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


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.


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