Archives for posts with tag: credits

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.

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.