Archive | August 2012

DEXTER (TV SERIES) Opening Title Sequence – A Close Reading

 

Use of Opening title sequence in Television Shows

Conventionally, the opening title sequences are used to give information about the television show, the actors’ and the creator’s name. However, some use this opening sequence to set a tone for the show, while helping audience identify the genre. They create images and use sound that is intended to be immediately recognizable for the audience and engage them by drawing them into the program itself. Thus while they provide a ‘brand identity’ for the program, these title sequences are meant mostly for introducing the show and need to considered independent from the particular episode of the show that follows it. 

Introduction about the show

The montage which is shown as the main title sequence is designed by Digital Kitchen Studios for the television show ‘Dexter’, which revolves around a character named Dexter, who works for Miami Police and moonlights as a serial killer of those murderers and criminals that have escaped justice. Using the ‘code’ taught to him by his father to avoid getting caught and catch only the people ‘who deserve it’, while maintaining an ordinary persona, he leads a double life – which makes him question about himself and his relationships.

The title sequence

The main title sequence, shown before every episode, takes the morning routine of the main character, converting it into a highly unusual montage by adding new layers of meaning and expanding its significance beyond the literal (denotative message) into ideological, aesthetic, hermeneutic and ontological level (connotative messages).

In this analysis, a close reading of this sequence will be done by relying on many semiotics concepts and terminologies to break it into different layers, ultimately answering two major questions  –

  1. Why is this opening sequence so appealing to the viewers?
  2. How we, as the spectator are affected during and after watching it?

What does it show?

Before answering the ‘Why?’ it is important to analyze the ‘What?’ This is to ask – What does main title contain and for what reason?  Answering this may help us mark the denotative layer of the sequence, helping establish on the point to build the other layers and interpretation.

On the surface of it, it is a montage of the morning routine of the main character – Dexter. This almost instantly feeds the audience with an enormous amount of information about him. While the routine by itself can be seen denotative, the choice and the process in the routine connotatively reveal a lot about the character. For instance, skin texture and eyes depict the age and gender. The choice of food – bacon, eggs, juice – gives an idea about the culture he belongs to. Even the presence of mosquito and sunny brightness outdoors crudely indicate the geographical location[1]. The choice of clothes, presence of equipment such as razor, coffee-maker, and treadmill fixate a time period this is set in.

So while the sequence establishes the character and his space, it also introduces the tone of the entire show. Furthermore, by its structural construction, it is appears to be a micro-narrative in its own right, presenting the routine as some sort a meticulous repetitive performance thus paralleling Dexter’s killing rituals.

Why use the morning routine?

As already discussed, the usage of ‘morning routine’ helps in revealing more about the character. But its aptness works at another level. It is the first stage of the day, thus becoming the first stage in human diurnal consciousness. Thus, the morning routine does not only constitute the start of his story, but the start of a new consciousness for the audience: An entrance into a new world.

Furthermore, by observing the character during that time and place, he is reduced to the mercy of the audience gaze as the space and environment, as well as the actions are extremely intimate. This routine is almost always kept out of the public sphere. This power of being able to gaze at the character during this time ends up making him look vulnerable and he becomes an object of empathy. The audience starts feeling for him without even realizing it.

Montage’s Photographic Messages

The title sequence is a well-made montage which loads the audience with an enigmatic reaction. To understand the affect more thoroughly, it needs to be broken down into different elements. This segregation of layers by some of the different ‘connotative procedures’[2] will help communicate the message(s) encoded in the sequence.

AESTHETICISM

The title sequence prepares the audience for a world with different aesthetics, a reality whose formal and stylistic treatment makes the understanding of morality differently than how it is seen in every-day life.

Paradoxically, the title sequence is the climax of audio-visual stimulation and engagement. The choice of music is highly unusual given the genre of the show – that is to say, instead of a dark ominous tune; it is very light and ‘joyful’.  However, this seems necessary, as it makes the audience take the visuals more lightly and in doing so abandon any sensual and cognitive associations made previously with the concept violence or gore, the potentiality of which is implied in the sequence. This short but efficient process takes place on a range of different epistemological levels: conscious, subconscious, intellectual and emotional.

Adding to this is a re-using of visual motifs in different contexts with different objects placing the audience into a different aesthetic and ideological mind-set.

Aesthetics are not just in overall imagery but also embedded within each frame. Screen texture oscillates between straight and circular shapes – from blood stain in sink, to texture of ham, to shot of a frying pan to blades of the knife to coffee beans and then to dental floss.

Whether it is the knife cutting the ham and the egg, or the wounding of the dental floss around the finger or shoelace being tied through the lace holes, the elements of “cutting”, “stabbing” and “strangling” – three recurring actions in Dexter’s modus operandi – are then hinted through integration of the two geometrical symbols – straight lines crossing circular shapes.

This Interplay between straight lines and circles if looked through a Freudian lens, bears an implicit reminiscence to the sexual act, turning Dexter’s obsession into a seemingly justifiable basic human instinct. This for the audience further substitutes his male sexual drive with blood thirst, during the show, thus explaining his ‘need to kill’. This fetishization for the graphic elements in this sequence brings the audience one step closer to Dexter. These forms and style put the audience in at vantage point through which they feel they can see through Dexter’s façade, and accept his inner motivations and desire.

POSE (ARRANGMENT)

While Pose originally referred to the posture and arrangement of the object within the picture[3], here it has been liberalized into meaning the arrangement of camera and shot which invariably affects the pose of the object. Looking through a technical point of view, it is noticed that there is a constant switch from horizontal to vertical compositions, either indicated by the arrangement of the props or the axis of the action. Furthermore, there is the alternation of shot sizes: ECU (extreme close-up) to CU (close-up) again and again.

This has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it creates constant visual jumps that symbolize the inner conflict of the main character (hence foreshadowing the story). Secondly, the close-ups create an abstract, claustrophobic and almost sinister mood by obscuring the character and space, reflecting one of the main tenants in Dexter’s philosophy: keep his emotions to himself and his true self hidden from the public.

SYNTAX (ARRANGEMENT OF SHOTS)

Barthes theorized that when ‘several photographs…come together to form a sequence… the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragment of the sequence..’. Thus looking at this as a series of shots reveals some interesting patterns of progression and development, other than the literal morning routine. On a sub-textual level this little narrative shows Dexter’s gradual affinity for blood and killing. It serves almost as a prelude to his ultimate affects, which are manifested by the killing scenes in the actual story.

The sequence starts with Dexter innocently killing a mosquito and smiling at the bloody bite mark. It continues with him shaving and cutting himself (the audience do not see the actual cut, only the blood), then cutting up his breakfast egg and ham, pressing down the coffee machine plunger and squeezing a blood orange. In the end he ties his shoes and puts on his shirt. The activities itself reveal his drive to kill, that is to say – affinity for blood (cutting himself while shaving and blood drop in the sink), violent demeanor (killing mosquito, squeezing fruit to make juice), actual killing ( killing of mosquito and slicing bacon-egg), wrapping up the corpse (tying the shoe lace and putting on the shirt). The violence and Dexter’s true nature are gradually exposed.

OBJECT (PLACEMENT)

The placement of object or posing, as Barthes mentions, is what gives it meaning and context. Dexter interacts differently with his two main environments: indoors and outdoors. Indoors he is subjected to his affects; outdoors he is calm and controlled. In psychoanalytic terms, inside his apartment the “Id” dominates him and outside it is the “superego” controls him.

Third meaning

Though the denotative and connotative layers of the sequence are explored, there is still something that holds the audience to it. Following the footsteps of Barthes, it may not be blasphemous to call this the third meaning.

While not going into defining it, as that is not the scope of this analytic reading, it can be the couple of elements not yet explored – the gestural significance in the sequence and the use of irony.

Through the sequence, there is a gradual revelation of Dexter’s face and body. Dexter’s face is constantly blurred or obscured by shadows, tight shot sizes or shallow depth of field until finally it is revealed in the third last close-up, and then, his body further revealed in a medium shot as he leaves his apartment. This puzzle-like revelation is not only analogous to the main storyline, which unfolds like a puzzle in every season, but the character himself

Use of irony helps in transiting into the universe created here by infusing another meaning. It is very close to what Barthes described as ‘the obtuse meaning’ as it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure’.

The sequence is not in the chronological order of the morning routine or there is an element of magical realism. Like, the shaving does not make sense as Dexter is not clean-shaven when he steps out. Another instance is that he is eating the ham and egg separately, which is not how it is usually eaten. Preparing coffee and juice is not usual nor is tying one’s shoes before putting on a shirt. Yet, we do not notice these things, but rather accept them as normal. Realism is justifiably sacrificed for aesthetic and narrative logic. Acceptance of this sequence as everyday activity – when it is clearly not – is the final indicator to the fact that the audience has accepted Dexter.

Irony thus creates a complete new meaning of an illogical sequence. Thus, quoting Barthes again ‘Indifferent to moral and aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival. Obtuse is thus very suitable.’

Conclusion

How can the audience justify not only watching, but actually feeling attracted to a man who is a serial killer? Why don’t they want him to be caught when he embarks on his killing spree? And the spectators irresponsible for feeling attracted to a killer?

Dexter’s title sequence succeeds in creating a very smooth transition for the viewer from one reality to another and is thus able to answer the above question and subtly, yet not indirectly, appealing to the audience’s ‘dark passenger’[4]which is personified as the character Dexter


[1] Mosquitoes are typical of warm environments near water. While the audience may not be able to exactly pinpoint the location to the area being Miami (USA), they get a sense of a place very similar.

[2] Used by the Semiotician Roland Barthes in his essay ‘The Photographic Message’ (1977)

[3] ‘The Photographic Message’, Barthes

[4] The term Dexter has given to his obsessive need to kill

 

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The insecurities in the head of a crazy girlfriend

“Where were you? Do you know how long it has been since I last spoke to you? No…Try remembering. No! It’s been more than 40 minutes. And you did not even call! You know it very well that I would have called if I had any hands – but you! I am pretty sure you still have yours! It is not like it was your body that was detached from head and taken away by Rick. Why would I be joking? DO I SOUND LIKE I AM IN A FUNNY MOOD? Yes, I said Rick! Don’t call him my stalker ex-boyfriend’. He is not! Well whatever you may think of him, at least he has always been there for me, unlike someone who is too busy to even message me every few minutes! I don’t care if it was an important meeting! It’s like you do not even love me anymore! WAIT, WHAT?? Where am I? Well I am still on the sofa near the landline, my body is with Rick. Will you stop being so confused? I don’t know why Rick took my body?  It’s not like I could ask over the sound of the chainsaw. Oh god, speaking of chainsaw, the house is a bloody mess – literally, so please call the maid tomorrow morning first thing. Stop asking me if I am serious? FORGET CALLING THE POLICE!! You are talking to me now! Or do you prefer to talk to cops over me. I should add that to the list, I guess. WHAT? How should I know how am I still alive? Oh! You would love for me to die, won’t you? Am I NOTHING to you? WILL YOU SPEAK LOUDER? It is already on loudspeaker and I can’t bring the phone any closer with just my head. Tell me one thing – Do you still care about me? Am I anything to you? NO THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR ME TO KNOW!!! I AM NOT CRAZY!! DON’T YOU KEEP THE PHONE DOWN, MISTER!!! HELLO?? HELLO??”

END

Lost Loves Exploring Rama’s Anguish – Arshia Sattar’s ADP Seminar

It is a very hard thing to talk about Ramayan in a few hours without preaching or bringing out one’s own reflection and interpretation of the epic, but Arshia Sattar was not only able to translate the original text as written by Valmiki but also bring out new areas to explore and discuss with them.

Listening to her read excerpts from her book, I struggled wondered who to give credits for the incredulous description and dialogue within the text – Valmiki or herself. Her poignant ways of writing surely compliment (if not enhanced), Valmiki’s masterpiece in terms of content and structure.

But while her penmanship left everyone mesmerized enough to just listen to her, her almost humourous anecdotes, cheeky comments about the epic made others respond and engage in the discussion.

Her reason for working on Valmiki’s version over others tellings was primarily because of the presentation of Ram as a mortal, who “does what he believes is the right thing” and faces the consequences of it.

This was interesting, as she saw the addition of divinity to the main character almost trivialized the essence of the epic and all the complexities that go with it.

Getting to her new book ‘Lost Loves – Exploring Ram’s anguish’,  she dwells into the relationship between Ram and Sita. Without making judgments or siding with one character, she showed how Valmiki represented dialogues between the two, giving insight about both characters.

What particularly stood out (and was almost unanimously agreed upon), was the ambiguity of time in the epic.

Add to that the supernatural elements, the dream-like scape of Ramayana brings out – almost subtly – the question about its own reality.

A reality that is only questioned by Sita when encountered by Hanuman in Ashok Vatika.

Experience of being contained and then re-represented

Trapped. Itchy.

Ok this smells.

That is how I felt, while lying down, wrapped in the Calico cloth as an Egyptian mummy (well…to be fair to them -mummy don’t have the luxury of watching the fan rotate on the ceiling). Both my team-mates had gone out of the room. I forgot the reason why. The paint on cloth covering my upper body was drying, though I could feel the coolness of water seep through it and spread on the newspaper that was between my T-Shirt and cloth. 

I should have removed my T-shirt. This is a waste. Now I am not sure what I am doing. WHY am I doing this? I don’t even understand cloth. Well that can be seen through my fashion sense. Why did we chose to work with cloth?

I kept thinking about purpose of this exercise. Which then went to purpose of life (lying motionless can do that to you). But my epistemological journey was soon interrupted by sounds of laughter. Someone had entered the room. Other group members? No, It was a PDP student. Who asked me the question I was struggling with

“What the hell are you guys doing?”

It was then I resorted to the most profound, psuedo-intellectual  debatable answer, that one can use (and has used) in Srishti –

“Art..dude. Art”

Quiet naturally, I knew what his second question was going to be, so I was already ready with it  like catapult to throw it back at him.

“What do YOU think we are doing?”

Good. Now I can use whatever he says, to hitchhike on it and make it a very transcendental conceptual piece of work.

“I am not sure. But whoever you are suppose to be, I feel bad for you. How long have you been here like this?”

“Umm..about 20 minutes. My team-mates are going to be back and continue painting”

“Hmm..Cool. Hopefully you aren’t claustrophobic. It must be hard breathing in that”

He left with that.

Great. Thanks. I AM claustrophobic and you just reminded me of it. Happy thoughts, Anupriy. Need a distraction. Ok, concept. Think concept. Try introspecting the experience. Enlightenment shall occur.

Where are those guys? What’s taking them so long?

The forceful conceptualization technique  was not working. I mean who was I kidding? There is not  working –

Wait a minute!

The guy said whoever I was suppose to be. Whoever. Not whatever. Why?

It was as if the wrapping of the cloth may have done away with my identity, but was still with the context of a human identity. Just the question of which socio-cultural persona I was becoming.

To cloth, is human..

Presence of cloth, becomes a sign of humanity. A sense of culture, even when there maybe no sense to it by itself. Cloth is the medium. No, no. Cloth is a form to represent an identity. A constructed identity. I felt contained because I felt my biological identity was almost extinguished by this new constructed identity. (I was really trying to ignore the itching sensation this time). This conflict between the two identity always exist. But the exterior identity always wins. It gets to define how the entrapped essence (person in this case) is going to behave.

There are another phenomenon happening. Since, the exterior is what is noticed, the interaction with others happens with regards to the space in which ‘covered abomination’ is present. But the act of clothing, makes this abomination human again. Maybe a foreigner. But human nonetheless.

My team-mates came and finished of the painting. But these thoughts were going on in my mind.

At that time I was not sure how to express them (I MAY have used the covering of my mouth by the cloth as an excuse to justify)

Walking around and having eyes on me. Inside, through my eyes (which had not got a great look at how I was looking ,save from a couple of photos that were taken), I felt like the creature I mentioned. The unnatural way of the way I was covered (atleast for me), made me feel as if my identity was gone.

I assumed I looked like some weird fictional Middle-East character. (Perhaps, an ancient assassin, deadly and lethal – always a  fantasy). But I could not deny that the entrapment made me feel like a creature. The only thing that reminded me of humanity was the touch of cloth around me.

I am not sure if this was an insight to something deeper. Or a pseudo-intellectual analysis of my condition then. But I thought it got me thinking…

I finally found some relationship with cloth… 

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Wrapping Up

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Exposing of Identities

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Being worked lying down

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 Abs of the Assassin