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


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?


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