Video Aesthetics and Nostalgia Deployed in Better Call Saul

Curator's Note

Better Call Saul, AMC's Emmy-nominated spin-off of Breaking Bad, is haunted by memories of the past and knowledge of the future. The first episode of the series opens, pre-credits, with a montage of "Gene" (fka Saul Goodman) going about his mundane managerial duties in a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. This sequence cuts to another one, mottled in chiaroscuro and punctuated with low camera angles, in which Goodman, from behind closed blinds and watery eyes, quietly watches a videocassette of television commercials advertising his former career as a strip-mall attorney.

As a series devoted to revealing the secret origin of Saul Goodman (fka Jimmy McGill), it makes sense for Better Call Saul to flash backwards in time. If we take the sequence described above as a framing device (and co-creator Vince Gilligan has hinted that it is), then the first season serves as an extended flashback. But within this flashback itself, we also see glimpses of Goodman's former con artist life in Illinois and his early years working in the mailroom of an Albuquerque law firm. Much of the sympathy we have for the character, then, comes from not only our knowledge of his "sad as hell" future sketched at the beginning of the series, but the gradual reveal of his past.

It is therefore arguably fitting that a videocassette — a doomed technology — is the site of Goodman’s nostalgia. I would suggest that the opening credits sequences of the series serves a similar purpose, akin to what exploitation film scholar David Church calls a "replayable technology of memory." The rudimentary chroma keying, cheap computer-generated font, and inappropriate video effects (all of which Gilligan describes as a "very lowball public access look") fix viewers chronologically before the series' narrative begins. (In a neat audio mirror, Goodman’s private viewing described above is suddenly cut off by the twanging guitar at the start of the first episode’s credits in the same fashion as each 13-second opening credits sequence abruptly ends.) The "purposely shitty" qualities of these credits, as Gilligan calls them, work on an aesthetic level that supplements the nostalgia of the narrative.


There is a fascination, isn't there, with low(er)-grade production values - or 'shitty-ness' as Gilligan would call them! I'm thinking of examples like Rodriguez/Tarantino's Grindhouse, Wan's Saw...while the former may be working to recall the past while the latter was simply due to budgetary constraints cleverly hidden with careful editing, I think they satisfy a desire that speaks to the fascination with the videotape as a site for not only nostalgia but also the production of meaning in general. Framing this series in videocassette aesthetics speaks to a generation that seek to immerse themselves in the past through artefacts (that perhaps elevates them from status of doomed to disavowing mortality). I wonder to what degree, do you think, meaning is found in the grains of a tape or the crackle of a record?

It's interesting to think about this in the context of a theme week on found footage aesthetics. It's almost as if this use of videocassette adds yet another layer of faux-ness to the faux found footage aesthetic that we've been talking about (though I'm not quite sure that this is the best way to put it...). Or does this staging of nostalgia do something categorically different? Just wondering how you would relate this kind of medium-nostalgia (and the layers of diegetic and media-technical interrelation that it involves) to the kinds that we've been considering in terms of found footage (whether faux or not)?

It's a double-edged sword with videocassette, I think. It's clearly posited as more "real" than DV (as I think came up during our discussion on V/H/S and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY). But it also carries connotations of past-ness/nostalgia/retro that DV can't hope to replicate. In the interview with Gilligan linked above, he talks about the labor involved in making the credits look as bad as they do: "The interesting thing about this imagery is that it can be shot on a cell phone, and the resolution is so good that what we found is we have to get way back, or way up on a ladder for this purposely-shot footage, and then Curtis would zoom in on it on the Avid, and then magnify it 2000 percent until it looked all grainy and blocky and crappy like '80s video. It's very hard to make modern high-definition video look that crappy. you have to hammer way in on it." I think my point -- if I have one -- is that it's all incredibly calculated

That's a great quote, Anthony, and it brings out another aspect that interests me in many of the films and media objects that we've been talking about. This idea that "it can be shot on a cell phone" (but the real work is in making it look bad) resonates with the low-budget aesthetic of films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY -- the first installment of which really was low budget, while the sequels work hard to emulate the look of cheapness. V/H/S has a similar feel in many of its segments (while some work harder to showcase special effects). In any case, there's this feeling in watching these films that "I could make that!" -- and this is a different kind of medium-awareness than that courted traditionally in avant-garde film, for example. Here, there's this feeling that "I could totally do that on my cell phone / cheap video camera / computer." This was a feeling that arose for me while watching UNFRIENDED, for example -- though the staging of the drama is far from easy, the technology of screen recording is quite simple. Interestingly, in our context, Kevin B. Lee has used the same technique -- but with real (!) found footage (found on YouTube) -- to make his video essay / desktop documentary TRANSFORMERS: THE PREMAKE ( Maybe we could say that the nostalgia evoked in these media objects has something to do not only with pastness (and a past that is lost), but also with the potential futurity of taking up these readily available techniques and "doing it yourself" (or just imagining doing it yourself). Of course, though, there's always a danger that this low-budget aesthetic will detract from the viewer's investment, e.g. if I recognize the technique as a simple filter that I can apply in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro or whatever. I sometimes felt this way while watching V/H/S, where cheap techniques were sometimes employed "as effects" -- i.e. as something that's *not* supposed to look cheap. But I don't think the same danger exists in a sequence like this one from Better Call Saul, where the "cheapness" itself doesn't come cheap, as Gilligan's comment attests...

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