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The Art of Previews

Previews are an under appreciated art form. And they are an art form: anything involving the application of tremendous amounts of creativity, craft, and effort for the purpose of generating an emotional response is art in my view. So let's just put that aside for the moment.

And yet, I don't know of any awards for movie trailers, and very rarely do they get written up appreciatively for their own merits. Mostly, when trailers are referenced in media or popular culture, they occupy a strange crepuscular role as proxies for the topic people really want to talk about -- the movie itself.

I had my eyes opened to the idea of trailers as an art form, distinct from the cinema they represent, by an article I read a long time ago in the NY Times (back when I read the Times in dead tree form). By peeking behind the curtains of the production team that made the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," it became clear trailers aren't really about the movie. They contain images from the movie and they might sketch the barest indications of the plot, but essentially they function by accessing something beyond the movie itself, the inner reaches of an audience's desires. A trailer works by tapping into something a potential viewer wants to see, even if they don't know it themselves. The production team working on the "Signs" all but ignored what the movie was actually about. They were more concerned with how the raw footage and dialogue, minus context, might register on an emotional level. All of it was simply unprocessed material to use in the trailer. Mix in some orchestration and the trailer begins to flick all of the deep brain switches that make us want to shell out $10 to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

I try to keep that sausage-making aspect of trailers in mind when watching the current crop of trailers. For every Dark Knight Rises trailer faithfully translating what was actually good about the movie, there are plenty of Cloud Atlases, extremely well-produced beautiful mini-films that ultimately do little except highlight how far the movie fell from its potential.

It's tough, for example, to know what to make of the new Star Trek movie "Into Darkness" from the trailer. Apart from some iconic shots of the Enterprise, this trailer doesn't exactly separate itself from any other Hollywood action movie. Granted the preview was extremely short, but a number of the scenes could have been transposed to the Battleship trailer without anyone batting an eye. Future San Francisco even looks a bit like modern Hong Kong.

Then we have "Pacific Rim," which popped out of nowhere last night. The preview has some elements I found enormously appealing. Kaiju are cool, no two ways about it. Kaiju designed and filmed by Guillermo del Toro are more cool yet. Giant Mechs are cool. Giant Mechs punching aforementioned Kaiju in the face could be in every movie ever made for the next 10 years in my opinion. But, what's the deal with GLADoS providing the voice-over, apparently for the good-guys? I found that distracting, and unhelpful. Not to knock Portal at all (a game I love), but the worlds of video games and movies are already merging to an unhealthy degree. If science fiction movies are simply going to devolve into video games without button-mashing, what's the point?

On a somewhat related note:

I'm watching the first "Hobbit" movie this Sunday, which I expect to review at some point. I'm mildly disappointed by the early feedback from reviewers. Too long, no tension, sort of pointless. I'm not disappointed because I wanted this movie to be great, I'm disappointed because this is exactly the problem one of my movie friends pointed out in the summer when it became clear a 320 page book was being turned into nine hours of movie. Excess, thy name is Peter Jackson.

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