Archives for posts with tag: homeland

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.