Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Summer at the Movies

Yes, we've seen Batman. Twice, now. And yes, it is freakin' awesome, although I am sure that you don't need me to tell you that. The one thing that I would warn against is going to see it at night in Chicago, because when you get out of the theater, you will be constantly looking up in case you get a glimpse of the Bat-Man jumping about up there and, y'know, that's how people get hit by cars.

So I'm not going to talk about the movie. Instead, I want to talk about the trailers before the movie.

Personally, I'm always a little skeptical about going to the theater to see a movie. Tickets here are now more than ten bucks each (if you buy them online), and I'm not always sure that I want to go and sit in a dark, sticky, overly air-conditioned Cave for two and a half hours when I could just wait for the damn movie to come out on NetFlix in a few months. But that's because I forget about how much I love trailers. At 'The Dark Knight," there were at least three tailers that got me excited: Burn After Reading, Blindness, and, of course, Disaster Mov- I mean, Watchmen.

Gayatri Spivak, a philosopher and translator of Derrida, wrote about how "the preface harbors a lie. 'Prae-fatio' is 'a saying before-hand'."and that it involves "a pretense at writing before a text that one must have read before the preface can be written." Something similar can be said of a prologue, which, etymologically, is a speaking before the speaking begins. The challenge of these sorts of writings is that their task is to introduce the reader to a text in such a way that doesn't make them redundant; the very existence of any kind of extraneous introduction should immediately cause the reader to ask, "Well, why can't the story introduce itself?" (It's a little like going to a movie and seeing trailer of the movie that you're about to see. Of course, trailers are also known as "previews", i.e., see it before you see it.)

The most common solution for this dilemma is for the introductory writing to provide some sort of context or unique perspective on the text that you're about to read. This can be biographical information about the author, or the socio-historical context in which the piece was written, or, if it wants to be risky, some major themes for the reader to trace while she reads. In other words, background. But the preface has the added advantage of knowing that you can go back and re-read it after you have finished the main text, and then actually "get" what the author of the preface is trying to say. I remember the Foreword to Dostoevsky's Demons and not understanding a word of it, because the author was trying to talk about the political importance of the novel's end without telling me how it ended. Plus, he was always referring to the role of all these characters that I didn't know. But if I read the foreword afterwards, well, then it makes a lot more sense.

Back to the point: A movie trailer - and I mean the full, 2-minute spots that you see in theaters, not the 30-second small screen commercials - has the same burden of being an introduction to a piece that the audience has never seen before, but it also is an advertisement, and has the primary aim of getting butts in seats. On top of this, most trailers are made from footage of the movie for which they are advertising/ introducing. This means that a trailer has only two minutes to acquaint the audience with a two hour long movie, give them a sense of what the movie is about, and then convince them to pay go to see the entire movie when it comes out. And it has to do that using almost entirely borrowed material, with nothing in it that is actually original to it.

This strikes me as a kind of mission: impossible, and makes it all the more awesome when a trailer is actually able to accomplish all of these goals and still be able to stand on its own as an aesthetically pleasing piece. Take the three trailers that I linked to above. The first two follow pretty standard formulas. I recognize / enjoy Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, et. al. I like movies by the Coen Brothers. Spy movies can be hilarious. I'm sold! A similar tact is made by "Blindness" - I recognize the cast, the movie has gotten good reviews, the basic plot point is easily articulated in less than sixty seconds. But the trailer for "Watchmen" takes a completely different route. It doesn't tell me who any of the actors or characters are. There's nothing about the plot. There are no assurances from the New York Times that it's good. All it gives me is the Smashing Pumpkins, lots of things on fire, and a giant, blue, naked, man. And yet, as a whole, it works. It plays on certain images and themes to "speak" for the film without taking away the film's voice. Super-powered humans, impending sense of apocalypse, the aesthetics of violence. And it does its job as a commercial because now I have to go see the damn movie to find out what it's about.

Post-Script: In full disclosure, I have read the graphic novel Watchmen and liked it, a lot. So maybe I would be more out to sea concerning the trailer if I was really coming at it from a blank slate. Also, I feel like the kind of trailer used for "Watchmen" increases the odds of the movie not living up to its own preview. I am pretty certain that "Burn After Reading" will be good (if not great) based solely on knowing the director and the cast. I don't have this assurance with "Watchmen." It reminds me of "300", (which has the same director as "Watchmen", Zack Snyder.) which got me so excited by the trailers. Then I went to go see the movie, and was like, "Oh. This is poorly written slop, at best, and morally corrupt propaganda, at worst." So there's an example of the trailer actually being better than the movie. But, as R.A. has pointed out to me, the author of "Watchmen", Alan Moore, is a crazy, anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist left wing nut (see: "V for Vendetta"), unlike the author of "300", Frank Miller, who's a crazy, anti-authoritarian, anti-papist right wing nut. (see: "Sin City")

Post Post-Script: If you think that I spend way too much time analyzing movie ads, check this out at Rotten Tomatoes.

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