Cynical Corner: Trailer Trash

In recent days we have seen the release of trailers for two of the most anticipated films of next summer. First came the teaser for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, followed by the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield as the eponymous web-slinger. The content and reception for these trailers (The Dark Knight Rises’ one, in particular) has caused this critic to consider the role that trailers actually play in the advertising of a film. They’re a big business, with editors and composers specializing in trailers, and releases of trailers for the biggest films are gradually becoming events in themselves. The problem is that they are not necessarily representative of a director’s vision; naturally, since they are usually cut by studio-approved editors. Thus, it can happen that a trailer can ultimately fail to represent the themes, ideas or plot of a film because of the differences between the studio mindset and the directorial vision.

We shall have to wait to see the finished product to be sure, but this difference between director and studio may have led to the lukewarm reaction to The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) teaser. Teasers arguably have an easier job than full-length trailers; all they have to do is provide a snippet of footage or dialogue from the film to whet the appetites of the movie-going public. This is borne both out of marketing sensibilities and necessity, since teasers often come out long before the film is released, and the editor may have very little footage to work with. This is certainly the sense one gets from TDKR’s teaser. The fresh footage it offers does whet the appetite, with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) in a hospital bed, presumably after an attack by Bane (Tom Hardy). What happened to him? Why? These are the kinds of questions a teaser should provoke. To cap it all off, we get little glimpses of Bane, and a final shot of the bulked-up baddie approaching a barely-standing Batman (Christian Bale) to some very creepy chanting on the soundtrack (Apparently, the choir is saying “Matalo, matalo” (“Kill, kill” in Spanish).

On the downside, however, is the opening of the trailer, with footage and dialogue from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight alongside cheesy inter-titles (“Every hero has a journey”). As well as being patronized with that attempt at a recap, the sound mix sounds very rushed, with Gordon’s dialogue verging on incomprehensible, as he pleads for Batman to come back to save Gotham. Also, since he’s talking to Christian Bale, but not as Batman, doesn’t that presume he must know Batman is also Bruce Wayne. Think about it, and you get a potential spoiler.

The problem with trailers is that, for all the bombast they can provide, their primary function is as a sales pitch. The editors must do their best to provide an apt summary of a film in 2 1/2 minutes or less; if they can’t do that, they’ll throw in the edgiest, most interesting clips they can find. In The Amazing Spider-Man (TAS-M) trailer, we get brief clips of the great supporting cast (Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field), but the focus is on the scenes people will recognize from the Spider-Man origin story; the spider bite, trying out his new powers, the suit. Apart from relying on familiarity, this trailer does also highlight the film’s potential pointlessness, as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy remain fresh in most people’s minds. Neither one trailer nor one film will cause the originals to fade into history, no matter how hard studio executives wish otherwise. As with TDKR’s trailer, TAS-M’s trailer feels a little rushed, especially in the final clip, a first-person view of Spidey launching himself through the New York skyline. That CG needs a touch-up, stat!

Compare these trailers to two other recent trailers. Firstly, the trailer for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo made an impact with some tight editing, blistering images and a brilliant cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ by Trent Reznor and Karen O. This is a classic example of what a teaser trailer should do: establish atmosphere and attitude, but merely hint at the plot. The murder mystery at the heart of Dragon Tattoo is sidelined in establishing the film as a gritty and dark tone, in a potentially similar vein to Fincher’s own Se7en or Fight Club, with glimpses of the cast and highlighting the Girl herself, Rooney Mara, and her transformation into the pierced and inked Lisbeth Salander.  Like the film’s heroine, the Dragon Tattoo trailer is brash, uncompromising and impossible to ignore.

Similarly, the trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasted classy visuals, with a focus on the great cast and the intrigue of the plot without going into too much detail. A traitor is in the ranks, and he must be found. That’s all we need to know. Couple that with some great shots (Benedict Cumberbatch stood absolutely still behind an opening door, the man with the pipe smoke, etc.) and tense violins (from Danny Elfman’s score to The Wolfman, trivia fans), and consider public interest piqued!

So, what can we learn from these trailers? There isn’t necessarily anything novel about their construction, but there is a difference in intent that is clear. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not have the blockbuster ‘oomph’ of Nolan or Webb’s films, but they showcase what they do have (atmosphere, great casts, intrigue) and it’s more than enough to sell the film. On the other hand, TDKR and TAS-M make an announcement, draw attention to themselves and end up being damp squibs. They make their point, but at the cost of subtlety and distinction. Blockbuster trailers are all too similar in both content and tone, and given the anticipation surrounding these superhero sagas, it makes their lowest-common-denominator pandering all the more disappointing. Less truly is more; less clichés, less triumphalism and less posturing. Trailers should entice, not pander.

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