I’ve been showing up late to the movies lately. So far it hasn’t been a problem. Aside from missing the first few minutes of Men in Black 3 and having to crane my neck in the front-row seats at Moonrise Kingdom, I haven’t missed much.
Except for the trailers.
There was a time when I’d hate myself for missing them. Trailers are part of the moviegoing experience, and I love going to the movies more than damn near anything. But I’ve gotten sick of them in the past few years. There are certain things about movies that no matter how mature/cynical I get, my romantic mind will never let me hate: the Oscars, Ewoks, Kevin Smith. But trailers get no such pardon. I haven’t sworn them off completely, but I’m starting to think of them like death and taxes for the cinephile – a fact of life, but shitty nonetheless.
To be clear – trailers are not the worst aspect about contemporary filmgoing. Unlike cell phones and that smug jackass behind you that keeps calling what happens next, trailers are supposed to be there, and are a relatively minor nuisance. And in and of themselves, they’re an interesting form. Just look at Alien’s trailer. I’m not just digging that far back because I’ve got rose tinted glasses when it comes to film history – it’s the widely cited example of a good trailer, and justifiably so. It drowns you in mood and atmospherics without insulting your intelligence. But we (and by we I am especially referring to those of us that read and write about movies on the internet) tend to let our film consumption become far too oriented around trailers, and consequently we tend to view movies through the wrong lens. I, and other film nerds like me, will praise that Alien trailer as a great standalone work, but what if in some Bizarro world Alien was a bad movie? We’d be pissed off, complaining that Alien didn’t live up to the trailer, furious that we’d been had.
I’ve been guilty of this before, and in spite of my best efforts, I probably will again. But I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Most of us don’t fall for marketing so easily with everything else we consume. We know that AXE won’t turn us into handsome chocolate men that women will go feral for, and we know that Coors Light guarantees neither good times nor half-nude models. And moreover, we’re proud of our ability to see through marketing bullshit. Throw a stone on tumblr and you’ll hit a thousand posts tearing apart ads from every conceivable angle. It’s a skill we have in spades, yet we get blind about it when it comes to movie trailers. More often than not, they’re taken at face value, when they should be consumed with skepticism the way all advertising should be. And I don’t just mean skeptical of the movie itself (“This looks like an Inception rip-off”) but skeptical of whole marketing process. (“They’re making this look like another Inception.”)
We too readily assume trailers are honest representations of the work being promoted, or are perhaps, at worst, exaggerations. I suppose some of the tendency to trust trailers is rooted in that film is an artistic, creative product. Though we can access trailers online and we see them on TV, we encounter them most often at the cinema. And because we consume them in the same context as movies, we tend to hold them to the same standard and consider them as products of the same maker. Which is true, to a point, as most movies come from Hollywood, and the studio system isn’t particularly diverse. But that leads to a crucial misunderstanding – that all filmmakers cut their own trailers, or at least approve of them. Sometimes this is true – for films outside of the studio system, as well as with big-name auteurs like P.T. Anderson, who cut his own trailers for There Will Be Blood – but more often it’s false. Marketing campaigns are the product of marketing experts, and the ad people in Hollywood are no less full of shit than their East Coast counterparts.
Occasionally they do right by their film – as best as they can in two and a half minutes, anyway. It’s easy to be honest about commercial films in a commercial. The routine genre pictures with hired-hand cast and crew have about 2:30 of substantial material as it is, and at worst, the trailer will give up all the goods too easily: the three funny lines, the one big explosion, the kiss in front of the skyline at the film’s climax. Trailers exist solely for the purpose of getting audiences to see them. And the best way to do that, in their mind anyway, is to make them all look the same. This is why it’s so easy to parody a trailer. Just look at the countless recuts on YouTube. While funny, they also plainly demonstrate how there are trusted beats to hit, in the forms of songs, shots, and seemingly profound but non-specific dialog. In his book 20 Master Plots, Ronald B. Tobias contended (as you might guess from the title) that there are, generally, 20 different plots a movie can follow. Likewise, I’d take a guess and say there are less than ten arcs a trailer will follow (though I’ll have to do more research before I have a final number on this).
One of the last times I went to the theater, I saw trailers for Lola Versus, Your Sister’s Sister, and Take This Waltz. Maybe it was just me and my loathing for trailers, but all of them – especially the latter two – struck me as damn near identical. While they’re not literally the same, they’re quite apparently reaching for the collective heartstrings of the same demographic. And damn did the trailer distributors know their audience. Without fail, each post-trailer silence was filled with “Oh that looks good” and “We’ve got to see that one.” Meanwhile, in those brief moments where I was falling under the trailer’s spell, I was confused. What the hell? I thought. I know Lynn Shelton and Sarah Polley are such promising, unique filmmakers, why are they doing the same damn movie? Trailers are cut this way to attract audiences to something they’ve proven they love, but there’s a detrimental side to it. Take this Waltz and Your Sister’s Sister are now lumped together in an inadvertent competition in my mind, in the suddenly existent genre of Mildly-Quirky-and-Disillusioned-Thirtysomethings Have Romantic Troubles Involving Schlubby Dudes Movie. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch more than one, my gut says, even though I should know the films are distinct, and only guilty of trailer association.
That’s where the problems really start for me. When trailers function as unintentional deterrents, I fly into a film-geek rage. I can’t count the times when I’ve just explained to a (non-cinephile) friend how much I loved a movie, only to be met with “that movie looked dumb,” or a similar assessment, as if the case was closed, during and immediately following those two-and-a-half minutes of quick cuts they saw a few months ago. Drag Me To Hell is a movie that suffered from this, at least as I saw it. The trailers for the film were not promising, displaying only half of the film’s major ingredients. It looked like a conventional horror flick. There was little if no indication of the comedic aspects of the film (unless you knew who Sam Raimi and knew his other horror films). Admittedly, comedy and horror have got to be hard genres to sell simultaneously, and at the end of the day, horror fans will welcome comedy sooner than comedy fans will welcome eyeballs in the mouth and cats being stabbed to death. But regardless, more often than not did I struggle to explain to friends that yes, Drag Me to Hell was a good movie in spite of how dumb the trailer looked, and yes, those laughs were intentional. Rarely did I encounter the viewer who understood the slapstick and camp elements of the movie as deliberate. It was as if they trusted the trailer first, as if it had the final word, and anything within the film that deviated was a mistake, an embarrassment the trailer tried to cover up in a half-assed ruse.
“It didn’t live up to the trailer,” you might hear, as though the trailer was the honest one of the pair. And so much of this investment in trailers, this view that the trailer might be alright, but the movie not so much, is very much a product of the ever-ridiculous hype machine. Just a few months ago we were treated to a trailer for the trailer for Total Recall, and few months prior we were given the same for Prometheus and Breaking Dawn – Part 2. I’m still trying to process it all. A commercial for a commercial – if somebody wrote that we’d call it stolid satire. Then, when the trailer finally came, it was reviewed and scrutinized on blogs across the web. There are a few things you can glean from a trailer, namely the quality of the special effects, and in the case of a sci-fi summer film, it’s not an absurd thing to review, if that’s all you’re going to review. But we’re talking about a whole league of blog posts, plus the hundreds of subsequent comments on the boards below. When the film finally comes, how much of the response will be to the film itself, and how much will be devoted to whether or not it lived up to the months of hype and speculation?
All of this is not to say that I’m innocent of watching trailers and making judgements too far in advance. As a cinephile, I need something to critique, and when there’s nothing good on Netflix and I’ve seen everything in the theater, it’s easy to pull up IMDb and watch the latest trailers. When you’re a snob, it’s not enough to have opinions on what’s been around and what’s out, you’ve got to have opinions on everything coming, too. When Django Unchained’s trailer debuted online, I watched it immediately. Twice. I didn’t want to have some other guy have a claim for more expertise on Tarantino’s next movie. Still, I regretted it not long after. Tarantino has been talking about his “southern” film about slavery for years, and the plot details have been out for months. As he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the casting and production updates, and I’ve got a fair number of questions (How’s he going to handle race? Will he offend the right people? Will the film work without his career collaborator Sally Menke editing for him?). The trailer didn’t answer any of these, of course, but suddenly my mostly dormant speculation on the movie was amped up to critical levels. I had to gear my mind up and have my opinions in order for the inevitable moment when somebody brings it up in conversation or posts about it on Facebook. I imagine most hardline film nerds have a similar experience. You wouldn’t dare enter the conversation and risk exposing your ignorance, and sitting out a conversation on your favorite topic is torture. There’s only one choice, and that’s watching the damn trailer and having an opinion.
But man, do I regret it. I’ll never be able to see Django Unchained without some ill-formed presuppositions. (At least I’m doing better than I did with Inglourious Basterds. I read the script for that damn thing months in advance. I just had to be the smartest guy in the theater…) And going to the movies without the slightest notion of what’s coming next is an experience I love more than damn near anything. When I was in my early teens, when I wasn’t watching movies, I was reading about them, both in books and on the excellent, comprehensive, filmsite.org. It wasn’t long before I could name the great directors’ filmographies in chronological order, and kick every adult’s ass in any sort of movie trivia. Awesome as it felt, it came at something of a price. I knew too much. You read about movies enough, and you’ll learn the secrets of Rosebud, Keyser Soze, the Star-Child, and the Bates Motel without even asking for them. And so when the time finally came to view these long-awaited classics, they didn’t pack the punch they should have. I don’t like those movies any less as a result, but it’s made me cherish filmgoing without prejudice all the more.
Two of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve had in the past two years were for A Cabin in the Woods and Midnight in Paris. Somehow, in spite of my blog-plowing, all plot details for those movies slipped under my radar. I know Cabin in the Woods was a horror homage, and I knew Midnight in Paris was the new Woody Allen movie, but my knowledge ended there. Especially in the case of Midnight, I benefited from not seeing a trailer. There’s no way of telling this now, of course, but I’d pretty surely guess that I would not have enjoyed that film nearly as much if I had seen the trailer. Ultimately, I don’t think my final opinion on the movie would be that different. But nothing could replace the wonder I felt when I slowly realized, along with Owen Wilson, that I had arrived in 1920s Paris. I was just as surprised as he was to meet Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and the whole time I was right there with him, learning and discovering with the characters right in that moment, without a clue of what would happen next, in a setting I’d never experience otherwise. And what are the movies for, if not that?
Arguments, I suppose. Analysis, discussion, inspiration. I obviously get a lot of that out of movies, too. But let’s try save as much as we can for after the movie. Odds are, I’ll probably end up seeing a trailer within the next week. Even if I dodge them online, I’ll see them in the theater or on TV. It’s the price I pay for being a geek. I’ll always know more than I ever should about the least important shit. But if you can help it, next time someone asks you to see a movie you know nothing about, don’t look up the trailer. Look it up, to be sure – make sure the director isn’t Dennis Dugan – but avoid the trailers. See the movie the way it was meant to be seen – then we’ll talk.