approved for all audiences

a critical and rhetorical look at the art and artifice of the movie trailer



It may still be difficult to see what, if anything, delineates the trailer from more conventional forms of advertising. The most innovative commercials are, after all, now available on the internet, and may soon be downloading to an iPod near you. Like many things we encounter in the pop-culture environs of the early twenty-first century, trailers have a remarkably short shelf-life. Once the feature-length film hits theatres, the trailer is quickly forgotten. True, DVDs will now offer a movie’s theatrical trailer as one of many obligatory “bonus features”, to be potentially viewed and re-viewed as often as the feature presentation itself, but I would still like to reassert my conviction that trailers are beginning to outstrip the appeal of their now daft and overlarge motion-picture parentage. With the average running time of feature films pushing two hours, and because directors and editors seem incapable of discerning what is truly nonessential to narrative efficacy, the 150-second trailer is a welcome relief. Perhaps the trailer will be to the feature film, what the two and a half minute pop song has long been to the late-romantic symphony.

Enough talk. Here’s the trailer that got me going in the first place:

It’s been several months since I first saw the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in the theatre. There is another, longer trailer available now, and it seems like my predictions were all too accurate. Somehow Coppola - or some overqualified and underpaid “Hollywood Hack” - managed to accomplish in a minute and a half, what is completely ruined with the benefit of one more minute. I can only imagine what two and half hours will be like, when the two and half minutes are so disappointing.

What’s my problem, and what’s the big deal? Given the simple choice of music – New Order’s “Age of Consent”; intertextual enrichment, anyone? – the original trailer manages to accomplish quite a bit. It helps to tell the story of Marie Antoinette, the historical personality: her marriage at fifteen, the rumors surrounding her long un-consummated marriage, her decadent lifestyle, and her place in the public eye. It illustrates the character of the director and her previous work. It appeals to the retro-80s sensibility that is selling just about everything lately. And… it does something that I’m not sure I’ve seen a film do before. It takes something that would otherwise be unappealing to a younger generation, and puts it in a context that they can more easily relate to it.

Wait! What am I talking about? Movies have been doing that forever, haven’t they? Well, yes and no. I’m sure we can come up with any number of adaptations of Shakespeare intended for younger audiences – Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet, the Othello/high school basketball drama “O”, and of course 10 Things I Hate About You, the Julia Stiles’ high-school-teensploitation Taming of the Shrew – but all of those films take the artifact out of its original context and drop it into a modern setting and. What appears to be different about Coppala’s Marie Antoinette is that it leaves everything in its original surroundings, but changes the soundtrack. It is as if the trailer is screaming “No, it’s not different. This is you, us, NOW!” At least that’s what I hear the hot pink punk rock font screaming. And doesn’t that hot pink punk rock font – circa the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols – say almost a little too much? The complicated mess of public and private that was Marie Antoinette’s life may be very “right-now”, but so is the purple spiked mohawk and safety pinned nose of 1977... apparently.

But, I digress. And before I dig a hole larger than I can crawl out of – if, in fact, I haven’t done that quite along time ago – let me make one last appeal on behalf of the trailer. A few weeks ago I indulged in watching one of the more high profile summer blockbusters: Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest. Somewhere, about and hour an a half, into that two and a half hour fiasco, I felt the sneaking suspicion that things weren’t going to come together very neatly, even with another 60 minutes left to go. An hour later, much to my annoyance, I discovered that I had been exactly right. Instead of spending 10 dollars and wasting almost three hours of my rapidly waning life to watch the latest installment in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, I had really been suffering through the trailer for what is, as yet, the still to be next installment in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise. Dead Man’s Chest may never officially hold the title for world’s longest trailer, but given the enormous build up without any resolution, not to mention that sly to-be-continued wink at film’s end, if by “end” you mean anything that happened after the first 30 minutes of the movie... Let’s just say, it would have been far more, well, honest – not to mention a stroke of pure genius – if Dead Man’s Chest had done without the credits and simply cut to black instead, ending with these simple words, displayed promisingly onscreen: Pirates III – The movie you thought you were just watching – Summer 2008!

Trust me. Who needs movies?

Let’s go out to the trailers.


Allow Me Just A Minute To Geek Out Here...

Last night I went to see Lady In The Water - another conversation entirely - and I was completely shocked by the absence of one small detail before the film. Before I explain, just let me assure you that by saying "completely shocked" I am not indulging in hyperbole. I am just that amount of geek - as you have no doubt already realized.

Anyway, after the now obligatory FandangoTM, Jimmy Fund, and soft drink commercials ceased, there were five or six almost unbearably loud and exciting trailers, but not a single one was preceded by a screen displaying the oh-so-familiar green band! In all of my geekiness, and opposition to change, it was hard for me to adjust to this new dynamic. I quickly realized why I missed the green band so much: it acts like a palette cleanser before each trailer, giving you a chance to recover from whatever bombastic, obnoxious, or ridiculous ploys you were just subjected to.

I don’t know if this is a new trend – has anyone else experienced this? – or just a one-off thing, but I can’t help but wonder why a studio would decide to do this. At this point, I think we can all assume that trailers before a movie rated PG-13 or below will not be red band trailers, so perhaps there is no longer a need for the green band, other than to display the film’s MPAA rating. The experience was extremely unsettling though. There was barely any opportunity to recover from one trailer to the next, and hardly any indication that a new trailer was beginning. It also erased the separation between the aforementioned commercials and the trailers – two things that I firmly believe occupy very different aesthetic space.

At any rate, it made me think about the expanded domain of the trailer. As this blog ably demonstrates, trailers are no longer confined to movie theatres and VHS tapes. They are readily available via the internet for repeated viewing, and, in most cases at this point, for download to portable devices like iPods. Even though online trailers are still preceded by the green band, perhaps this user-friendly trend will help to do away with that. I don’t imagine that too many people are taking advantage of it, but the newest video iPods allow users to make video playlists, so it is conceivable that you would want to include your favorite trailers in an endless stream of video content, alongside installments of Rocketboom, obscure weirdo content from YouTube, and episodes of Desperate Housewives downloaded from iTunes.

One last thing worth mentioning… if any of you have been viewing these trailers via the apple website, instead of directly off of this page, you have probably noticed the elaborate backgrounds that are being created for these trailers, often times giving more insight to the tone or plot of the movie than what is offered in the trailer itself.

Again, I could be stretching here. Anyone else have more evidence or insights?

United 93/World Trade Center

Like the trailer for The U.S. vs. John Lennon, these two trailers are out to accomplish something larger than merely convincing viewers to see the movies they advertise. Because of the subject matter, they must convince their audiences of the simple necessity of the films themselves. When United 93 was released in the spring of 2006, many people complained that it was too soon to be releasing movies that depict the events of September 11th. Now, only a few months later, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is poised for its U.S. release. Despite the success and critical acclaim garnered by United 93, I don’t think that people are much more comfortable with the idea of 9/11 movies.

What elements in the two trailers speak to this dynamic? Based on what we see in the two trailers, how do the movies deal with this situation? In other words, what is their approach – in terms of tone, perspective, perhaps even political stance – concerning the events that the films depict?

United 93

And here’s World Trade Center


I have to admit that United 93 is the only trailer discussed so far that I have also seen the movie it is an advertisement for. I may have a hard time separating the two experiences, but I’ll do my best to restrict the conversation to the trailer alone.

The trailer for United 93 sets an interesting tone for itself: one that is quite complex in terms of film genre, not to mention emotional content. The jerky hand-held camera style gives the trailer a documentary feel, while several other things might lead you to believe it is an action movie. This is implied primarily by the decision to advertise the director’s name and his two most recent films. Paul Greengrass may be most well known for his work on The Bourne Supremacy, but his film Bloody Sunday is a closer comparison to United 93. A “dramatization” of a 1972 Irish civil rights protest and its violent outcome, Bloody Sunday shares the same dramatized documentary style as United 93. However, among your average moviegoers, Greengrass is a relative unknown, while The Bourne Supremacy is not. In light of that association, I would imagine most viewers of this trailer get the wrong idea about exactly what the director and the film are up to.

Speaking of action movies, how does the trailer depict the “good guys and bad guys”? Do you notice anything about the race, ethnicity, and/or gender of the passengers on United 93? What about the highjackers? Are they easily separated from the rest of the passengers? The passengers are mostly white, middle class, or upper middle class Americans. When I first saw this preview one of the things that stuck out to me was how the hijackers didn’t look middle eastern in an overly-stereotypical sense: there skin tones are very light, they don’t show any outward expressions of their faith, and we never hear them talk. I think you’ll notice in both previews discussed in this post, that there is a great deal of effort put into minimizing any sense of us-versus-them patriotism. There are no American flags waving in the trailer for United 93 (this is not the case for World Trade Center, however).

What else is conspicuous by its absence? The families of the passengers and crew are only implied. We only see the emotional reactions of the passengers, crew, air traffic control, and military personnel. I think it’s worth noting that this dynamic is maintained throughout the film as well. Though we may hear passengers talking to their families via airline phones or cell phones, there is no depiction if their families onscreen. I think it is also worth noting that while we see a brief image of the second plane heading toward the World Trade Center, we do not see the moment it makes impact. Instead we hear the explosion and then immediately the viewer’s perspective is focused on the reactions of air traffic control and military personnel.

Though it may be easy to misconstrue this trailer as being an advertisement for an action movie, as previously noted, the conscious emotional restraint mentioned above, and the general lack of violence onscreen should lead us to believe otherwise. If we also take into consideration some of the more thoughtful elements of the trailer, I think we will get a much clearer impression. A good deal of effort is put into setting the tone of that particular morning. Much is business as usual, but we also see signs of hope and prosperity: we hear a radio announcer say that the weather is “conducive to just heading out and enjoying the day”, one of the passengers is talking to a co-worker who says “the meeting last night was great”, and though I would be surprised if the irony is lost on anyone, another passenger looks thrilled to have “just made it” on board the flight. Surely it is a vast oversimplification of the emotional and intellectual content that the film deals with, as is the case with most tag lines, when we see these words displayed onscreen - On the day we faced fear, we also found courage – but I don’t think anyone can safely say that this will be a sensationalized depiction of events that are better left alone. The “honesty” implied by the documentary style, along with these signs of conscious restraint go a long way to making viewers more comfortable with the intentions of this particular movie. At the same time, the trailer doesn’t go out of its way to make a case for the films legitimacy in the face of so much opposition from the public. I wonder if this was intentional, as it seems to poise the film in a position in between various extremes, forcing the viewer to find out for him or herself exactly what the film is up to.


World Trade Center is dealing with the same problems. However, this film has an added disadvantage. To put it most directly, the director Oliver Stone is not known for his sensitivity, nor for your garden variety American patriotism. In other words, if World Trade Center had taken the same ethos-driven approach as United 93, it would have been even more detrimental to the project of the trailer. Just imagine the following text displayed on screen about a minute into the trailer… “from the director of Born On the Fourth of July and Natural Born Killers”, perhaps right after Nicolas Cage says “we were prepared for everything, but not this”. It wouldn’t be very convincing, would it? Obviously, the editor of this trailer was aware of that and decided to leave Oliver Stone’s name out of the trailer entirely.

Problems with negative associations aside – perhaps this is a good example of the four “Idols” of Francis Bacon, or perhaps it is a prejudice that is entirely justified – what are some other comparisons we can make to United 93? The documentary style is completely absent. This is a big Hollywood movie, and there are a hundred things that say so in the trailer. Here’s just a few: the lush and elegiac orchestral music never lets us lose our grasp on the film’s emotional direction, big name actors and actresses – the actors in United 93 were either virtually unknown, or, in the case of air traffic and military personnel, were played by the real people involved in the events of 9/11 – that will not let us forget that we’re watching a movie (let alone a Hollywood movie), bigBigBIG production values – any of the shots on the streets of NYC, or of the first responders inside the collapsing World Trade Center, or even the CGI shot overhead downtown NYC at the end of the trailer, would have probably spent United 93’s entire budget.

While the trailer for United 93 endeavors to restrain itself whenever possible, World Trade Center seems equally as determined to exploit the viewer’s emotional reaction whenever the opportunity arises. The mere inclusion of “friends and family” is enough to prove this particular point. There are no images in the trailer for United 93 of wives collapsing into chairs, or mothers hugging their children, and though we may hear passengers talking to their families on cell phones, we certainly don’t see shadowy images of anyone, pinned beneath several tones of rubble, making the pained effort to scribble “I heart U” on scraps of paper. In fact, no one in the trailer for United 93 – or the film itself, for that matter – even comes close to saying anything as rhetorically sensational as “let’s roll”.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. I haven’t passed any judgment on Stone’s film, certainly not without having seen it. I happen to feel that we are need of more films dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath, but like The U.S. vs. John Lennon before it, I think we should be decidedly wary of just what we are being made to think or feel without our active participation in the matter. Plato believed that the truth should be allowed to speak for itself. While any attempt of that sort, while simultaneously endeavoring to advertise for a motion picture, may be fraught with difficulties, I think these two trailers are examples of the difference between a more restrained and honest appeal, and something that strays into emotional manipulation.


The U.S. vs. John Lennon

This next trailer deserves some introduction and a disclaimer.

Throughout the semester Professor Wall suggested the following question as a useful way of examining how something is working rhetorically: Who is saying what to whom?

At this point in the long and uneven history of rhetoric – an art that has been repeatedly in and out of fashion – it may be worth questioning exactly why rhetoric may be of interest to us in the first place. We rarely hear public oratory, let alone personally deliver public speeches; rhetoric, as it was classically defined, may seem to be a foreign concept to us. I believe that rhetoric currently finds its most useful function in helping us to interpret what is being said to us in media, advertising, politics, etc. Though the formal study of rhetoric may not be currently in vogue, the use of rhetoric persists, and we would be well served by knowing, not “who is saying what to whom”, but rather, “who is saying what to me?” and perhaps more importantly, “what do they want me to do about it”?

And now that disclaimer… The following discussion is not an expression of my political beliefs. I am neither a Democrat, nor a Republican. There are many issues on which I am strikingly liberal, and just as many issues on which I am surprisingly conservative. The only political view that I hold to most firmly, is the belief that one should be able to make up their mind on any given issue, unburdened by party loyalty. That being said, my feelings about this trailer may lead you to believe that I am, in fact, more conservative than liberal, or vice versa. Actually, I am fascinated by the crafty manipulation of “the passions” as evidenced here, and think our discussion would benefit greatly from discussing exactly what it does, and how it does it - in detail.

One more thought to keep in mind: we tend to recognize and acknowledge the use of negative rhetoric – as in persuasion tending toward manipulation – when we disagree with what is being said. We should be equally aware of the rhetoric we don’t immediately see simply because we already agree with the message being expressed. That is to say, when we find ourselves massed “in numbers too big to ignore” pumping our fists in the air, it might be worth the moment it takes to wonder: Well, how did I get here?

Enough. Please watch this trailer.

Ok. Let’s be straight here, right from the start. We were talking about movie trailers not too long ago, and we still are, but it seems like the stakes have suddenly gotten much higher. What is this trailer attempting to convince us to do? Watch a movie? Or are we being persuaded to do something entirely different?

Remember the question from before: who is saying what to me, and what do they want me to do about it?

The “who” can be easily addressed, though the answer may be somewhat nebulous. For those of you that viewed the trailer via, you probably noticed the headline at the top of the page: From the studio that brought you Fahrenheit 9/11. We can assume several things from that statement, many of which may or may not actually be true, but merely because “they” have gone to the trouble of planting that association in our fertile little brains, we should assume that a least one of them might be true.

They might like us to believe that Michael Moore – director of Fahrenheit 9/11, and widely accepted champion of the current anti-war movement - was personally involved in the creation of this movie, though there doesn’t seem to be any other evidence that is the case. A quick look at IMDb will show you that the oeuvre of the writer/directors ties them more directly to John Lennon “the musician”, than John Lennon “the political activist”. An interesting detail, in and of itself. The only thing I think we can safely assume is that this movie is being made by people who are politically left-leaning, who may also be opponents of the current war in Iraq and of President Bush.

There is, perhaps, another “who” that we should address: John Lennon. When you watch the trailer, and you hear Lennon say things like “you have to be more politically aware in this day and age” or “we came here to tell you that apathy isn’t it, and we can do something”, who exactly is he speaking to? Surely, he was speaking to his peers during the war in Vietnam, but because of the new context these soundbites have been transplanted to, isn’t he also talking to “you and me”?

The answer to the last part of our question – what are they saying, what do they want us to do about it – is a little harder to come by, but we should have a pretty clear idea of at least what they are saying, and the nature of what they want us to do by the end of our discussion of this trailer.

Remember how, in previous posts, we mentioned that one of the primary purposes of a trailer is to outline the plot of the movie? What kind of movie is The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and what is it about? I know that this is a documentary, and so it will not have a plot in quite the same way that a narrative film might, but do we get a sense of the “story” by watching the trailer? Maybe this question will come to the point more quickly: in this story, who is the hero, and who is the villain?

How does the trailer establish that dynamic? Dialogue, is key, of course, but that’s too obvious. I was suggesting that we might be dealing with persuasion and manipulation in our discussion here, so let’s look at some of the more subtle things; look at the things that might register on a more unconscious or subliminal level…

Our villain, Nixon, is dressed, as all good villains must, in black, usually in dark boxy suits. He’s a square. Frequently when we see him he is doing or saying things that make him appear shifty, if not completely ridiculous.

Our hero, by and large, appears in white, as heroes are wont to do. When we see him he is thoughtful, well spoken, and charismatic. He is earnest and direct, but he also knows how to relax and goof off. Take his very first line in the trailer as a case in point. When asked why he has “been in trouble” all his life, Lennon replies, with the disarming aw-shucks delivery of our best southern politician “I just have one of those faces, y’know? People just don’t like me face.” How can you not like this guy?

Also note two things that are even subtler, but just as effective. First, images of Nixon are sometimes altered. When he wipes his nose after addressing the rate of America’s withdraw from Vietnam, there is an intensification in the picture’s contrast, like a flash-bulb going off, and then the picture slows down, to freeze briefly on Nixon’s moronic gesture; by association, Nixon deals with the lives of America’s troops as nonchalantly as he wipes his nose. Later in the trailer, just as we hear Lennon saying “our society is run by insane people, for insane objectives” we see a shot of Nixon, in dramatic slow motion wheeling around and laughing like a madman. Secondly, the black/white, villain/hero duality that the trailer has established is solidified in the final title. Notice how the title appears on a screen split by opposing blocks of black and white. The words “The U.S. vs.” appear in white on a black background, while “John Lennon” appears in black letters on a white background, as if to set the two opposing forces of yin and yang against one another. It is, of course, worth noting that an image of Lennon’s face appears faintly in the black space, but based on what part of it appears – basically from the nose up – I find it worth suggesting that this calls to mind an image that has long been associated with the kind of mischief and whimsy with which Lennon is depicted at times in the trailer: Kilroy was here.

And how could we say anything about this trailer, without discussing its use of music? Of course the music is taken from Lennon’s discography, and it is expertly used to heighten the viewer’s emotional response to the images onscreen, as well as to emphasize ideas presented throughout the trailer. This bit of the discussion could easily become quite lengthy, so I will instead point out several ingenious pairings that are suggested by the expert editing.

You may want to watch the preview again, to see exactly how this plays out in real time. I also suggest simply listening to the preview without looking at the picture. Simply noting what lyrics are audible, and what lyrics are inaudible in each song is quite illuminating. Lyrics will appear in italics, and words/dialogue/images will appear next to them in brackets, with some of my own commentary added.

The trailer opens with “Nobody Told Me” – [Nixon says over the song’s instrumental introduction: If we succeed, generations to come will say of us now living, we mastered our moment] everybody’s talkin’, no one says a word… [images of troops marching on Kent State, shot of police officer striking a student protester frozen in mid-frame] nobody told me there’d be days like these… [Yoko: John was daring to speak out. John: We came here to tell you that apathy isn’t it, and we can do something about it]… After a dramatic pause we here the beginning of “Power to the People” - Power to the people! [with the sound of boots marching we see, in rapid succession, images of troops and protesters, amassed against one another] Power to the people! [John is standing with a bullhorn, facing the camera, his index finger is pointed at the camera, and yes, the audience. Power to the people? Which people? You!]… Almost seamlessly following the tone, pitch, and rhythm of “Power to the People” Lennon’s classic “Instant Karma!” starts chugging along - …Instant karma’s gonna get you [now legendary images of captured and blindfolded Vietcong, and student screaming in horror at her classmate shot and killed at Kent State] (inaudible) …you better get yourself together [appears precisely when the words “those who can not remember the past” are displayed on screen. Who is condemned to repeat it? Well, you. The viewer. And…] who on earth d’you think you are? A superstar? Well right you are. And we all shine on! (repeats several times) [repeats last time over the final title, and then the tag line appears: War Is Over If You Want It] Everyone! [“Coming soon”] Come on! [don’t forget, we want you to see the movie, too!].

Another facet of this trailer that could be extensively discussed is this “tag line”. Now widely accepted as a mandatory element in the creation of a trailer, the tag line is a clever and succinct advertising slogan meant to sum up the entire movie in one sentence. The tag line here is borrowed from John and Yoko’s anti-war campaign from the Vietnam era. It was a slogan that appeared, among other places, on a giant billboard in New York City, as depicted in the trailer. Because of the need to pack tremendous amounts of information in a very short period of time, trailers often live and die in the details. Note a few details here. The tag line appears twice before the end of the trailer. The first time it follows closely after Yoko says of John: His message is still alive. What is that message? We see two people, presumably John and Yoko, holding a sign which so far only reads: War is over! The tag line appears first in its entirety – War is over if you want it – as we hear John say: There is still hope. The final impact of the tag line is revealed in relationship to the music, as previously mentioned. After several times through the chorus of “Instant Karma!” – We all shine on! – we see the text displayed on screen – War is over if you want it – as we hear John sing imploringly: Everyone! Come on!

We may not have received a crystal clear plan of action at this point, but isn’t it obvious that the trailer has been quite assiduously trying to convince of something from the first frame to the last? Again, what is that message? War is over. If you want it. Or perhaps I should say: if you want it.

Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives, but war is over if you want it.

My previous disclaimer may be pretty difficult to swallow at this point, but I assure you that I am not decidedly pro-war, or anti-war, for that matter. I do feel that the American people would be well served by becoming more active participants in the creation of their political destiny. However, the tactics employed in this trailer are, I believe, precisely the sort of thing that made Plato so wary of how rhetoric is often used. They certainly echo one of the debates that has plagued the practice of rhetoric from Plato’s time until today: even if our objectives are widely considered to be necessary or well-intentioned, do we have the right to use rhetoric to persuade people who may not be consciously aware of how they are being persuaded?

Recall the “super rough scale for movie trailer viewing” and ask yourself: if I feel, after watching this trailer, that I should think or do something in particular, how was that accomplished? Was the appeal based on the logical presentation of facts? Was it based on my esteem for who presented that appeal? Or was it based on an emotional response orchestrated through a confluence of disparate elements?

War is over if you want it, but is it really what you want?


Rhetorical Detour #2

In his Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) George Campbell enumerates four things that he considers to be the "ends of speaking". I find them to be equally well suited to the ends of the movie trailer. Let's take a look [with my commentary added in brackets].
  1. Enlighten the understanding. [Let you know what the movie is "about".]
  2. Please the imagination. [Give you something worth seeing: some special fx, a good joke, a favorite actor in an unexpected role, etc.]
  3. Move the passions. [With the promise of exposed flesh and heavy breathing, if need be.]
  4. Influence the will. [Ultimately, convince you to part with your cash.]
Campbell noted the following expectation of a skilled orator:
"We do not argue to gain barely the assent of understanding, but, which is infinitely more important, the consent of the will."
That being said – and before tackling our next trailer – here's another look at persuasion and manipulation...

Persuade: to induce to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty.

Manipulate: to influence or manage shrewdly or deviously; to tamper with or falsify for personal gain.

10 Things I Hate About Commandments

In his 1950 disquisition A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke suggests the idea of “identification” not, as he says, as a “substitute for the sound traditional approach” of examining various means of persuasion, but rather as an “accessory” to that already well established rhetorical concept. At this point we may have a fairly clear idea of what movie trailers have to do with persuasion. Let’s watch this little clip to jump-start our discussion of identification.

Ok. Now that you’ve composed yourself let’s get down to it. But before we do, perhaps some background is in order. Just in case you’ve been under a rock for the last several months here’s a brief history of the “re-cut trailer”. Though it is clearly the relatively low cost and accessibility of digital video editing software that has made this trend possible, it is unclear exactly when and how it started. At any rate, some time in the fall of 2005 this little online contest inspired a video called Shining that made a huge internet splash and went a long way to increasing the popularity the re-cut movie trailer.

The concept is simple, though the execution takes more talent than some seem to expect: using the images and dialogue from a familiar movie, re-cut a trailer that completely changes the tone or plot of the original movie. Shining, for instance, re-cuts Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film as a feel-good triumph-of-the-will uplifting heart-warming sappy drama a la Dead Poets Society or Patch Adams. Another notable attempt is the conceptually obvious, but unexpectedly convincing Brokeback To The Future, which, well… I think you can figure that one out for yourself.

The existence of such skillfully wrought parodies should be enough evidence to mark the arrival of the trailer as an established artistic medium. But what does any of this have to do with Kenneth Burke and “identification”? Let’s hear what he has to say for himself:
“All Told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a ‘pure’ form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being.”
So, in this case, persuasion is the simple process of “getting butts in seats”, while identification is a means of appealing on a more personal or essential level. It’s the difference between feeling that a movie may be worth my time and money and feeling like it was “made for me” – feeling like “it’s my movie”.

One of the things that 10 Things I Hate About Commandments makes ridiculously clear is that the primary purpose of a trailer is to establish the film’s genre. If I ask you to go with me to see a movie called Snakes On A Plane, your next question may very well be “Well, what’s it about?” or more likely “What kind of movie is it?” Any decent trailer should adequately answer these two questions if it has any hope of enticing viewers to part with $9 and two hours of their time. But if a trailer is also able to establish an identity for itself then it has every hope of appealing to someone on this more personal level of identification.

Perhaps it is too soon to say that this sort of bond can be established merely through a trailer, but it is the sort of devotion that Hollywood execs must dream of – the sort of all-abiding devotion that separates a Star Wars from a Solaris. To say that you “identify with” a movie, is to say that your affinity for that movie indicates something substantial and dynamic about “who you are” and “what you believe in”. If a trailer is able to convince you to feel that way about a movie that you have not yet seen, then it has transcended mere persuasion. However, it has no hope of accomplishing this task if it has blatantly resorted to employing crude manipulation. Allow me to refer, once again, to the…

  1. Bad trailers are manipulative.
  2. Good trailers are persuasive.
  3. Great trailers are manipulative while appearing to be persuasive.

Lady In The Water

At long last, we’ll take a look at some real live trailers to get first hand experience of what these things are, and how they do what they do. The first set of trailers we’ll look at are for the movie Lady In The Water – opening today – written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. There are three trailers currently available. While watching the trailers try to keep the following questions in mind:
  • What kind of movie is this?
  • Who is the audience for this movie?
  • What are the primary means for establishing tone and thematic content in the trailers?
Also, keep in mind that these three trailers have been released in close succession, and are quite possibly designed to work together in order to create an overall impression of the film. Each trailer can be viewed individually and still be successful, but taking the three trailers as individual parts of a total message may also suggest interesting things about the project of making an effective movie trailer.

Trailer #1

This was the first trailer released for Lady In The Water. For all intents and purposes, this was the “teaser trailer”, though we can assume that it contains sound and images that will appear in the movie itself.

In order to answer the questions we suggested at the beginning of this post, we may have to try to ignore what we know about the director, M. Night Shyamalan, and his body of work thus far. Keep in mind that his name does not appear until the very end of the trailer, and so anything we might assume about his writing or directorial style would not influence the way we might view this trailer when first seeing it in a theatre. We will examine that idea more clearly in just a few moments.

With that in mind, what is the overall impression that we get from this trailer? What type of movie is it? Is it a comedy? Is it a love story? The images that we see, particularly in the opening of the trailer, suggest a peaceful and idyllic setting. Our protagonist is a quiet and unassuming person, perhaps with a touch of sadness or loneliness. The lush orchestral music, with solo violin and then tenor voice – a la Andrea Bocelli, perhaps – suggests a romantic, if not lightly impressionistic atmosphere. Given the title of the film we may assume that Cleveland Heap – whose “life [will] change forever” – may yet find "happiness", strange and supernatural though she may be.

However, the end of the trailer suggests that “all is not as it seems” – something which should be, by now, entirely expected in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. There are a few things that help to suggest this change in tone. The first clue is the tag line – “a bedtime story” – which flashes onscreen just as the music takes a decided harmonic turn. The tonal/melodic palette, not to mention the mere choice of a solo violin with orchestra, has so far clearly suggested another symphonic “bedtime story”: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. However, in these last few moments of the trailer, the violin is replaced by a solo piano playing a descending arpeggiated chord: a Major triad with the inclusion of the augmented fifth/diminished sixth, one of the universally accepted musical signifiers for mysterious and impending creepiness. Seconds later Shyamalan’s name appears below “bedtime story” clearly suggesting that all we have come to expect about the movie over the last couple of minutes may not be completely trusted.

Trailer #2

Though many of the images from Trailer #1 reappear in this trailer, the overall impression of the movie has changed dramatically. The two trailers begin in a very similar way – “I’m Cleveland Heap. Welcome to the Cove” – but by clever manipulation of sound, the trailer quickly departs from the tone of the original.

As we see a shot of girls jumping into a swimming pool – obviously “the cove” itself, and, if the trailers are any indication, the center of most of the action in the movie itself – delay is added to the sound of children playing, creating an echoing sound that suggests more depth than the image is able to portray on its own. Just after the obligatory inclusion of studio titles we see an overhead shot of the pool, unlit in the darkness of nighttime, accompanied only by silence and the soft chirping of crickets. At this point the sound and music aid a shift in tone. The words “in this ordinary place” are displayed onscreen and then there is a low mysterious rumble, followed by “the return” of the piano from the end of Trailer #1. Our feelings are confirmed by the text that is shortly displayed onscreen: “something extraordinary will surface”.

Much of the work in this trailer is accomplished by the clever mix of sound – musical or otherwise – and dialogue. Note the “disembodied” dialogue, removed from any real context and presented for maximum impact: “I hear splashing some nights”, “I don’t know who you are, but you did something to my thoughts”, and “what’s happening? I thought it was going to be safe”. Also note the impact of a simple sound effect: what is expressed by the enormous whooshing sound of overlarge wings, when accompanied by the image of butterflies flying in slow motion and a subtle double-exposure. All of these elements contribute to a subtly “trippy” feel that the trailer creates.

I also shouldn’t fail to mention the basso profundo Hollywood voiceover: “when the door (pause) to her world is opened…” It nothing less than comical how closely that bit of conventional trailer-ism resembles the unsalvageably clichéd voiveover we have heard a million times; as you hear the words “when the door” reverberating off of the theatre walls, you may instead be hearing the all too familiar intro: “in a world”.

In order to highlight this dramatic change in tone from Trailer #1 to Trailer #2 we need only examine a single line that, conveniently enough, ends both trailers. How does the context created by each trailer suggest a very different interpretation of Cleveland Heap’s final bit of dialogue: How many of you are there? Given the sci-fi horror movie tone of the second trailer this line may suggest an InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers or NightOfTheLivingDead sort of reading, while the “romantic” tone of the first trailer may leave us thinking that Cleveland Heap is really asking “How many of you are there, and do you have a sister my age?”

Trailer #3

This is our first clear example of an ethos-driven trailer. The voice-over is clearly trying to capitalize on M. Night Shyamalan’s previous success, and his reputation as a director, both in terms of his being hyped as “the next Spielberg” by Newsweek in 2002 and in terms of his well-established track record for making riveting thrillers with surprise endings. The dialogue chosen for this trailer also emphasizes this repuation: “there’s something strange going on around this building” and “sometimes it isn’t always what it seems”.

Many of the same tricks that were used in Trailer #2 reappear in Trailer #3: the de-contextualized samples of dialogue, creepy music, sped-up and slow-motion images often utilizing double exposure for a disorienting effect. The major difference between the second and third trailer, and between the first and second trailer, can be expressed in terms of pace. Taken as a progression from Trailer #1 through Trailer #3, appearing chronologically closer and closer to the film’s release date, it should be noted that the trailers do an excellent job of increasing the energy, and therefore anticipation, surrounding the film’s release.

In “The 150-Second Sell, Take 34”, mentioned in a previous post, trailer editor Art Mondrala outlines his philosophy on creating a great trailer: ''I think of a trailer as pulling back an arrow string. You let the arrow go, the trailer soars through all this material - but right before it hits its target, that's the end.'' It is worth mentioning that Mondrala’s views on the art of the trailer were recorded while he was in the midst of editing for a previous set of M. Night Shyamalan trailers: Signs. This tactic of withholding the final climax suits Shyamalan’s films exceedingly well, as it highlights what must be the most difficult aspect of creating a trailer for a movie that is generally expected to live and die in its twists and turns: how much do you conceal, and how much do you reveal?

Enter, the “SUPER-ROUGH SCALE OF MOVIE TRAILER VIEWING”. Given this unique dynamic, how can we judge trailers for Shyamalan’s films in terms of persuasion and manipulation? No one wants to see a trailer that tells all of a movie’s best jokes, or gives a film’s entire plot away, but isn’t there something sort of dishonest about what these trailers say and don’t say? Perhaps we should refer to Kevin Smith again?

That is to say, there are many things about the trailers for Lady In The Water that are undeniably “artistic” and that transcend the crass manipulation of a transparent bid for your disposable income. I’m inclined to say that they are persuasive insofar as they are artfully manipulative. But what was that about Kevin Smith? The deceitfulness of Shyamalan’s trailers can be overlooked on the grounds that full-disclosure would be dishonest in this context. The trailer should accurately represent what we can expect to see in the film itself, and we can well expect that Shyamalan’s films will walk this highwire between concealing and revealing, just as much as the trailers that attempt to sell them to a movie-going public.

Techie Notes For The Technically Challenged

For the posts that discuss specific trailers I will be embedding video via YouTube, as well as including hyperlinks to the trailers on Apple's website. This will allow you to watch the trailers on the blog without having to jump to another page, and potentially get lost out there in the wilds of net-ville.

Some quick tips: if you have a slower internet connection, or problems watching video online, you may want to "stop" or "pause" the video as it begins playing. Let it download completely - look for the light grey progress bar filling up from left to right below the video window - and then start playing the clip from the beginning. If you do not have quicktime or flash, and would prefer to watch video in windows media player or some other format, try doing a google search for the trailer by title. Trailers are becoming increasingly available on the web.


Rhetorical Detour #1

Classical rhetoric has given us three concepts which I think will be useful in determining the relative degrees of persuasion and manipulation found in movie trailers: ethos, logos, and pathos. These concepts were originally used in discussing oratory, but I think they can be applied to the present discussion equally well.

Ethos: an appeal based on the character or reputation of the speaker. In terms of the trailer, ethos will be an appeal based on the reputation of the director, or – overpublicized private lives aside – the reputations of the actors in a given film. Ethos-driven trailers will also try to sell the movie based on awards garnered at film festivals, or awards given to its stars. While the presence – or oftentimes absence – of certain actors in a trailer can be an effective element of their overall persuasiveness, trailers rarely – if ever – rely on this tactic alone. Furthermore, the strategic inclusion of “awards won” – usually near the trailer’s end, or before the action has gotten underway – seems to me to be beside the point. After all, Academy Award WinnerTM Halle Berry’s track record was far more compelling before she took home the Oscar for Monster’s Ball in 2001.

Logos: this is an appeal based on logic and argument. As previously stated, it may be difficult to understand what could possibly be logical – in an intellectual sense – about the persuasiveness of your average movie trailer. We will discuss this more as we examine individual trailers, but for now I think it is sufficient to say that a logos-driven trailer will attempt to present the artistic and/or aesthetic merits of a movie without relying on pandering or titillation to get its point across. This is not to say that only the highest of high-brow artsy “films” will be able to appeal in this way. It depends largely on the character and tone of the film itself. If crude humor and gratuitous or narratively improbable exposure of female flesh are integral elements of the final product, then it would be far more honest for a trailer to present those elements persuasively, and with the least amount of undue manipulation. This may sound like total nonsense, and perhaps it is, but I imagine that closer inspection of the oeuvre of Kevin Smith might help to illuminate this point a bit.

Pathos: an appeal based on pathos will try to elicit an emotional reaction. I would have to say that most trailers fall into this category, and perhaps all trailers utilize this type of appeal to some degree. Pathos-driven trailers and advertising are so prevalent that they hardly need further explanation. The only thing I feel the need to mention is that “emotion” refers equally well to “exciting passions” and drives as it does to the more obvious appeal to any number of various psychological flavors - happy, sad, et al.

In the course of our discussion, I think we’ll find that trailers are primarily pathos-driven, though really good trailers will attempt to maximize a sense of logical appeal. Perhaps it could be said that these two – logos and pathos – are often vying for dominance in any given trailer, while appeals based on ethos are either secondary or merely implied.



What are they? What do they do? How do they do it?

In the simplest terms, the most convenient definition: a trailer is an advertisement for a movie.

The “project” of a trailer is to convince you to see the movie it advertises. Trailers will do this in a variety of ways. Let's talk about those ways in terms of convention and in terms of rhetoric.

First: convention. Most trailers will use elements taken from the film itself in order to present a short overview or synopsis of what you can expect to see if you watch the movie. Insofar as they only utilize the images and sounds – and tone and thematic material and plot! – from the movie itself we can call a trailer “pure”. In this way, “pure” trailers are unlike most forms of advertising, in that they use the product to sell the product. Trailers actually have more in common with the “free samples” you might get at a grocery store, or pharmaceutical company, or local drug dealer, than they do with the TV, radio, and print ads we see on a daily basis.

While most trailers stick to this convention, they are by no means required to treat it as a rule. Depending on how much of the filming or post-production has been completed when a trailer is released it may use music or images that will not appear in the final product. They may also present alternate takes not used in the final cut (or) they may present the elements of the film out of narrative order (or) they may present the audio/dialogue from one part of the movie over images from another part. “Teaser” trailers are often released well before a movie has even reached the editing or post production stage, and therefore may rely on material produced specifically for that trailer. These trailers often resemble the TV, radio, and print ads mentioned earlier. While these types of trailers are also worthy of closer aesthetic examination, I would prefer to discuss examples that approach the standards of “pure” trailers as already outlined, mainly because they represent a unique form of advertising, entertainment, and artistic expression.

However unique the trailer may be as a format, like all advertising, trailers often tread a thin line between persuasion and manipulation. For the purpose of this discussion I would like to define “persuasion” as an appeal to one’s logic or reason, while “manipulation” will be defined as an appeal to one’s emotions. It may be difficult to imagine how the two and a half minutes of cleavage and explosions typical to movie trailers may be an appeal to the intellect, but we’ll save that for another post. At this point I’ll just leave you with…


1) Bad trailers are manipulative.
2) Good trailers are persuasive.
3) Great trailers are manipulative while appearing to be persuasive.

General Admission

Just before the heavily anticipated arrival of Y2K I remember jotting down a list of “maligned late-late 20th century art forms” which included the t-shirt and the website, among several others. Though I had seen hundreds, if not thousands, of 150-second movie trailers at that point in time, I don’t recall including them on the list.

No doubt, the “art of the trailer” had already enjoyed a significant and substantial history by the year 2000, but for whatever reason I didn’t yet feel that the trailer had anything to say worth repeating. In a July 2002 article for the New York Times - “The 150-Second Sell, Take 34” - Marshall Stella observed that “pretentiousness is not an affliction common to trailer editors” and that “trailer editing is viewed by the general population, and even some in the film industry, as hackwork”. I suppose I shared that limited view of the trailer’s wider cultural influence. After all, a trailer is just an advertisement for a movie, right?

Cut to: January 2006. While waiting for the “feature presentation” - and admittedly enjoying what is frequently my favorite aspect of the theatre-going experience – I saw a trailer that confirmed what had become a growing suspicion about the value of trailers in general. Hardly a few seconds into the preview for Sofia Coppola’s upcoming Marie Antoinette, I not only knew that trailers had undoubtedly become an art unto themselves, but that I could look forward to a point in the near future when they would be more interesting than the movies they advertise.

Before we get underway, I should mention a few things…

Aside from my growing obsession with trailers, I am starting this blog as a means to fulfill the requirements for my participation in ENGL802 – The Theory and Practice of Rhetoric – at Trinity College. Though I will use some of what I learned from that course to discuss different elements of the trailer and its means of persuasion, I am hoping to make this blog accessible to a wider audience than my professor and classmates, with the possibility of continuing it after I’ve completed the assignment.

I hope to add links to the trailers discussed as a sort of blogroll at right, and to embed the trailers within my posts where necessary, but all of the trailers discussed can be found at the following page, or, more directly, at's movie trailers page.

To my classmates: I elected to present my final paper as a blog, not simply for ease of access to the source material, but also for the possibility of taking advantage of the interactivity that a blog offers. In other words: commentsCommentsCOMMENTS. Please feel free to tell me what you think as things progress.