Cultural shorthand keeps getting shorter. There was a time when taking part in the conversation meant saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the movie.” Now it’s: “I haven’t seen the movie, but I watched the trailer.” Or better still: “I read the review of the trailer.” These days Hollywood trailers are being premiered like blockbuster events in their own right, complete with reviews. In early October, Disney and Marvel launched the first full trailer for The Avengers, a five-superhero cluster bomb that won’t hit theatres until next May. The Hollywood Reporter jumped on it with a serious and substantial review, criticizing Robert Downey Jr.’s “two lame jokes” and the use of Thor’s Loki as a recycled villain. Although cascading fireballs send a dozen vehicles flying through Manhattan, the critic complained that “we only see one street of cars wrecked . . . Audiences are going to need a greater threat to humanity to get invested in this showdown.” He wished the trailer were more like the one for the last Transformers sequel, “which managed to convey epic drama and conflict as well as great emotional moments.” That trailer, apparently, was an instant classic, even if the movie was utter dreck.
It makes you wonder what Pauline Kael would think. Brian Kellow’s delicious biography of the legendary New Yorker critic, who championed the ’70s wave of American film, reveals that Kael was no snob; her palate included an avid taste for entertaining trash. But by the ’80s, she despaired that marketing was eating cinema alive. Now, a decade after her death, there’s no better example of her worst nightmare than the trailer blight that ravages the ecology of film. It’s the pine beetle of the movie business.
Feeding on digital media, and nesting in iPhones and Twitter feeds, it has become ubiquitous. Google reported that searches for trailers rose by a whopping 50 per cent in 2010. Trailer mania has been driven by franchises catering to a captive fan base—such as the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas. Their “event” trailers don’t just promote the film; they’re loaded with spoilers that reveal key scenes—the preview for the final Harry Potter movie dished up Harry’s climactic duel with Voldemort. More routinely, a trailer will compress a plot so thoroughly that it’s like watching the movie on fast-forward. (Veteran trickster Jean-Luc Godard took that to absurd extremes with Film Socialisme, speeding up the entire movie into a blinding one-minute preview.) Trailers can also be deceptive, pitching witty drama as dumb comedy, or a slow existential thriller as a frantic action movie. This month a Michigan woman announced she was suing the distributor of Drive because there wasn’t enough driving in it. She claimed she was misled by a pulse-pounding preview that made it look like Fast & Furious.
Whether it’s spoiling the movie or betraying it, the trailer has gone beyond its role as mere advertising to become its own bossy little art form, with an inbred aesthetic. Almost every studio preview follows the same formula of rapid-fire clips paced by ominous blackouts. Nothing fatigues the eye quite like a fade-to-black, but this brand of grinding visual torture has become Hollywood’s standard operating procedure.
And trailer trash is no longer confined to the movies. Its style has come to dominate much of television. Tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight and Showbiz Tonight unfold as a blitz of constant foreplay, teasing out previews of upcoming items, and dragging us through commercials, which seem serenely peaceful by comparison. A recent episode of Showbiz Tonight kept promising dirt on Ashton Kutcher’s alleged mistress, replaying the same voiceless clip of Kutcher and Demi Moore shuffling about at a press conference. When the item finally aired, it offered no more than the preview footage.
In a networked universe of shrinking attention spans and atomized media, buzz rules. What is Twitter, after all, but a beehive of textual trailers? So the preview upstages the movie, the Internet feeds expectation with an infinite tasting menu, and that junkyard drumbeat you hear is the sound of a culture cannibalizing itself.
Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson