Post #8: ‘Carnivàle’ Between History and Fiction
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday September 14 2014
I love credit sequences (AKA “openers”). Often, people skip over an opener after they’ve seen it a dozen times or so--I’ve even noticed that binge-watching on Netflix results in the automatic elimination of the opener of Orange is the New Black, for instance--but I enjoy watching it as much for the first episode as the last. Good credits sequences do much more than announce the actors and production staff of the episode or even set the tone of the series; they also add to the meaning, often by using imagery and music from outside the show itself. They’re minute-long lyrical distillations of countless hours of narrative episodes. All you really need to know about Arrested Development happens in the first nineteen seconds (OK, not really, but you get the point).
Some of the best openers thus far have fronted cable series. I think of The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica (the reboot, anyway), The Wire, Rome...hmmm, lots of HBO series from the aughties there. The opener I’m going to analyze in this post belongs to Carnivàle, a series that ran on HBO from 2003 to 2005. I’m not doing this just because the sequence won an Emmy for “Outstanding Main Title Design” in 2004; the series holds a special place in my heart for its mysterious imagery and storylines and evocative music, and the opener manages to capture these two elements wonderfully:
The premise of Carnivàle is simple: certain humans have embodied the powers of good and evil throughout history. These beings, known as Avatars in the series, are gifted with special powers to heal, destroy, and control others. The two main characters, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin, are the Avatars of Light and Dark respectively, and they struggle to come in to their full powers before their final confrontation in the last episode of the second season.
The opener of Carnivàle embodies the eternal struggle between light and dark through a series of Tarot cards emblazoned with paintings that meld with archival footage from pivotal events and scenes from 1930s and 40s America, the time that the series is set in. In this post I look at the relationship between history and fiction that this opener suggests and the series explores.
The first shot is a scattering of cards over a cracked topsoil, recalling the American Dust Bowl which forms the literal background of the first episode, “Milfay”, and the desperate Depression-era psychology that informs the series as a whole. I’m able to identify images of the Buddha and Mary holding baby Jesus (both of whom series creator Daniel Knauf has said were Avatars, like series protagonists Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin) in the pile (figure 1). Given my Classicist proclivities, I’ll look closely at the two cards that make references to antiquity.
Card #3: Death
The camera next moves into the “Death” card that reproduces Karl Bryullov’s 1833 painting “The Last Day of Pompeii” (figure 2). As a Classicist, I'm naturally drawn to this card, which depicts the awful fates of those residents of the city of Pompeii in southern Italy who didn’t escape the terrible effect of Mount Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in 79 AD. The background of this image is formed from archival footage of what appears to be a migrant camp, a speech by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (figure 3), Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin and his protégé Vyacheslav Molotov in a public appearance, a group Ku Klux Klansmen with a central figure holding his (also uniformed) child, and three girls lined up against a wall.
Card #7: The Tower
"The Tower” card’s image is the fifteenth-century French painter Jean Fouquet’s “The Battle Between Romans and Carthaginians” (figure 4). This composition depicts one of the many battles fought between the Roman Republic and Carthage, an ancient city located in modern-day Tunisia. In the third and second centuries BC Rome and Carthage battled for supremacy in the Mediterranean, a conflict that culminated in 146 BC with Rome’s total annihilation of Carthage. The background archival footage consists of various scenes of Bonus Marchers at the Capitol Building, followed by one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential speeches.
Figures 5 and 6: on the left, in the best scene from “Milfay” Ben Hawkins heals a girl but has to kill the vegetation on her family’s farm to do it. On the right, a man inspects the loose soil of the Dust Bowl on the first card of the opener.
This opener reboots the past in a certain way. HBO’s own description (no longer available, though a kind soul has reproduced it here) emphasizes how the opener groups historical events from the time of the series with the eternal fight between light and dark, but creator Daniel Knauf’s comments suggest that the series is reading history through its good-vs-evil mythology. In an internet chat after the series was cancelled, Knauf implied that Jesus and Buddha, both of whom appear in the opener’s Tarot deck, were Avatars like Ben and Justin. In the first episode Ben uses his Avataric powers to heal a paraplegic girl, but realizes he has to take life from elsewhere to do it: the nearby vegetation withers as they girl skips happily away. This suggests, at least to me, that the Dust Bowl was created by Avatars who sucked the land’s energy.
Figures 7 and 8: on the left, a couple reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde before they rob a gas station and are killed in a second-season Carnivàle episode. The photo on the right records the aftermath of their (historical) deaths at the hands of lawmen in Louisiana.
There are other instances in the series when the show co-opts history and the popular conception of history. In the second-season episode “Outskirts, Damascus, NE”, Brother Justin’s unhinged acolyte Varlyn Stroud kills a young couple who have just robbed a gas station. This recalls Bonnie and Clyde (both of history and of pop culture), a criminal duo active in the early 1930s, who were killed by police in 1934 in Louisiana (not in Texas by an ex-con as in Carnivàle) (figures 7 and 8).
Carnivàle was ahead of its time (no pun intended) in popularizing the use the historical past as a backdrop for its own mythology: X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past, and Captain America are three recent examples. The opener typifies this strategy by making the past (both artistic and actual) part of an eternally unfolding narrative of conflict between Light and Dark Avatars. History is assimilated to fiction, and fiction to history. The result is an enlarged sense of the world and a magical sense that we cannot distinguish between history and narrative. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how in Days of Future Past Magneto claims that JFK was actually a mutant, but such a strategy has power precisely because it allows us to look at our world and history anew.
NB: thanks to the board of Pinterester Jason Michal for providing many identifications of the Tarot card images.