Wednesday, February 20, 2008

They don't make trailers like they used to

A few days ago I posted a short blog about my reaction to the new Indiana Jones teaser trailer. Since then a newer "version" of the trailer has been brought to my attention by Ted Pigeon of Cinematic Art in his piece Indiana Jones and the Trailer of Digital Nostalgia. This version has taken most of the footage from the real trailer and re-edited it in the style of a 1980's trailer. Here is the "old school-style" trailer:

Ted's observations about the difference between these two trailers, and which one is more "effective" in capturing the spirit and aesthetic of the original movies, has gotten me thinking about a few things. First of all, Ted's piece reminded me of another fan-made trailer I once stumbled upon which was produced well before any footage of Indy IV was released. In fact, given that the trailer promotes it as Indiana Jones and the City of Gods, it's clear that it was created before the movie's official title was even revealed. When I first saw this on youtube, I actually thought (for about half of it) that it was the REAL teaser because it's almost exactly how I imagined the teaser would look (shots of a bullwhip, a gun, etc). When I finally saw the official one, I was mainly just pleased that we got to see any new footage at all. Bizarrely, though, this teaser still manages to (for the most part) work for me.

While it eventually becomes obvious that this is a fan-made trailer employing only amatuer footage (those are clearly not Harrison Ford's hands), the mere fact that this so closely resembles a professional-looking trailer could be seen either as a testament to the creativity of these young filmmakers or an indictment of the movie marketing industry as a whole. It's almost as if they're saying: "Hey, we know how you guys get us to WANT to see a movie. We understand the tecchnique for selling a product: the tricks, the 'formula,' etc. So, here's what we realize your teaser trailer is going to look like. We're just gonna do it first." They even predict (with eerie accuracy) the shot of Indy picking up his signature fedora, dusting it off and placing it on his head. Granted, Spielberg's staging includes a more artistic "Michael Curtiz-style" shadow of Indy donning his hat, but the idea behind both is exactly the same and it clearly didn't take a genius to think of it.

Secondly, as someone who has always been interested in movie publicity (particularly posters and trailers), it has long been apparent to me that trailers look, sound and just plain feel different than they used to. I realize, of course, that this is not news to anybody, but Ted's piece made me realize that while the primary intent of trailers is (as it always has been) to promote the films they represent, they really do function differently in our culture than they used to. We, as moviegoers, seem to perceive trailers and their significance quite differently than we did 20 or 30 years ago (let alone 50 or 60 years ago). Ted makes an excellent point about the release of trailers themselves now being "events." In 1989, I heard stories about people buying tickets to whatever movie they heard would feature the Batman trailer beforehand and then walking out before the movie itself had even started (apparently folks did the same thing up until as recently as the Phantom Menace trailer). I happened to catch the Batman trailer on the big screen as well, but in my case it was purely by accident. Thus, I didn't leave the theatre after the trailer finished because it played before a movie that I actually wanted to see (although interestingly, and probably significantly, I don't recall what film that was). Here is the trailer I saw as an adolescent:

I also remember that when I was working at the video store in high school, one of my favorite practices was to stick in a copy of the latest release and see which trailers were at the beginning of the tape. Of course, in the digital age, when trailers are available for free on the internet, such behaviors are unneccessary and unheard of, but they nevertheless clearly demonstrate a shift in the way people approach trailers (particularly trailers for big "event" movies which audiences are so eagerly excited to see). Nowadays the trailers are anticipated with as much fervor as the films themselves. I don't know that anyone could've ever predicted that trailers would, like movies, have actual "release dates." In a documentary on the special edition Batman DVD, excitment that surrounding the film's trailer in 1989 is discussed and Kevin Smith makes an excellent point. He says that it really could've been just a guy walking out and writing Batman on a chalkboard and everybody would've still freaked out. In point of fact, the teaser for the upcoming Dark Knight movie is little more than that.

In a way, films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Dark Knight don't even need trailers. As continuations of incredibly successful movie franchises they more or less of "sell" themselves (anyone who has seen the teaser trailer for J.J. Abrams' reinvention of the Star Trek series knows exactly what I'm talking about). So, one can't help but wonder then how we arrived at this place. How did we get to a point where our teasers are essentially just the title of the film appearing on screen with music behind it? Where we consider ourselves "lucky" if we get to see actual footage from the movie itself? Where hordes of people scrutinize every millisecond of a trailer rather than simply getting a general "impression" of the film it promotes? Where anyone can make a trailer that is just as good (and sometimes even better) than what the professionals are putting out?

I'm not sure, but it's worth thinking about and discussing. I suspect that in the coming days I will continue to pontificate on the ever-changing nature of trailers and share my ramblings here. I may even take the opportunity to mention one or two of my favorite (as well as some of my least favorite) trailers and what makes them so. Through the process, a topic that will no doubt be broached (as it was in the comments section of Ted's post) is whether a trailer can be a work of art or not. This question will, of course, be a divisive one (just as Ebert sparked a huge discussion about video games with his assertion that they're not art) because it inherently leads to the more fundamental question of "What is art?" and we all have different ideas on that. I'm not sure I've satisfactorily answered that question for myself yet, but I will say that I am currently leaning toward the perspective that movie trailers (as well as posters and just about any aspect of movie marketing) are art... or at least, they can be. Granted, perhaps the majority of the time they're not, but just as I think a TV commercial or a music video can be a work of art, so can a movie trailer.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Indy IV" teaser trailer is here!

The teaser trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom and the Crystal Skull, the fourth and no doubt final entry in the immensely popular and lucrative Spielberg-Lucas film series, was officially revealed on Valentine's Day. While there are admittedly one or two things about it that rub me the wrong way, my overall reaction was a positive one. To quote Allison Doody from Last Crusade I was "giddy as a schoolboy" watching it.

Even though it's only been a few days since its unveiling, the internet is aleady "abuzz" with talk about it. Bloggers are praising, critiquing and performing in-depth analysis of every second of this teaser. For example, over at his superb film blog Burbanked does a rather extensive evaluation of it, raising points of concern that no doubt hordes of fans and non-fans alike will have. As a fellow appreciator of film publicity, Burbanked not only examines the content of the trailer but the trailer itself. His opinions are perhaps a bit more critical than mine, but they're nontheless fair and lucid. Burbanked's point that he is not yet convinced it's a film that "needed to be made" is, I think, a particularly valid one. The truth is I'm not sure I feel convinced of that yet either, but having seen this trailer now, I do feel something that I haven't felt since word of a fourth Indy film first surfaced: optimistic. I had always known that Spielberg, Lucas and Ford could pull this off (if anybody could), but I wasn't necessarily confident that they would. My confidence, however, is building. Once the actual theatrical trailer is released, hopefully, it will build even more.

Monday, February 11, 2008

You might need a bigger boat, but you're never gonna need a better actor

In his autobiography Born Standing Up Steve Martin shares a lesson he learned about doing comedy; namely, that "it was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the circumstances." I think Martin's observation is an astute one with regard not only to onstage performing but with any endeavor and I recall Martin's sentiment mainly because when I heard last night about the death of Roy Scheider I was struck by the fact that although I've never considered him a "great" actor (like, say, Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis), when I reflected on his body of work, I couldn't come up with a single bad performance.

I don't think I ever fully appreciated Scheider's ability to be, as Martin characterized it, consistently and reliably good. The fact is that he gave 100% to each film, he devoted himself equally to every part he played, whether it be in a masterpiece like Jaws or The French Connection a relatively forgettable family film like Disney's Tiger Town (which was actually the first time I ever saw Scheider in anything).

According to IMDB, Scheider died yesterday University of Arkansas Medical Sciences hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Though an official cause of death was not released at press time, a hospital spokeswoman stated that the actor had been treated for multiple myeloma at the hospital's research center for the past two years. Scheider is survived by his three children and his second wife, actress Brenda King. He was 75.

Scheider's film career was incredibly varied. He could play supporting roles in significant movies like Klute, Naked Lunch and Marathon Man or he could play the lead in a lesser-known, but still decent, piece of work like Blue Thunder, 52 Pick-Up or The Seven-Ups. One of his most memorable performances was as the screen incarnation of dancer/choreographer/director Bob Fosse in All That Jazz. The DVD features iterview with Scheider wherein he relates some rather profound stories about his working with the ailing Fosse and his awareness of who he was playing and why it was significant.

But the movie that first seems to pop into most people's minds whenever Scheider's name is mentioned anymore would naturally be Jaws. The character of Martin Brody, one of the first in a long line of Spielbergian "everymen," is a wonderful creation of Scheider's. While Richard Dreyfus has always been my personal favorite character, Brody is clearly unequivovally the film's "audience incarnate." Spielberg invites us all to experience the film's frightening and dramatic events through the eyes of Martin Brody and the humor, fear and just general humanity that Scheider embodies help makes that a plesant experience for the watcher. Finally, of course, the line of dialogue spoken upon Brody's first glimpse of the shark ("You're gonna need a bigger boat.") has become one of the most quoted* lines in movie history (Ted Pigeon beautifully describes Scheider's performance in that scene, as well as in another important scene, over at his blog The Cinematic Art). It is a declaration which has become identified with the reality of being faced with a situation where you feel ill-equipped and unprepared. Apparently, as it is revealed in the Laurent Bouzereau-directed documentary on the Jaws 30th anniversary DVD, the line was improvised by Scheider himself on the day of filming. How's that for being in the moment?

*It is also, alas, one of the most misquoted lines of movie history, ranging all the way from "We're gonna need a bigger boat" to "We gotta get a bigger boat." Scheider himself recalls it incorrectly in an interview for the aforementioned DVD "making of" feature.

So, rest in peace, Roy.

ROY SCHEIDER (1932-2008)