An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trailer Treasure, Movie Trash (part 1 of a, well, probably 1-part series, but you never know)

Never trust a trailer. "It's all in the editing" is a vaguely annoying movie-talk cliché, but in the case of trailers it's absolutely apt; within those 2.5-minute collages of densely packed images and sounds, a movie can be remixed and repackaged to look and feel like damn near anything. The content of a trailer so often fails to represent the essence of its corresponding film that deciding whether or not to see a given film based on a trailer is just about the most foolhardy mistake a curious filmgoer can make. This works both ways: the arguably more common (and certainly more explicable) instance of an uninspired trailer doing a disservice to a good movie, and the more mysterious and fascinating (and, yes, disappointing) situation of an outstanding trailer raising expectations for what turns out to be a dud. What makes all of this extra-interesting is that trailers are, for all intents and purposes, authorless; that is to say, they're never credited to any particular editors or filmmakers. I don't know how much control a director has over the trailer for his/her film—I suspect not much, if any, in most cases—but since his/her name isn't on the trailer (as, indeed, no one's is), does it even matter?

Ah, heady questions. But what I'd like to share now are just a few trailers that I really loved as trailers, despite reacting in varying degrees of distaste to the films they were commissioned to advertise. Consider this post a defense of the trailer as a standalone art form, capable of great beauty, boldness, visceral and emotional and intellectual thrills, maybe even profundity—independent of its function as a commercial promotion. Another way to look at it: perhaps these disappointing movies all had the raw materials to be great, but something got screwed up along the way, and their trailers serve as the sole surviving evidence of what might have been. Needless to say (yet I'm saying it anyway; funny how it always works like that), judgments are subjective blah blah blah, and you might think these movies are awesome and that I'm being a churl or a contrarian by professing to prefer their trailers. To which all I can say is: I calls 'em like I sees 'em. Only four movies for now, recent ones, because a) the art of trailermaking has changed pretty drastically in the past decade and I think my thesis above (if I even have one) is most applicable to the trailers wrought by those changes; and b) I've simply seen way more trailers of the past several years than of the preceding century of cinema, so I'm gonna go with what I know. Maybe follow-up posts to come if I can think of more good examples of this particular phenomenon, which right now I'm sort of struggling to do, frankly. But it's late.

I Am Love (2010): The inspiration for this post. Thanks to the Siskel Center's European Union film festival, I'd seen this Italian family drama before the trailer was even released, and when I first saw the preview (attached to a print of Please Give, iirc) it put me in a state of self-doubting shock: I'd been lukewarm-at-best on the film, but the trailer was such a dazzling tour-de-force that I momentarily questioned my own judgment. After some reflection and reading, I determined that this was, in fact, a classic case of...see title of post. The film's meticulous imagery and insanely, overemphatically awesome music score are better-suited to the trailer form, where nothing needs to follow logic. Trailers can afford to be sensual feasts that make no sense, because they can hint at levels of meaning that are not, in the cussedly literal movie form, necessarily present. I Am Love and its trailer may be equally empty, but the trailer is capable of convincing us otherwise, and the movie isn't.

Pineapple Express (2008): Granted, the first half of this trailer is a standard introduce-the-characters-and-premise studio comedy preview. But as soon as "Paper Planes" kicks in (at a moment in history just before that song became the cultural equivalent of a dead metaphor), the trailer becomes a free-floating parade of pure cinema, suggesting the lyrical David Gordon Green production this movie should have been, but wasn't, despite Green's auteurial byline. The movie I'd later see was a largely dull mix of limp '80s nostalgia and already-tired Apatovian tropes, but the trailer never ceased to delight me during those middle months of 2008. When Seth Rogen leaps superheroically to attack gun-wielding thug Gary Cole in the film, it's just another banal action beat; when the same image occurs in the trailer, it's something very close to sublime. Or maybe I just really like listening to "Paper Planes."

Synecdoche, New York (2008): Just about everyone whose taste I respect loves this movie, so I know I owe it another viewing. But man, I don't want to put myself through that misery-fest again. Whatever your feelings on the film, you can't deny that the trailer is awfully misleading: it promises a warm, witty, screwy, humanist intellectual comedy in the vein of I Heart Huckabees (complete with earworm Jon Brion tune) or Charlie Kaufman's previous work. And then you sit down to see the movie and find, instead, the most singlemindedly dour and unpleasant American film (I realize these qualifiers make me sound like Rex Reed or some other completely out-of-touch asshole, but the heart hates what it hates) since, I don't know, something from the '70s, when dourness was de rigeur. Look, anyone who knows me knows that I would never dismiss a movie based on "unpleasantness," but something about Synecdoche rubbed me the wrong way, and I think a huge part of that had to do with my love of the trailer's sweetly off-kilter, aphoristic cleverness and suggestion of profound-meets-goofy humor. I know it's not fair to want this movie to be I Heart Huckabees II, but blame the lovely trailer for putting that idea in my head.

The Limits of Control (2009): Like many effective trailers, this one sort of doubles as a great short film on its own. It's got everything: splitscreen effects, quotable dialogue, and Bill Murray. As with I Am Love, the lack of literal sense only makes the trailer more attractive. But the movie's a head-scratcher if ever there was one, and I say that as a fan of pretty much everything else Jim Jarmusch has done. He's certainly allowed a whiff now and then, but it would've hurt less if the trailer hadn't been so damn cool.

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