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Video Aesthetics and Nostalgia Deployed in Better Call Saul

by Ethan Tussey

by Anthony C. Bleach for IN MEDIA RES

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.

Found Footage and Aesthetics

Opening titles to Better Call Saul

from Better Call Saul (2015)
Creator: AMC
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey