“I love it but as always…”: film authorship and a movie trailer

On Monday, director Rian Johnson sent out this tweet to preview the trailer for his upcoming film Knives Out (2019):

Then, yesterday, a few minutes before posting the trailer, Johnson sent out this:

Of course, Johnson doesn’t directly tell his audience to avoid the trailer he’s about to excitedly post moments later (“Aaaand here is it!”), but clearly that’s the gist of “[if] you want to come in totally clean, you know what to do.” He’s playing to a seemingly spoiler-averse audience, skeptical about trailers and what trailers might do to some mythical, “totally clean” viewing experience.

This has certainly happened before with other film directors and others in above-the-line roles. Recently, Colin Trevorrow, producer of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), expressed his dissatisfaction with the film’s theatrical trailers in an interview with Gizmodo. Trevorrow was previously unsatisfied with trailers for the first Jurassic World (2015); other directors, such as Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, 2015) and Alan Taylor (Terminator: Genisys, 2015), found fault with spoiler-riddled trailers for their films. And these are only a few recent examples, as producer, director, screenwriter, and actor complaints against spoiler-y trailers have circulated (publicly or not) in film industry discourse for decades. Still, Rian Johnson’s preamble is striking, primarily because it was posted minutes prior to the debut of the supposedly enjoyment-compromising trailer in question (the screenshot which accompanies this post is perhaps even stranger).

There are several things worth noting about this presentation of the Knives Out trailer. In terms of film authorship, this is clearly Johnson exercising his authority as author and positioning himself against the ruinous potential of the film’s advertising, fearing some kind of disruption in the communication of his “totally clean” vision. In his patronizing presentation of the trailer (“I love it but as always…”) Johnson, even if inadvertently, reinforces a tired hierarchy of media textuality, pushing his idea of a more proper and linear enjoyment in the film on audiences who can presumably make up their own minds and find enjoyment (or not) in any manner they like.

Worse yet, Johnson is buttressing the structures of media labor which render some forms of creativity visible and others invisible. In many ways, to put it bluntly, he’s pissing on the work of the lower-status, derivative creative laborers (trailer editors, sound designers, producers) in order to prop himself up as the author figure, keeping those who might compromise his vision at an arm’s length. He’s both using their work as a platform to put himself over and simultaneously distancing himself from them and their overzealous sell.

Perhaps it’s also interesting to note, then, some of the connections implicated here between film authorship and the culture of spoilers. In a sense, Johnson is presenting himself as a kind of guardian over this film’s reception, patiently guiding viewers away from supporting material which may upset what he sees as a more proper viewing practice. Can we think then of the current (and historical) fear of spoilers as coterminous to some degree, with spoilers threatening the ideal dissemination of an mythical singular creative vision?

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2018 Year-End Thoughts: Shocks, Spoils, Unskippable Trailers, and Screaming Nuns

nun scream

Note: This Year-End post is the first of two Ruining Trailers blog entries to look back at 2018. This first post considers horror trailers from multiple angles; beyond the scope of horror, the second post from Jesse Balzer will further address some ideas, reflections, and questions about trailers from the previous year.

Horror trailers – their look, feel, shapes, textures – didn’t change all that much in 2018. From spooky major releases to blood-soaked indie features, horror trailer practitioners all pulled from the same bag of tricks marketers have been drawing from for years: Dead silence was frequently punctuated by jarring noise; Jump scares (screaming faces, mirror gags, etc.) abounded; Jittery camera work, violent edits, and the trailer-only application of nauseating strobe effects aimed to unsettle; Title cards (making it seem like the trailer had come to a close) were quickly followed by surprise jolts of unnerving imagery. Some of these techniques made for trailers that were just “fine” – quick blasts of terror and fun house shivers that didn’t make me terribly excited for the film to come, but were harmless at best. Other trailers made use of these conventions in ways that just flat-out worked. One of my favorite trailers of the year came early, in January – The Strangers: Prey at Night. The promo clip is tight, with editing that utilizes screams, stabs, clicks, and sudden drops and drags of silence or muffled sound as part of its pop-music aided rhythmic structure, rather than as interruptive forces or sudden “boo!” gags. The effect is extra eerie, as those terrifying sounds become almost jovial – a nice accompaniment to the playfully smeared gore and neon of the film itself. 

Aside from a few exceptions like this, the real story of 2018 for me was the reception of or audience engagement with the idea of horror trailers. Specifically, I am thinking of the intense anticipation for the Halloween (2018) trailer and the adverse reactions to the six-second YouTube teaser for The Nun.

Demand for the trailer-return of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode was high throughout the year, often in ways that made me frustrated and uncomfortable. Prior to the ad’s release in June, nearly every online editorial about the film, behind the scenes pictures from the set, and Blumhouse-associated social media account was regularly flooded with comments pleading for the release of the trailer. Blumhouse content that didn’t even have anything to do with Halloween (from other movies to personal social media content posted by BH producers) often found itself marked by increasingly nagging and harassing demands for the trailer. The film’s co-producer and frequent social media mouthpiece, Ryan Turek, was typically on the receiving end of the seemingly endless and aggressive comments; in a personal post he made to his Twitter account in May (“Bummer day. Go hug all of your loved ones and remember they’re what matters”), someone had the gall to respond, “Damn that sucks but what about dat #HalloweenMovie trailer tho?” – a fairly standard response that, taken altogether, ultimately led Turek to acknowledge the issue with commendable wit:

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Turek’s post was followed by these responses, which illustrate the odd tensions between fan support and (seeming to miss the point of his tweet) intense demand for the trailer:

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At year’s end, I’m still not sure what to make of this demand for the Halloween trailer. It leaves me with more questions than answers – about the nature of fandom, the toxicity of media obsession, the relationship we are able to have (or think we have) with creatives and media producers online, and the apparent “need” for some people to have access to a trailer (or any other promotional text) as quickly as possible, as if that first glimpse has a transformative power beyond drumming up excitement and selling a film, or can give you access to something unbelievably special and even crucial.

The Nun teaser is also a case study in online negativity, but of a different sort. Call this a case of the jump scare (for some) gone too far. In August, Warner Bros. launched a YouTube-based marketing campaign for The Nun that stirred up enough controversy with online audiences that it, unlike similar promotional predecessors, was ultimately removed and banned from the platform for supposedly violating its “Violent and shocking ad content” policy. Why this particular teaser trailer above all others, and how was the YouTube community able to do what users had demanded of it in the past in response to other horror trailers? Initial analysis of the ad would seem to point to the ways it deployed shocks and scares as particularly egregious to the YouTube community, more so than the horrific content itself. Starting with a black screen and an image of the Mac computer volume icon, the six-second-teaser trailer shows the volume oddly oscillating up and down before swiftly muting itself. Less than a second passes before an image of the titular character bursts onto the screen without warning, her horrendous face filling the frame and screaming with wild intensity. The promotional clip is a mainstream marketing take on the classic Internet “screamer” or “scare prank” – brief, often mysterious web videos meant to fake-out and freak-out unsuspecting users with innocuous passages (cars driving through the countryside; home movies of happy children or families; tranquil nature scenes) that deviously cut to often horrifying, screeching ghouls, goblins, and other assorted nightmare creatures.

This was all accentuated by both the extreme brevity of the ad and its unskippable nature (and brought to mind issues with the Evil Dead reboot/sequel “Don’t Skip It” trailer from 2013). Like the Halloween trailer, I’m also left to ponder the reactions to The Nun teaser well into 2019. A few thoughts: (1) The clip defies trailer convention; more recognizable as a prank than an ad, it becomes an easy target for derision and, ultimately, regulation. This is understandable in many ways, as the aim of the ad seemed to be to trick and scare people in ways that genuinely violated their sense of comfort and control. More generally, this blurred line between prank and teaser trailer is a continued confirmation of the increasing lack of differentiation between ads, entertainment, and other forms of “content.” (2) All understanding for the ad’s takedown aside (and to be sure, you can still find the ad on YouTube, as evidenced by the attached video…), the removal and banishment of The Nun screamer-trailer acted as a swift and highly visible public relations move that at once acknowledged users as legitimately involved in the processes of building, managing, and modifying the YouTube community, and put on public display the ways that YouTube allegedly stays true to its own regulatory policies (again, with horror and horror ads/gimmicks perhaps as easy targets).

It will be interesting to see in the new year how horror trailers continue to not only shock and delight, but function as texts that can help us understand and reconsider our relationships to fan communities, media industries, and content delivery platforms. Cheers to more shocks and spoils in 2019!  

The National Screen Service and a “Once-in-a-Lifetime Tribute to Trailers”

In October 1959, the National Screen Service celebrated its 40th birthday (October 1919) with another promotional campaign, this time for themselves: a “Once-in-a-Lifetime Tribute to Trailers,” emphasizing the value of trailers to the entire film industry. As reported in the pages of industry trade journal Motion Picture Daily from September 1959-January 1960, this tribute was positioned by the NSS as a way to prevent trailers from being taken for granted by the industry for what they contributed to the box office. NSS President, Herman Robbins, reasoned that the tribute “…will make the industry take time out to reflect on the importance of trailers. That is our singular purpose – and one which we believe is of great importance.” (MPD, 9/29/1959; 1, 3).

One part of this campaign involved a series of (always) interesting National Screen Service ads in various issues of Motion Picture Daily, all of which featured attestations to the economic and cultural significance of trailers from prominent directors (Stanley Kramer), prominent actors (Joan Crawford!), producers, and theater-owners:

 

The other part of this tribute consisted of a contest, lasting from October 15, 1959 through Thanksgiving Day, and open only to exhibitors and theater managers, in which the “[only] qualification is that the entry must focus attention on the importance of the trailer to theatre attendance. In [sic] may be a statement of any length, a photo, a drawing or cartoon, an exploitation stunt, an idea, a newspaper item or any other material or combination of the above” (MPD 10/6/1959; 12). Evidently these three theater owners had quite a bit of fun with the idea (“The trailer is the box office sparkplug”):

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(MPD 10/28/1959; 6)

 

While my current dissertation research looks primarily into contemporary award shows (such as the Clio Entertainment/Key Art Awards and Golden Trailers) as sites of industrial self-theorizing about the value of promotional media, I’m also interested in historical questions of how promotion of this kind has been self-assessed by its laborers for potential economic and/or cultural value. Although this self-tribute campaign is only sketched out briefly in the trade journals (I would love to see the individual contest entries in particular!), moments like this nonetheless provide some insight into how trailers were continually resold (and possibly in need of reselling) as an idea to producers, distributors, and exhibitors; and, in the process, illustrate the negotiation or renegotiating of relationships in the teeth of the industrial, technological, aesthetic changes faced by trailers.

(You can find all these notices in issues of Motion Picture Daily, courtesy of The Lantern)

Inception and the canon of movie trailers

This has been a busy few weeks for keeping up with trailers. The San Diego Comic-Con started last Thursday, now one of the most significant promotional staging grounds of the year, and as usual the event delivered blockbuster trailers for fans of media franchises to pour over in exacting detail on YouTube. And, appropriately given the increased attention to trailers brought by the SDCC, Insider and Vice have also produced two fascinating videos underlining, to varying degrees, the creative process involved in the beguiling business of movie trailers (they gloss a bit more than necessary, but still present some interesting stuff):

But perhaps the most intriguing, and maybe also the silliest, development in trailer discourse belongs to The Ringer, which staged a multi-day, 32-trailer tournament to crown the best movie trailer since 1990. Frivolous, sure, and laboriously presented, but innocuous enough at first glance. I’ve certainly spent some of my spare time, regrettably, in the realms of arbitrary debate and tedious sports metaphor, so, for the most part, this is fine. I can’t even find fault, or more precisely, find much point in finding fault, with the selections or the seeding (again, this is all very silly). These picks are almost all well-known trailers, and I’m not really in the business of finding omissions or offering alternatives to what has been offered here.

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As a scholar of promotional media, though, my business is in the analysis of the popular and professional discourses which surround them. Broadly, my goals are to question how promotion figures into the mediated lives of audiences, as well as the functioning of the media industries themselves. This latter goal is why my dissertation research focuses on the Clio Entertainment and Golden Trailer Awards, the award-granting institutions which to a large degree structure the value of media paratexts, like trailers, for those who work in the media industries. These professional awards, viewed and appreciated largely as annual, semi-private trade rituals, position the prestige of promotional media as a question of both artistic and financial merit: a “good” movie trailer, for instance, possess artistic quality of its own, but it must also represent a financially successful film; and in that sense a “good” movie trailer is considered both dependent and independent of its parent film (I explored this topic in a column for Flow earlier this year). By the often opaque criteria, at least when viewed from the outside, the “best” of promotional media is vaunted in one moment for merely supporting, and in the next for surpassing, what is being promoted. Movie trailers, just to stick with the most high-profile example, defy traditional methods of aesthetic judgment and don’t play nice with the Film Appreciation syllabus, and they have thus far left professionals, scholars, and audiences in general without a truly sufficient, and fungible, vocabulary for their evaluation and classification.

Of course, if this tension is evident within the ranks of professionals, who pit their own work against the work of their colleagues (with obviously high stakes), then the assessment of movie trailers is perhaps even more difficult for audiences and popular critics, like the writers at The Ringer, who seemingly both love and hate the form. The Ringer‘s Final Four of movie trailers is a populist, wandering endeavor which, more than anything else, reveals an inexact and multifarious set of audience expectations for, and uses of, modern promotional media. Far more interesting than the final result, the bracket is useful as an illustration of the problems which trailers and promotional media still present for media criticism and consumption.

Leave aside all the casual, unnecessary assumptions about how audiences have historically consumed trailers; there’s simply too much to unpack there for right now (incidentally, I raised an eyebrow when Chris Ryan asserted in the opening article that the trailers at the beginning of VHS tapes were “to be fast-forwarded past,” something which sounds, well, decidedly unfun). Leave aside the periodization of trailers into flimsy epochs, and the aesthetic sea changes somehow, miraculously associated with these turning points (the post-YouTube movie trailer, we discover, transitioned into a “high-performing emotion-elicitation program,” an assertion which is nearly as questionable as it is inane). The real misunderstanding concerns the questions of authorship, authority, and media hierarchy tossed about by this series. And, of course, I think this indicates a larger disconnect in how we understand and appreciate the so-called “best” movie trailers, and whatever amounts to a canon of this work.

The Ringer series overwhelmingly (with one exception) makes sense of movie trailers through auteurism, as if prominent directors just bequeathed marketing material as the detritus of their “artistic vision.” For instance, in trying to figure out “the best movie trailer before 1990,” Adam Nayman frequently refers to (entirely white, male) auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick in order to buoy up film trailers as serious works of art. Sean Fennessey’s piece on trailers and spoilers struggles mightily with the notion that a teaser, trailer, or other marketing text might not line up flush with the finished product shown in theaters. This is easily explained with a bit of consideration for the size and scale of the media industries. Just sticking with the case of the Man of Steel teasers and trailers discussed by Fennessey, these promotional materials were produced months, possibly a year in advance, possibly with many teams in competition with each other, pushing a final product which may have undergone extensive changes before it was released, just to name a few of the variables involved. And then there’s the rather plain fact that Zack Snyder didn’t cut any of the teasers or trailers, but Jenn Horvath and her team did.

This is understandable to a degree, as the director (or some other singular creative force) is often one of the easiest, most accessible methods for making sense of media. And virtually no trailer carries any publicly visible marks of the agency or individuals hired to produce them. Yet, in the case of promotional media, already submerged in the hierarchies of the media industries, it is misleading to assume the authority or influence of a director. This, I think, ultimately leads to the unnecessary elision of the complex, ambivalent relationships undergirding promotional media and its laborers. And while Matthew Kitchen’s follow-up piece from this week partially address these complexities, it’s sadly ill-equipped for exploring the process or the participants involved in the creation of trailers and promotional media.

While some prominent, name-brand directors certainly take a hand in the conceptualization, execution, or (even nominal) approval of trailers, this is clearly not an easy thing to substantiate, the lore being more useful in this case than whatever amounts to the truth; and in any case this approach, imported somewhat sloppily from a few Film Studies classes, reductively flattens hierarchies of media work in favor of inadvertently bolstering those already established in the public eye. While above-the-line creative workers, such as a director, may place themselves in a position of approval over marketing material, just as often (and probably more so) authorship is delegated, however temporarily, to the producers, editors, copywriters, and composers who put together the trailers and promotional material which first greets audiences (In A Companion to Media Authorship, Jonathan Gray usefully argues that authorship isn’t just a question of who, but when, and I think this certainly rings true for promotional media). Questions of media authorship, in popular criticism or scholarship, should not be limited to instances of above-the-line labor, which already possess the visible markers and privileged statuses of authorship, but must also include the moments in which below- or beside-the-line labor is afforded authorship as well; without this nuance, we may otherwise fail to truly recognize the dynamics of power and value which structure the work of the media industries.

(Incidentally, I say “beside-the-line” here because I think promotional media labor is often lost somewhere in the traditional above-/below-the-line distinction, in that it possesses some of the creative autonomy of the above, while remaining generally invisible to the public, “below” in many ways as subservient or secondary labor.)

Take the winning Inception trailer, for example. It’s tempting, surely, to read this trailer as just another (para-)text in the Christopher Nolan cult of personality. And while the trailer certainly plays a key role in the circulation of authorship discourses for Nolan, there’s much more going on below the surface. The overused BRAAAM motif in trailers, which, like the masculine IN A WORLD… voiceover, has become a punchline in almost every fan edit or pop press curiosity piece about the world of movie trailers, is itself the site of multiple authorship discourses, with multiple composers and sound designers laying claim to originating the technique. If this is indeed something which makes the Inception trailer worthy of entry into a loosely-defined, popular canon of movie trailers, it’s worthwhile to question how quickly we attach Nolan’s name and influence to it.

Obviously, putting together an informal canon of trailers (or films, or paintings, or posters, or fan fic), or indeed a formal one (as in the Clios and Golden Trailers), is a political process fraught with power, privilege, and authority, a process which may ultimately surface far more problems than possibilities. The Ringer‘s series of articles draws out a conceptual difficulty in evaluating the output of the promotional media industries: simply, that we still really don’t know all that much yet about how they work, who is involved, and the complex of aesthetic, cultural, and financial relationships which structure them. Efforts to generate a canon of movie trailers, whether professional, popular, or scholarly, ultimately reveal disconnect and cross-talk in what is expected, and indeed wanted, from promotional media.

In a (Really Fucked Up) World…

In a minor way, I consider my work to be about politics, or at least to be political. Much of my research begins with the simple assertion that movie trailers, to some degree like any other ad, serve direct or indirect political purposes, and, given their affective power, they arguably do so far more insidiously than bald-faced propaganda: they’re entertaining, they sell us entertainment, and in that way they smuggle normative (or occasionally non-normative), hegemonic (or counter-hegemonic) ideologies, subject-positions, and information about our world through customs, laundering persuasion and social control as the merely democratic choice of what to watch or buy. They position or prepare our desires, and in many cases begin our encounters with dominant cultural representations of race, gender, class, age, nationalism, ableism, and so on. This is more or less the foundation on which all of my work on trailers and promotional media is based.

Frederick Greene wrote an excellent piece a few years ago for Frames Cinema Journal on the historical links between the maturation of movie trailers as a modern form of advertising in the early twentieth century and the political usefulness of the moving image, as perceived by propagandists such as Walter Lippman and Edward Bernays, in large-scale political persuasion and mobilization. Writing about the development of the trailer in the 1920s, Greene argues, “[film] marketers became more and more skilled at achieving emotional identification and investment, arguing without logic and persuading without fact. Their meticulously edited films – exquisite tools of ideological indoctrination and political suasion – colonized the culture from within the Trojan Horse of entertainment.” While also careful to note that “susceptibility is not inevitably” in their reception, Greene raises an important point about trailers, and media promotion more generally: that is, they are political tools, potent carriers of ideology, appeal, and argument; and they are imbricated historically in the creation of mobile, “entertainment”-oriented propaganda, capable of infiltrating the hearts and minds of any viewer familiar with their particular grammar of desire.

Pushing further, not only can trailers quite obviously carry political ideology under the cover of coming attractions, they can also be adapted for their power to more directly serve the purposes of candidates, political parties, and governments. Daniel Hesford has written, also in Frames Cinema Journal, about the performance of movie trailer form and aesthetics elsewhere. In adopting the style of a movie trailer, spoof trailers, video games, and even presidential candidates seek the kind of affective cultural currency of trailers for their various purposes. As Hesford writes, the “cinematic performance” of the fake, fan, or otherwise adopted form of the movie trailer represents “an opportunity for other texts to benefit from its affective potency and communicate with readers in the tense of desire.” And Hesford is correct in noting that these alternative trailers challenge our understanding of how promotional media “works,” for both producers and audiences, inviting us to reconsider the relationships between texts and paratexts in a larger, cultural sense. I think that the proliferation of trailers outside of their traditional spaces of exhibition demands that we ask new questions about the consequences of entertainment promotion as a common language, form, and space of control or critique. And, thankfully, many scholars and fans have begun asking these questions.

Of course, the necessity of asking these questions was made clear last week with the bizarre fake movie trailer Donald Trump showed to Kim Jong Un during their summit in Singapore (which, incidentally, Trump described as a “tape” he slid into his iPad). I find the whole thing creepy, but there’s perhaps no easier way to underline why studying trailers matters than this thing, the placid-sounding “A Story of Opportunity”:

Of course, the fake movie trailer has all the trademarks of the form (just really, really poorly done), most notably the ostentatious male voice-over narration, which, in no small feat, spits out some of most saccharine, ceaseless ad copy ever written:

Seven billion people inhabit planet Earth. Of those alive today, only a small number will leave a lasting impact. And only the very few will make decisions or take actions that renew their homeland and change the course of history.

History may appear to repeat itself for generations—cycles that never seem to end. There have been times of relative peace and times of great tension. While this cycle repeats, the light of prosperity and innovation have burned bright for much of the world. History is always evolving, and there comes a time when only a few are called upon to make a difference. But the question is, what difference will the few make? The past doesn’t have to be the future. Out of the darkness can come the light. And the light of hope can burn bright.

What if… a people that share a common and rich heritage can find a common future? Their story is well known but what will be their sequel?

Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity. A new story, a new beginning. One of peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny. A story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance which may never be repeated. What will he choose? To show vision and leadership? Or not?

There can only be two results. One of moving back. Or one of moving forward. A new world can begin today. One of friendship, respect, and goodwill. Be part of that world, where the doors of opportunity are ready to be opened—investment from around the world, where you can have medical breakthroughs, an abundance of resources, innovative technology, and new discoveries.

What if? Can history be changed? Will the world embrace this change? And when can this moment in history begin? It comes down to a choice. On this day. In this time. At this moment. The world will be watching, listening, anticipating, hoping. Will this leader choose to advance his country and be part of a new world? Be the hero of his people? Will he shake the hand of peace and enjoy prosperity like he has never seen? A great life or more isolation? Which path will be chosen?

Featuring President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un…. in a meeting to remake history. To shine in the sun. One moment, one choice, what if? The future remains to be written.

In so many ways, the images are remarkable for just how unremarkable they truly are; except, of course, for that one shot of horses galloping across the ocean, an image which would embarrass even the producers of Twilight. Outside of images of Trump and/or Kim, the rest of the trailer is seemingly culled together from archival or stock footage, organized under metadata like “innovation,” “growth,” or “basketball guy.”

So what should we make of all this? Clearly, the trailer is a mushy letter of invitation to Kim Jong Un, seemingly based on appeals to the Kim dynasty’s long engagement with cinema, specifically Kim Jong Il’s backwash of film theory, On the Art of the Cinema (1973). For Trump, familiar with the promotional languages of speculation and branding, the trailer is politically useful because it represents an appeal or promise, not an argument or an action. The supreme vagueness of the images in the trailer match, in a horrible kind of harmony, the turgid qualities of the voice-over and copy, which promise an awful lot in broad terms, but provide zero directions, details, or decisions. While Trump and Kim had a fun time sharing fan vids with each other in Singapore, little to nothing was accomplished by this trailer or the summit (and, even as I write this, the tentative “brand deal” made between Trump and Kim at the summit doesn’t seem to be working all that well).

Of course, the Trump administration is not the first group to find the form of the movie trailer rhetorically useful. Fans have created fake or spoof movie trailers for decades, often to take on the weight of promotion themselves for a beloved media property, or, just as often, to stage critiques of dominant representations and media industry structures. Trump’s “A Story of Opportunity” is simply the most visible and most powerful fan trailer ever created, as evinced by the gushing praise and admiration Trump admitted to having for the repressive policies of Kim following the summit. Yet others, particularly major news outlets such as The Independent and The New York Times, adopted the movie trailer as a form of political critique:

While it may initially seem strange to see these news outlets mimicking Honest Trailers in editorial content, these spoofs ultimately indicate the affective utility of trailers outside the movie theater. The Trump-Kim trailer, and the parodies stemming from it, further reveal the necessity of investigating trailers, promotional content, and their political, cultural usefulness as malleable forms of social control or critique. And in the particular case of the Trump-Kim trailer, we find a thorough understanding, albeit also a poor execution, of trailer aesthetics and form. This is international relations adapted as rom-com; like many trailers, you have to wonder if all the “best” parts are going to be in the trailer. And then, if we think of this trailer as a paratext, we run up against a scary proposition: precisely what is it a paratext for?

 

Battlefield V and the smokescreen of “historical accuracy”

In the last week, I learned a few new things about the participation of female combatants in WWII, such as the Soviet “Night Witches” and many French, British, and American spies, such as Virginia Hall. This wasn’t the the result of a random, half-asleep History Channel binge, or wandering through Wikipedia. Instead, I picked up this information thanks in large part to think pieces appearing on Newsweek, The Verge, Kotaku, and elsewhere, all of which were responding to the backlash greeting the reveal trailer for Battlefield V.

It’s certainly an interesting and energetic trailer in its own right, blending cinematics with gameplay footage (or what is at least presented as gameplay footage) to sell potential consumers on the over-the-top multiplayer chaos of the popular franchise. I didn’t get the sense of anything beyond the general backdrop of WWII, which has been a common enough theme in video games for decades as to be nearly unremarkable. The characters featured in the trailer, untethered from any links to historical figures, instead seemed to stand in for customizable player characters in multiplayer.

Yet, very much like the babyish consternation which met the trailer for Ghostbusters (2016), negative reactions to the trailer have stemmed not from the formal composition of the trailer, nor from any kind of spoilers, but from the simple discovery that there’s at least one woman in it (and that she has a prosthesis). As a result, the reveal trailer has quickly garnered a few hundred thousand dislikes in only a few days, outweighing its likes by a considerable margin, as well as the immeasurably infantile hashtag #NotMyBattlefield. The linchpin of these generally white, male, ableist critiques of the trailer is the charge of “historical inaccuracy” in how DICE, developer of Battlefield V, will purportedly represent WWII conflicts in the game.

For just a sample of this backlash, consider the following YouTube comments for the trailer, culled together from the GameSpot and official Battlefield channels:

 

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Now, while “historical accuracy” is an obviously slippery notion in any endeavor, let alone in fiction (and let alone in a multiplayer video game as outlandish as Battlefield), what I find interesting here is the gesture towards this kind of hazy, purportedly objective criteria as a means to judge the promises made in a reveal trailer. And, not coincidentally, this comes for a trailer which prominently features a female character in a series which has had an overwhelmingly male cast (and probably still will). These demands for “historical accuracy” have something far more pernicious to them than a mere call for accuracy. “Historical accuracy” is the convenient smokescreen which hides the shame or anger of privileged audiences who no longer feel solely catered to by trailers, for what might have been seen once as “their” media franchises. The cry of #NotMyBattlefield in response to this reveal trailer, then, is about the stiflingly white, male sense of fan ownership and entitlement, not the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of what is being sold. It’s a distraction, at best, from what is really motivating such disdain for the trailer.

In what has become something of a common thread throughout this blog, trailers and promotional media of all kinds serve as significant sites of public discourse, often, I think, far more significant or revealing than the media they sell. In the case of Battlefield V, which won’t be released until October, the reveal trailer has already opened up or continued admittedly ad hoc discussions of historiography and, of course, deeply imbricated notions of gender, ableism, and race (let’s not forget that a similar row emerged with Battlefield 1 when it was revealed that a Harlem Hellfighter would be on the cover). Promotional media has long been one of the forms of mainstream media which most prominently encourages (and profits from) audiences talking back to their screens. This not only includes more straightforward and seemingly benign discussions along the lines of “Should we see or play that?”, but also includes the broader, more pointedly political use of promotional media forms as compelling nodes in cultural discourse. Consider these (very, very toxic) comments on the Battlefield V reveal trailer, for example:

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In this instance, the Battlefield V trailer is not simply a space for voicing displeasure at the prospects of the game, but it is also a space for denouncing feminism and the search for social justice. It is therefore not the game, but the promises embedded in its promotion, which provides a space for these privileged players, somehow feeling themselves beleaguered by the gradual advancement of decent, or at least not-wholly-disrespectful, representations of people other than themselves. The negative reaction to the Battlefield V trailer provides yet another reason why we must continue to think through and theorize the roles played by promotional media in how we create, circulate, and consume media more broadly.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody and the straightness of a movie trailer

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) has been kicking around, fitfully, for a good while, finally emerging this past week with a teaser trailer. Reactions to the teaser were decidedly mixed. Alongside the usual celebratory shares, studio thank yous, and rapturous promises to be there on opening day, many others critiqued the teaser as yet another example of cultural straightwashing, in this particular case leaving out or downplaying Freddie Mercury’s queer identity and death in 1991 from AIDS complications. Caspar Salmon for The Guardian described the promises made by the teaser as a potential “tragedy,” ultimately selling a film which could elide the radical potential of the singer’s life on screen. Hollywood producer Bryan Fuller harshly criticized the teaser on Twitter, implying that it presents Mercury as, at best, bisexual in an effort to better render the film amenable to the imperatives of “straight” marketing. And, interestingly, Adam Epstein for Quartzy questioned the “duty” of the teaser to accurately represent Mercury’s life, asking if the promo should shoulder the burdens of queer representation on screen.

This last question is particularly interesting for my research into trailers. For all our discussions of why representation matters, particularly for marginalized identities and communities, we seldom discuss why those representations matter, at least overtly and with the same attention, in the contexts of promotion. The tendency remains overwhelmingly in favor of “primary” works, such as the shows, games, and films sold to us by teaser trailers like this. One of my main goals with this blog has been to counter such a tendency, investigating trailers and promotional media as meaningful and significant sites of public discourse on race, gender, sexuality, class, politics, you name it; these paratexts enable, enhance, or otherwise constitute our knowledge of an immeasurable variety of broader cultural, social, and political concerns. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, this teaser trailer is enough for audiences to start planting flags months in advance of the film’s release, warning of the further straightwashing of prominent queer icons in mainstream media.

The accompanying synopsis of the film raises more than a few questions in regards to the teaser trailer and its representation of Mercury:

Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. Facing a life-threatening illness, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day.

This synopsis of the film is potentially confusing and alienating for audiences, as it both positions the film as all about Mercury, but also, really, ultimately, all about the band. It’s notable for an extraordinary vagueness of description, even by the standards of marketing: Mercury “defied stereotypes and shattered conventions,” he was “surrounded by darker influences,” and faced “a life-threatening illness,” all of which dances around the simple facts that Mercury was a queer person of color and AIDS victim at a time when being one or both of these things was very difficult indeed, and representations of which still remain relatively rare. And, of course, he “suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen” (unsurprisingly, the film is being produced by surviving members of the band, who continue to promote the Queen brand).

The teaser is similarly vague in its presentation of Mercury; again, as is de rigueur for marketing, allusion suffices. While loosely constructed around the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” both in sound design and in narrative structure, most of the teaser is devoted to the charismatic Mercury, specifically his performances onstage and his romantic life, indicated briefly through a few furtive glances with both men and women. This focus on Mercury is further indicated via the intertitles, which present us with this tagline: “The only thing more extraordinary than their music was his story.” The teaser, of course, doesn’t really spell out what that extraordinary story actually is, and why we might be more interested in that story than the more straightforward success story of the band.

The vagueness of the Bohemian Rhapsody teaser trailer has opened up a fissure in which some audiences have started to worry about, and productively critique, the kind and quality of queer representation in the film (and, to some degree by extension, the kinds and qualities of queer representation in mainstream media more generally). Curiously, the usual, and usually effective, use of allusion in this teaser has not overwhelmingly induced audiences to be excited for the release of the film, nor to speculate enthusiastically. Instead, the Bohemian Rhapsody teaser has induced many to speculate, with a sense of dread, about the potential erasure or simplification or marketization of another prominent queer life.

Of course, the film may, in fact, treat the subject with an appropriate level of sophistication, suppleness, and sensitivity. Whether it does or not, however, I think it’s important to underline again what is being accomplished in the negative reaction to the trailer: that is, an audience is already signaling its displeasure, or at least reasonable apprehension, about the potential mistreatment of marginalized identities within dominant culture. And, more germane to the subject of this blog, this audience is doing so based on fairly atypical questions of representation in trailers and promotional media. This is a perfect example of why I insist that trailers matter: they don’t just help us to make educated decisions as consumers of media, they also function as the fertile ground of public discourse.