The Loose and the Sharp
The opening of the new series Better Call Saul — an intriguing spin-off from Breaking Bad, from the same 'show runner', Vince Gilligan, working with Peter Gould — recalls the ending of a true modern classic of television: David Chase's The Sopranos (1999-2007).
When we first see him, Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is in hiding after the cataclysmic events outlined in Breaking Bad. Disguised and working a mundane job in a food court, he is hyper-attentive to the slightest sign that a hired assassin may have discovered his secret life, and arrived to end his existence. Like that suspicious looking guy in the corner who starts gazing intently and walking toward him...
The finale of The Sopranos, as any fan will vividly recall, created a powerful but enigmatic type of suspense — evoking paranoia as a floating mood or atmosphere — from what seemed a banal situation: Tony (James Gandolfini) and several members of his family assembling to eat at a restaurant. Since we were well aware that Tony might be killed at any moment — at the behest of any one of his many enemies — Chase riveted our attention on the smallest detail occurring in that space: two men enter, another man goes to the bathroom...
This type of scene could be duplicated in cinema — and there are many excellent examples — but it seems to me especially expressive, today, of the possibilities inherent in the 'long form' TV drama. An episode can spend fifteen minutes in one communal room, 'obsessing' about the movements of nameless characters who we may never see in any other moment of the series — and who might well turn out to be 'red herrings' [afleidingsmanoeuvre], not part of the central action at all. TV, as a narrative medium, can take the liberty to wander and digress in this (highly structured) way.
At the same time, Better Call Saul is also notable — from the cut-off moment of its opening credits — for the stylish way it brutally truncates images and sounds, as if their transmission had been suddenly, violently interrupted, or the needle was being jerked off a vinyl record playing on a turntable. This, too, has it origin in the Sopranos closer: that much-debated, ultimate cut-to-black that either subjectively signified Tony's instant death after the close shot of him looking up, or the series itself (like John Sayles' weird and forgotten experiment Limbo, 1999) performing an 'open ending' meta-move by refusing us any violent resolution to its long-unfolded narrative.
This snatch-away affectation takes Better Call Saul out of the familiar Breaking Bad territory and more into David Lynch-land, like in the Twin Peaks saga with its rude blasts of televisual static or 'snow'. A fascinating dual rhythm is thus created by Gilligan, Gould and their expert team of collaborators: the 'loosely wound' alternates with the ultra-sharp. And what is thereby hopefully skipped is the dull middle-ground which is usually TV's default zero-degree style option: lots of talk, establishing views of the environment, shot/reverse shot on the actors acting... It is fascinating to see, today, how series such as Better Call Saul try, most of the time, to avoid falling into these doldrums — without, at the same time, just creating another formula or template, which is the other great temptation besetting contemporary 'quality TV'.
Both loose and sharp: this turns out to be a good way of describing the style and feeling of another contemporary media event, Paul Thomas Anderson's movie adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. The director himself speaks of how his film unfolds in the crevice between (on the one hand) an immensely complicated, crime-investigation plot, and (on the other hand) a type of stoned humour where characters just drift and collide, and weird things just keep happening at the edges of the frame. All the while, familiar pop-song 'cues' fill the soundtrack, only to be prematurely yanked away — just like in Better Call Saul. Is this the favoured aesthetic for a new Zeitgeist?