Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Close Reading of the Homeland Title Sequence

Homeland is a new US drama series starring Claire Danes as Carrie Matheson, a CIA agent who suspects that Marine Sgt Brody (Damien Lewis) returned from Afghanistan to a hero's welcome after an apparent eight year incarceration, has in fact been "turned" into an Islamic terrorist and is on a mission to commit another 9/11-style attack on US soil. The programme is made by those who made the Bush-era 24, though much has been made of Homeland's more ambivalent attitude toward the actions of the US government, reminding us that creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa also worked on The X Files, which had a downright cynical attitude toward the country's rulers.

It is possible to see Homeland as part of a recent trend (mainly in cinema) toward post-Iraq murkiness in spy and thriller narratives. The key reference here is perhaps the Treadstone project in the Jason Bourne films, in which the discovery and actions of a secret programme within government ultimately pits government agencies and agents against each other. The message of this trend is that the good guys and the bad guys are both American. The second episode of Homeland saw Brody refuse to go on TV to enthuse about America's “fucking war” and this week's remarkable fifth episode saw a suspected terrorist undergo infamous interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation and being subjected to repeated short bursts of metal music.

If the trailing narrative was that this was a show coming to terms with American failure in the Middle East, I want to see whether this is evident in the title sequence, which I've tried to break down below but which you can also watch here:

A young girl lying down? Eyes flickering a little - at first you think she's asleep but then realise she's not - a twirly piece of music starts up that seems to suggest importance, seriousness, history, and gentleness at the same time - the voice of Ronald Reagan comes in; the April 1984 address to the nation on airstrikes on Libya: "...air and naval forces of the United States have launched a series of strikes against terrorist..." Somewhere in this we hear someone else's voice, but the only word we can make out is "necessary" - at the word "terrorist" we have a cut to (presumably) the same girl, blonde pigtails, sat in front of a TV and then a cut to footage of Reagan sat at the desk in the Oval Office - this only lingers for a while before flickering shots of the girl (from slightly different angles but all from behind her as she watches the TV) are set to a news report of the Lockerbie bombing by an American news reporter (who may or may not be arch-conservative Pat Buchanan) - then we see the girl playing a trumpet as the twirly music forms into a jazzy trumpet solo as we hear George W Bush say what sounds like "...sanction acts of terror..." as we cut to archive footage of a jazz trumpeter (the jazz is less laid back here, more swingy) back to the girl's hands playing piano as we hear George H.W. Bush say "...these acts will not stand..." as we go back to the girl watching TV (again shot from behind) as Bush continues "...this aggression against uh Kuwait..." and we actually see him briefly underneath another image that becomes stronger of the girl in a maze and now wearing a lion's head mask - then a picture of a young Claire Danes (around 10 maybe) in a coat and scarf standing in front of the piano which jerkily flicks and cuts to and from (while zooming in to Danes' face) the girl watching TV, which is returned to once more before we get a shot of Bill Clinton saying "this was an act..." which carries on as the visuals switch to a shot of Claire Danes perhaps in the maze we saw before but when she's around the age she was when she did My So-Called Life then a close up of a closed eyelid that flickers to and from the young girl in the lion mask before cutting back to present-day Claire Danes with eyes lowered and the blonde hair she has in the show - her eyes flutter a little before we cut to a shot of Clinton in the Rose Garden of the White House speaking behind a bank of microphones saying "This was an act of terrorism ... It was a despicable and cowardly act" - various shots of closed eyelids follow as the voice of Louis Armstrong is heard before we see him speaking from a bandstand and possibly saying "...the good old days..." before a sharp cut to a woman in the full hijab talking angrily and enthusiastically to a camera with a group of similarly-dressed women behind her so they take up the whole frame before a cut to Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 - then a view from a chopper helicopter, a gun in the foreground as we get an excerpt of audio from the actual show, with Carrie saying "I'm just making sure we don't get hit again" before cutting to some citizen footage of 9/11. This is lingered on with various shots - streets of New York, wider cityscape, from a bridge, before a cut to Obama upside down saying "We must" - and then he's flipped up the right way - "and we will remain vigilant, at all times" - then cut briefly to a Middle Eastern news reporter before cutting to shots of an airport and then a shot from a car driving past the George Bush Center for Intelligence. The audio from the Middle Eastern report continues as we then cut to more footage from the actual show - the show of togetherness the Brody family put together for the media camped on their lawn - then Saul's whispered "what the fuck are you doing" over images of first Brody in the same maze from earlier and then a corridor at the CIA - then a vaguely sexual sound - then adult Carrie in the maze with her saying "I've missed something before. I won't - I can't - let that happen again". She looks over her shoulder and the camera pulls back and we see a long shot of both Carrie and Brody in the maze. Then a brief shot of the surveillance inside the Brody home - then night-vision shots of a Marine raid (possibly the one we saw in the first show - Brody's rescue) before another shot from the first episode - Carrie walking down a Middle Eastern street (complete with headscarf) looking back over her shoulder anxiously at the camera. Saul's voice: "It was ten years ago. Everyone missed something that day." A shot of Carrie's flat with a wall full of pinned-up photos and documents - a close-up of an eye again, opening - Carrie saying "everyone's not me" - Carrie at home, listening and watching Brody - shot from the first episode: Brody on a jog, staring at the White House - a helicopter flying overheard, the fluttering of an American flag.

Among (or despite) the sometimes bewildering torrent of imagery – there are times when the sequence seems to be many rolled into one, images and sounds layered one after the other on top of each other – a few themes make themselves clear.

Knowledge

The show is predicated on the search for knowledge: Carrie has received information in the field that an American soldier has been "turned" in Afghanistan and is now set on preparing a terrorist attack on American soil. The homeland of the title is thus literalised, and the show repeats the trope of hallowed American land being somehow more shocking as a venue for extreme violence than those parts of other lands annexed in one way or another like air bases, embassies, or non-mainland territories.

Brody, who has been held captive years after a fellow prisoner has been killed (possibly by Brody himself, who in flashbacks we see punching his barely conscious colleague), is the soldier Carrie decides has been turned. The show's thrust is supposed to come from the question of whether or not he is a sleeper, but really it comes from the a priori decision that he is a terrorist as well as her actions based on that assumption, disregarding the procedural nature of the formulation of theories: gathering intelligence and detecting patterns and importance. Her mentor Saul is the audience's voice here, prodding Carrie toward the accrual of proof before accusation. (Is this a subtle acknowledgement of the apparent reversals and dismissals of such procedures in the Bush White House?) The show is careful to plant clues (and, presumably, red herrings) that confirm and deny both stories. Clearly that is important in establishing a basic sense of suspense - is Brody a terrorist or not? - but I feel willing (especially given the fourth episode, where we learn a little more about the couple who've just bought a house near the airport – I think the blonde wife is the “turned” soldier) to say that the logic of the show and the cultural context in which it has been made and shown actually rules out the possibility of it concluding with Brody as a terrorist. I don't think it's possible, now, for a mainstream US show to go down that route; it doesn't fit with the introspective climate. For all the overly-simplistic comparisons with shows from ten years ago, in this sense the comparison stands up: whereas 24 could tap into immediate post-9/11 suspicions that anyone that wasn't Jack Bauer was potentially a terrorist, a state of paranoia that created the Department for Homeland Security which presumably the more recent show's title references, Homeland exists in a world in which Bush's reasoning has been revealed, to a greater or lesser extent, as the sham it was. Not that that stops the show playing on images it knows will raise audience suspicion: Brody's conversion to Islam, shown through his purchase of a prayer rug and illicit trips into the garage to secretly pray, are presented as challenges to the audience: the show is saying "we know what you think, shows like 24 used these sorts of images as confirmations of suspicions about characters' intentions. We are going to use them firstly as suggestions.” In so-doing, Homeland confronts the viewer with their own preconceptions, both of real world Islam and televisual representations of it: why is it that both the public and TV audiences associate a Muslim praying with terrorism? This association, interestingly, is aural rather than visual. While seeing Brody performing ablutions and kneeling is important, what really resonates is the sound of Brody saying "Allahu Akbar." The show plays on this aural recognition engendered not just in in fictional dramas but in news reports in which praying Muslims and city-wide calls to prayer are figured as somehow threatening, alien sounds, often heard through the further distortion of a loudspeaker.

Homeland certainly doesn't portray an America at ease with the knowledge of its Middle Eastern misadventures. The sequence's colour palette is of note: a sepia-tinged black and white, which suggests the presence of nostalgia. Certainly the Louis Armstrong footage leads us down this route, though I wouldn't say the show is nostalgic, or even depicts nostalgia; rather it presents the social conditions in which nostalgia might appear attractive: a country plunged into a profound identity crisis. In this sense Brody, whose body reveals the scars and wounds of eight years of torture, represents the broader American body politic: shell-shocked, confused, adjusting to a new world. Clearly the recurring motif of the maze in the title sequence works along these lines, suggesting that there is knowledge out there, but what it is, what it looks like, and who has it remains unclear. Put another way, knowledge is depicted as problematic, but just what knowledge is is itself problematic. Again, this can be read as a subtle expression of a social context: Donald Rumsfeld's famous knowns and unknowns. The maze shots seem to suggest the following: knowledge is a known unknown, insofar as we know that we don't know some things. But also, paradoxically simultaneously, we know that that known unknown is itself difficult to define: an unknown known unknown: we don't know what it is that we know is unknown. What is the thing that we know is out there but we don't know what it is?

It might be a methodological question, in which the very process by which the CIA gathers intelligence becomes itself open to theories, evidence, argumentation, and yes, intelligence. If so, is this a organisation-wide problem, or one limited to Carrie's unorthodoxy? That Carrie appears first and repeatedly in the maze, only later joined by Brody, suggests that the show wants emphasis to be placed on Carrie's relationship to knowledge, rather than Brody's process of rediscovery, although the latter's is a significant secondary dramatisation of the process of gaining and losing knowledge. The mask that the young Carrie wears actually seems better to fit the Brody family dynamic, where secrets remained unrevealed though suspected; in the Brody home, we aren't quite sure who knows what about Jessica's (Brody's wife) affair with his best friend Mike. Again the colour palette seems important, this time in an ironic sense: nothing is black and white here. Instead we are presented with the blurred world Bush failed to comprehend with his cowboy rhetoric, a world in which war is ongoing, the enemy undetectable if not outright phantoms.

Images

There is a lot - both in the show itself and this title sequence - of emphasis placed on images. Episode five dramatised this most effectively: Carrie and Saul have set up an interrogation of a terrorist at a CIA safe-house. He is led into a room in which a bank of cameras is set up. Next door Carrie and Saul watch. David, their boss, watches both the relay of these scenes and Carrie and Saul as they watch the terrorist. Brody is ushered in to help with the interrogation, and as Saul moves into the room with the terrorist provides him with important information as he watches the interrogation on a screen. Later in the episode, after the terrorist dies, Carrie and Saul watch footage of the moments before his death when Brody, having convinced the CIA top brass to let him confront his torturer, grabs the terrorist and wrestles him, off-screen, to the ground. Carrie says he must've “worked out the camera's blind spots.” Notably the Brody household has been up until this episode full of cameras, though with Carrie's window of opportunity closed and the cameras removed, the home is also now a “blind spot.”

What is in the title sequence? The presidential addresses carried across TV stations, the young girl watching TV, the mask she wears in the maze, the procession of photographs.

What is the significance of charting Carrie's life through the televised images of presidents addressing the nation on the subjects of war and terrorism? She has a relationship with Saul that shifts uneasily and sometimes squeamishly between father-daughter and something that might be termed incestuous. But the show also refuses - admirably - to follow that through. In an early episode where Carrie made an ill-fated attempt at seduction in order to gain a piece of information, Saul responded in such a way that seemed to cut off that possibility from ever rearing itself again. It opened up the possibility of another story-route before shutting it down. If there is a dramatisation of the father-figure here, where are the parents of this child watching presidential addresses? Does the camera - always behind her - represent parental authority, or is the show suggesting that these presidents, all middle-aged men, have replaced both Carrie's and the nation's as a whole? Are these presidents the "fathers of the nation"?

We might say that these images show a girl growing up in a climate where the country she lived in was always going to war: different middle-aged men announcing different locations for increasingly smarter bombs, but the same pattern and the same behaviours. Is there a deterministic reading to be made here, then, in which anyone growing up in this environment, with the addition of the right external factors, will naturally turn to espionage? But that doesn't quite ring true, it's too loose. It is interesting that one of Carrie's distinguishing features - if we may call them that - is her as-yet undefined mental instability. Alongside jazz, and the brief visit she pays to her traditionally exasperated responsible (older?) sister, the fact that Carrie pops little blue capsules (which she gets on the black market from said sister, who is perhaps some kind of nurse, because Carrie worries that the CIA will fire her if they find out) is the only personal information we have found out about her. That was added to by the fourth episode in which it is suggested that she had in the past a dalliance with David, her boss. Read this way, it seems an oversight that the title sequence, which clearly plays with some sort of uncertainty and instability, doesn't include the very object that stands in for the great uncertainty that underpins the show: that our sleuth, the one charged with solving the narrative problems set up, is no more reliable than anybody else. She is not privileged with an M.O. that we can recite from memory and follow as the steps are completed and the conclusion (always, obviously, correct) revealed. Her methods are haphazard and and clandestine: DIY espionage. Her reasoning is not always straight. Her intentions not always sound.

What is clear is that a parallel is being made between the political developments of the last thirty years and Carrie's life history. The images on the TV never go away (the sequence repeatedly cuts back to the girl watching TV). While on some level this may suggest that Carrie is "always the little girl in pigtails," more profoundly it signals that politics, and particularly its wars, take place not in the public sphere but in a separate world of images. It is important that despite these repeated returns to the girl watching TV, we never actually see what it is she is watching. Perhaps it's banal to talk along Baudrillardian lines about images surpassing reality and the older Bush's inclusion here reminds us of "the Gulf War never happened." But are the programme-makers aware of this? It's possible, though I think the real connection is to the surveillance of Brody that Carrie sets up, illegally at first, and which she becomes obsessed with, addicted like those to video games or the internet, forgetting to eat and not sleeping. Indeed, in the fourth episode, Carrie suffers actual withdrawal symptoms when the surveillance gets shut down. Saul reminds her that "she's been living with it" and it takes time to adjust. Seemingly, then, the connection being drawn out here would suggest that a culture obsessed with images will voluntarily turn its own existence into images, will - and this is crucial - feel more at home with images. Indeed, the theme of the strangeness of home(coming) is a prominent one in the show, dramatised well by the disparity between the outer image the Brody family present to the world and the psychologically strained environment inside, which, of course, we have access to through Carrie's surveillance. Importantly, Saul suggests that is Brody were indeed a terrorist, what he would be doing - the normal thing - in order to dispel any suspicions would be to "act the hero in front of the media." Indeed, after a day Brody spends curled up in the corner of his bedroom, presumably traumatised, a way of sorting himself out is to do precisely that: put on his uniform and hold forth on his front porch for the assembled media.

If we connect the problems of knowledge to the obsession with images we create the unsettling matrix in which Homeland moves: one might say, for instance, that Carrie's obsession with images contributes directly to her increasing mania about Brody's supposed terrorist activities. Freed from the quotidian time-consuming tasks of evidence gathering, Carrie relies on the image created by her imagination, itself unstable from a combination of her obsessive work pattern, her guilt over 9/11, her desire to prove herself to her bosses, and her mental illness. One might say that her imagination has formed a complete story to which Brody's behaviour will inevitably conform. She doesn't look at the images (literalised in the surveillance of Brody's house) correctly. The connection between seeing and understanding has been severed.

Culture

As a coda, I want to talk a little about jazz. If Carrie is brilliant but unhinged, we see in the first episode that in times of extra stress she puts on jazz music. Various framed jazz posters and photographs of musicians line her apartment walls, and early in the series the camera dwells on these images.

These lingering shots are part of a strange visual economy: Carrie's flat has polished laminate flooring, is decorated in shades of grey and blue, features shiny chrome and large French windows. It has a glass desk and a minimal computer. All this seems to suggest that despite the fact that Carrie's world consists of the dark side of international powergames - sparse CIA meeting rooms where employees rue on their broken families, dusty Middle Eastern cities full of car horns and potential violence - she has time for an appreciation of interior design and art.

Yet these brief glimpses of something other than the murky world of geopolitics are just that: quick, fleeting glances. It is the only role art plays in this series. Yet what exactly is that role? In this context, framed on CIA agents' walls, jazz has been far removed from the vibrant artistic experiments of the mid-twentieth century, removed too from a history of the entanglements of left-wing politics and art. Moreover, it hints at jazz's contemporary enlistment in lifestyle-art irrelevance governed by nostalgia for precisely the thing it has been separated from, as well as the history of American cultural imperialism represented in the mid-twentieth century by abstract impressionism and Dizzy Gillespie's tours and fifty-or-so years later by the ubiquity of US TV, cinema, and music around the world.

Yet this is a piece of analysis I don't feel confident in: it seems looser and more inadequate than the more firmly-grounded ideas of knowledge and images. The inclusion of jazz, not just as a nondescript musical style in the theme and incidental music, but explicitly through the footage of Louis Armstrong, himself subject to critiques about his lack of radicalism, remains bewildering to me. I find it hard to place. In this way – and I'm sure this is entirely accidental – it represents rather well the sense of uncomfortableness, uncertainty, vulnerability and existential threat that this excellent show creates. 

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