“ASPIRATIONAL PARATEXTS” INDEED: The “Quality Opening” Gambit of the Title Sequence

In the recently published Frames Cinema Journal devoted to Promotional Materials, my friend and colleague, Enrica Picarelli, has contributed a fascinating, provocative article on title sequences–also known as “openers,” “main titles” and “credits”– for premium cable content (e.g. Six Feet Under, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, etc., etc.) These short “audiovisual forms (ranging from a few seconds to two minutes in length)… at the beginning of a film and TV programme (either before its start or a few minutes into it), list production, cast and crew credits and the distributor’s trademark logo” and “serve an array of diversified purposes (from art and fashion to certification of employment and entertainment).”

[Readers of this blog will kindly recall a post about the wonderful website, Art of the Title, which celebrates the industry, the artistry and the talents. There is also a compelling essay by Professor Georg Stanitzek on the subject of titles in this blog’s bibliography, that is cited by Picarelli. “Der Vorspann Generique” is its German language title, but it is translated into English, as “Reading the Title Sequence.]

In her essay, Picarelli looks closely at these “culturally relevant contents that enrich the viewer’s engagement with a film [or] a TV programme,” an emergent, under-theorized and inadequately criticized subject of scholarly inquiry. Similar to trailers in many ways but markedly different in others, “quality openers” as she labels title sequences that aspire to more than merely list information, comprehend an “astounding number of tightly interwoven operations”

In this post, I wanted to highlight a few of Picarelli’s more insightful and persuasive arguments about these entities that are neither the feature or the program they introduce nor a standalone element, but something simultaneously and self-consciously integral and other.

Picarelli borrows the term paratext from the French critic Gerard Genette to describe the “two-way relationship” with an audience “mediated” by the film or programme proper and “the materials existing on and outside of its borderland” – e.g.trailers, featurettes, teasers and title sequences. “Yet, title sequences are a peculiar kind of promotional material… After all, if we are sitting in the theatre, it means that we are already persuaded to watch a movie or a show, with the opener being a part of the spectacle.” Film critic Anna Zagala, calls it a “dynamic in-between space” at the edge of the spectacle, “where distinctions between outside and inside dissolve, and the film undergoes the difficult, exhilarating passage towards suspended disbelief.”

Unlike trailers and featurettes, which operate at a distance from the feature or programme, the title/ opener is part of it, the wrapping of the content that distinguishes and presents it as a coherent unit. In the 80’s and 90’s, apart from a few notable examples (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Twin Peaks), opening titles were allotted minimal resources and only perfunctory creative attention.

The 21st century has proven to be a golden age for the genre which reached peaks of artistry and conceptual sophistication in the hands of mid-century designers/filmmakers like Saul Bass and Maurice Binder (the Bond films). For “premium” cable shows, titles function as a mark or sign of quality. But beyond their visual appeal, sequences for shows like Six Feet Under, Dexter, Game of Thrones, etc, “stand out for their ability to encapsulate thematic concerns in iconic ways,” providing “a threshold between the diegetic and non-diegetic world” and an “aestheticized contextualization of the production details of the series,” writes Picarelli.

Unsurprisingly, quality titles (opening sequences) are not appropriate for every show, since they are expensive, painstaking and play no direct role in generating revenue. What they do is distinguish and embellish, differentiate and position, which, though of vital importance are not easily quantifiable. Shows like Lost and Greys’ Anatomy, for example, eschew elaborate title sequences in favor of simple graphic cards, with no apparent loss of credibility or fan appeal. But for their cable peers, the “high-production values and artistic standards” of the opening, “mark the cultural currency of a series, with the audiovisual excellence of its opener functioning as an effective tool of programme branding.”

In the concluding portion of Picarelli’s study, she considers the title sequence for Homeland, called “the worst ever” by a blogging critic. Audiences and critics call them too ambitious, too demanding, too dense, too confusing and too focused of the complexities of the show, which it attempts to enact within the terms of its own editing and graphic artisty. .

The last word, however, belongs to Enrica. Don’t mind the media studies jargon. She’s actually saying something true, relevant and insightful.

“The strategies associated with the production of contemplative, quality openers extend beyond the broadcasting moment, to foresee and modulate their circulation as autonomous entertainment forms. What seems to motivate the current industrial interest in openers is their ability to initiate an encounter that ‘linger[s] longer than the television series itself.’ If channels need promos with a lasting effect, they might have found in openers the right balance of artistic and promotional integrity that ‘lodges itself in the mind and won’t be dislodged.’ This performative character of openers shows how a sophisticated aesthetics and its ability to comment on a developing storyline enhance forms of moment-intensive consumption. At the same time, openers become vehicles of a form of ‘instant’ entertainment that might further push TV’s dive into an economy of the ‘commons,’ whereby promotional materials aggregate interest and attention because of their social resonance, but also defuse and disperse this attention away from the series.”

Check out the entire article. No doubt, I’ve reduced the subtlety of her argument in the interest of time and focus. In her essay, Picarelli offers a brief description of the content and cinematic style of the Homeland Opening Credits, prior to offering an interpretation based on her analytic framework. I would have enjoyed reading her take on the Game Of Thrones opening credits, especially how they function as “early frames through which we will […] evaluate textual consumption”. But, perhaps, that will have to wait for my next post?

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About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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