides what I gathered from the documentary.

I learned that marketers and producers regard the title sequence as a “movie inside a movie,” as Jim Helton maintains. This means that it is approached as a self-conclusive work made of different acts that embed title cards, photography, typography and music into an edited progression that is, ultimately, a form of storytelling. Analysed in this way, the title sequence emerges in all its artistic integrity which is, not by chance, the work of specialists who are often not part of the crew assigned to producing the movie or the show. This might lead one to argue for some sort of autonomy of the credits, as if they accounted for an alternative medium. Rather, Peter Frankfurt and Karin Fong remind us that title sequences exist to reference them to the point that, ideally, one can’t exist without the other. The same idea of credits as a movie’s double is expressed by Georg Stanitzek who, in “Reading the Title Sequence,” refers to them as paradigmatic texts offering a “preferred arrangement of reading and commentary.” [Something Fred Greene also discusses in his blog post of 5 April]

Yet, this is not a mirror relationship, where the credits are compelled to faithfully reproduce what the movie will be about. On the contrary, their paradigmatic status requires  a level of abstraction able to “encompass” and “reinforce” the spirit of the production, as Frankfurt and Fong say about their work for Se7en (1995 dir. David Fincher). This is especially true of the credits for TV shows, whose life is genetically programmed to last longer than any movie’s. In this case, titles must be generic enough to give life to a universe that exists just in blueprint form. Since the decision to keep a show on the air or renew it is taken several weeks (if not months) into the broadcasting of its premiere season, its potential narrative development is, for the most part, either non-existent or underdeveloped. In this respect, the title sequence cannot be based on plot elements, not even on star performance. The “intermediary zone” (Stanitzek) between announcement and beginning that it presides over becomes one where copy and design, the substance and form of a production, blend into each other. Here, the credits become prospective, staying on the surface while creating an illusion of narrative depth. They entice viewers and set a mood, becoming not descriptive but iconic. Stanitzek: “The tile sequence does not compel you to pay attention. However, it focuses on the situation of distractedness and diverging expectations, namely, providing a focus that allows for a transition into the movie.” In this instance, design becomes storytelling and climax turns into “splurge” (Montagu 1964): “an exuberant cinematic celebration” (Stanitzek).

What is then that this specific take on the expressivity of form accomplishes? According to Ben Conrad and Jim Helton is an affective connection with the audience. Either by referring to the use of design tricks that instigate a feeling of “anticipation” in the opening of Zombieland, or to the “rhythmic editing” of Blue Valentine’s credits, both directors imply that title design creates a special form of screen attachment emerging from the creation of “special little moments” that resonate with “you.” Read in light of Stanitzek’s reference to the state of distraction that credits presuppose, Conrad and Helton’s observations recall those advanced in Catherine Fowler and Paola Voci’s study of the “ambiverted” nature of viewing. In an essay published online, they maintain that the “temporal formation of the viewing experience” in contemporary times is characterised by the consumption of video fragments performed while on the move (in the metro, on the bus, while working). Marked by “interruptions and interferences,” this experience is necessarily one of “dis-order” that challenges entrenched ideas that watching a film (by which they mean any kind of video production, for example gallery films and portable movies) entails watching at “length and in isolation.” On the contrary, productions now account for viewing experiences characterized by phases of fleeting rapture and “momentary attachment” that, far from weakening, strengthen “the attachment between viewer and images.”

References

Balsamo, Anne (2011). Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Duke, Duke University Press.
Fowler, Catherine & Paola Voci (2011). “Brief Encounters: Theorizing Screen Attachments Outside the Movie Theatre.” Screening the Past, 33. <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/brief-encounters-theorizing-screen-attachments-outside-the-movie-theatre/&gt;
Grainge, P. (ed.) (2010). Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube. Basingstoke, Palgrave McMillan.
Gray, Jonathan (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York and London, New York University Press.
Montagu, Ivor (1964). Film World: A Guide to Cinema. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Stanitzek, Georg (2009). “Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Génèrique).” Cinema Journal, 4 48: 44-58.

The guys at Art of the Title have put together a short video about Saul Bass and his unique style of title design. The video is a summary of Bass’ most famous title sequences, such as those of North by Northwest, Cape Fear (both the original and the remake), Casino and The War of the Roses.

Not only is the video instructive of Bass’ signature style, it is also very interesting to watch in light of the recent resurgence in modernist style in design, cinema and television, of which you can read more in this article by Vanessa Quirk.

Of course, as a TV scholar, I can only point to AMC’s Mad Men’s acclaimed credits, whish owe a great debt to Bass, and they’re recent promotional posters that advertise the debut of its fifth season.

Image

 

Glad to know that Fred Greene of UCLA finds my forthcoming article on the sensorial stimulation in Boardwalk Empire’s trailer campaign fascinating. Read along what he thinks of it!

 

 

So, finally, I feel like writing my PhD thesis was not a complete waste of energy and time. An essay based on the research I conducted at “L’Orientale” University of Naples has seen the light on Scope, under the title “Between Allegory and Seduction: Perceptual Modulation in Battlestar Galactica.”

Following is the abstract

“This paper investigates the relationship between BSG and the post-9/11 ecology of agitation in light of George Bush’s strategy of collective perceptual management. While most readings focus on its allegory of the war on terror, I address the audiovisual strategies by which BSG appeals to the viewer’s senses, mapping the emergence of a post-9/11 sensibility. My suggestion is that the show’s relationship with the post-9/11 reality rests in the power to address the audience’s feelings. To this end, I look at BSG’s aesthetics of crisis as operating as an affective vector, playing out in an informational system that invests in affective solicitation to provoke a bodily response in the audience. Given the status of television as the principal medium of post-9/11 governmental perceptual modulation, I argue that BSG’s relationship with the war on terror is rooted in an ability to express meaning and feeling, keeping a sensation of agitation alive throughout a four-season run. To expose the political value of the show’s aesthetics, I look not at the codes, as at the expressions and style that make up a scenario of sensorial stimulation where feeling becomes a biopolitical operator. Indeed, BSG’s cinematographic techniques and haptic visuals, chromatic shifts and aural evocations effectively manufacture agitation, exposing a tension between the show’s status as an allegory of the contemporary world and its complicity with practices of televised affective engineering”.

and a link to Scope’s table of contents where you can download the essay.

Lately, I have been engaging in a very fruitful email exchange with prof. Fred Greene from UCLA, author of the blog Reviews of Previews and expert of trailer production. When he asked my feedback on his post on discontinuous editing, I replied with a long email, not knowing that my opinion was being considered for publication. I basically argued that trailers are productive both in industrial and social terms, since they are designed to foster interaction, audience appropriation and viral circulation. I was honored to find out that Fred thought it was interesting enough to repost it as a guest post on his blog. If you care for the extended version of the argument you can read it here.

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