I’m not really into the Leftovers. I don’t think you’re supposed to be. It doesn’t sound like the kind of show you’re supposed to get excited about.
But if we must have leftovers, at least it’s a well-prepared meal. The opening montage of episode four is brilliant. It does not seem to have too much to do with the show that follows or anything, but taken by itself, the first two minutes of episode four are a masterpiece of storytelling and showmanship.
The “start on texture” thing is so far past cliche that it may constitute a genre. The first time I noticed it was the opening credits to Inner Space, and I assume it had been around for a long long time before that, but for at least thirty years now we have been treated to shots of meaningless but pleasing texture as the introduction to a film. This shot takes deeper significance after you’ve seen the entire montage, but that’s whole point. We don’t know where this is going. All we know right now is primordial peach-colored goo.
Well, it’s on HBO, so there probably is some deeper meaning. Let’s watch for a while.
Doll heads coming off a conveyor belt, yes yes, very nice. Meanwhile there’s a song by the Black Keys playing, and it is a important song, though it is not clear why yet. But everything is in rhythm to the song, so you can tell these shots were carefully edited to fit with this piece of music.
This is just good storytelling — you see the mysterious cup-shaped things here in the foreground, being worked on, then in the distance you see lots of them on a little conveyor belt. “They’re doll eyes, of course!,” we all think to ourselves, as little lightbulbs turn on over our heads. “I was wondering what those things were.”
It’s reasonable at this point to stop and ask, why are you watching this? I know I did. I’m sitting here wondering why I’m watching a very special episode of “How It’s Made,” and it’s not that I have anything against that show. However. HBO has conditioned me to expect some serious drama and excitement, and the part of my mind that wants to shout “THIS MEANS SOMETHING” is hungry and anxious in anticipation. I’m no different from anyone in this, though I may express it with longer blog posts.
We sit down to watch “How It’s Made” because it tickles one part of our brain and leaves the rest of it completely alone. A digression:
Now that I have a kid, movies fall into three categories. There are the movies that young Tex wants to watch. These movies are content-based, not quality based. So long as there are high squeaky voices and barnyard animals, the child is pleased and therefore the film is effective. Fortunately we live in an age of miracles where films like Didou, Babe, Shaun the Sheep, and Disney’s Robin Hood exist, so that she can get her daily fix of farm fun and her parents don’t go insane with terrible TV, but I don’t want to digress inside this digression, so let’s just note that there is the category of KID-SHOW. The two salient facts are that it is content-based instead of quality-based and that it has an utterly hypnotic effect on young minds. It’s fantastic when you want to distract a child and get something done. It is dreadful when you want the kid to do anything other than stare at a screen. So it is not for every occasion.
Second category is the kind of movie and show that I used to take for granted, the kind that you get to watch every day. These are the shows with fire and the lash, with sturm and drang, with cussing and stabbing and whatnot. Game of Thrones fits neatly into this category. Game of Thrones is what I want to be watching, and cannot, and there are two reasons why. The first is that it is nearly as hypnotic to the kid as barnyard adventures would be. Not quite as much, but it’s comparable. The second is that it is stuff that you feel very guilty watching your child watch.
I don’t know how much media influences developing minds — you could shelter your kids for years, and all that would mean is that the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz will freak them out. My wife saw Pet Semetary when she was eight and she turned out pretty great. I never saw a horror movie until I was eighteen. The major difference between us here seems to be that she likes horror movies and I do not.
Would the knowledge that some weddings are Red Weddings warp my child’s development? I seriously doubt it. But I’m not certain enough to let it happen, not this early at least.
So the second category is GOOD-SHOW. Those are the shows that you want to watch but you can’t, the stuff you watch after the kid goes to bed.
The third category is old as time, but I never noticed it before. There is an entire class of show that’s interesting but not too interesting. They catch your attention and feed your mind and maybe even nourish your soul, but at any given moment in the show nothing in particular is happening, so the child just couldn’t care less. They will go play with their toys, run in the yard, interact with human beings, anything to not have to sit there and watch these dull masterpieces scintillate their way across the screen.
This is very, very, very useful.
I think of this as the “Downton Abbey” category, and “How It’s Made” is a perfect example. “How It’s Made” is, in my mind, A Show My Mom Watches. I watch it every bit as much as she does and I love it, but that’s how I categorize it. It’s a show I want to watch when I want to be interested but not too interested. We’ll call these GOOD-FOR-YOU-BUT-BORING-SHOWs.
(my category names are not complicated).
HBO is supposed to make GOOD-SHOWs, and for the most part they do. I’m not excited about the Leftovers, and I don’t think many other people are either, because it sounds like a GOOD-FOR-YOU-BUT-BORING-SHOW masquerading as a GOOD-SHOW. It’s turning out to be the other way around (this is a revisionist apocalypse film with a knack for utter brutality that I am beginning to appreciate), but we don’t know that yet. The episode is just starting.
When you hear the hiss and hum of the HBO bumper you expect GOOD-SHOW. You hear that noise and you’re all, like, what’s it gonna be? Is it the Sopranos? Is it Deadwood? Is it True Detective?
Oh, it’s “How It’s Made.”
So I hope you understand what I’m saying when I say I’m simultaneously fascinated and a little bored at this point. Might be how you feel reading this article — it’s the exact same concept.
It’s at this point that you first hear the refrain of the song, “I’m not the one.” The line is delivered with all the reverberating grace that a singer can bestow upon the most important line; the first time you hear it you know, for a fact, that the song is called, “I’m Not The One.”
The joy of stuff like this is that you can follow it. Look; they’re making the doll, putting it in a box, putting that box in another box, putting that box in a truck, closing the truck. It feels good to be able to follow visual symbols and lace them together. I don’t care how old you are, I don’t care if you’re a hundred and ninety, there’s always gonna be a kindergarten teacher inside your head saying, “You did it! Great job!” when you link one image to another in sequence. What we’re watching is a visual rebus, where
plastic + machine = doll
doll + box = factory
factory + brand logos = consumerism
We all get what they’re saying here, and the good thing about this sequence is that they’re saying it well. It’s like listening to Frank Sinatra sing the ABCs.
This song contains two essential concepts to this sequence– a repeated refrain of “I’m not the one,” and at the exact perfect moment the emotionally freighted line, “Like a toy.”
It came out in 2010. There is no way the Black Keys wrote this song with this sequence in mind. It is 100% positive that the editors framed the sequence so that the toy appeared at the exact moment they sing “like a toy.” Between there lies the odd world of artistic coincidence, where two things come together just so perfectly that it’s like the universe planned it. That’s one of the main things artists and creators are after; that moment.
What we’re doing here is amping up the consumerism aspect. This sequence of a wealthy-looking comfortable white woman, the first face we see in this entire episode, wearing a lot of expensive rings, taking the baby out of its factory packaging and putting it in cloth of gold. It’s ironic, because I bet she doesn’t even like toys. It has become a commentary on luck and privilege and class, how one person is born rich and another is born making toys for the rich.
There’s my HBO show quality. Now this is interesting. By juxtaposing four specific things in a specific order — an episode of “How It’s Made,” a disapproving-liberal documentary on consumerism, a good song with strong lyrics, and an image of a baby doll in a nativity, they have created a really, really interesting symbolic “machine.” If you turn this on and run this machine, you will have certain interesting thoughts. The purpose of this machine is to stir a part of your brain that doesn’t normally get stirred, and it works.
It works! I watched this sequence again with some friends. There are definite universal moments of human “Ah!” created by this sequence. Tossing a layer of Baby Jesus onto the nourishing stew of procedural and economic commentary absolutely works. We know what we’re dealing with now. People aren’t special and that includes Jesus.
It is at this point that showmanship takes over.
pop pop pop, fast cuts, in time to the music. Time is rattling, but as only time in film can. It mostly works. This sort of transition is very, very difficult to get right — even visually savvy people can miss it. I think they did as well as anybody can possibly do:
They used almost every cue they could. They have changing positions of light, changing weather, an American flag to reinforce the weather, consistent lights in frame, there’s even a clock in the background. It’s probably important that the nativity is crooked. It leaves absolutely no doubt whatsoever that you are seeing the same object at all times, and that helps to reinforce that time is passing.
In order to make time pass like this in a film (or a comic) you need two things. You need things that change completely, and things that stay exactly the same. It’s a lot easier if you use fast forward motion or moving shadows, but if you want to do it with static images then you have to make real sure people know time is passing and you have to make real sure people know they are looking at the exact same thing. If you change just about anything about the point of view or the subject of view it will not work, people will naturally assume that the scene cut to a different place and time and then they’ll get subtly annoyed as they backtrack and figure it out.
But simply switching day-to-night-to-day-to-night is, somehow, not enough. You need to pile on the lighting and weather effects, which is what they did, but they didn’t quite go far enough. Instead of doing afternoon and evening, they should have done evening and dawn — totally different light directions. Maybe for some story reason they didn’t, but if all you want to do is get across that time is passing, vary the sun directions as widely as you can.
This is showmanship. By adding time to the sequence, you make us anxious to know what’s going to happen next. This baby may not be The One, but something important is getting ready to happen. This is the cinematic equivalent of flicking the light switch on and off to get the attention of the class.
Congratulations to the creators of The Leftovers. You made me care about a chunk of plastic.