Clip Tease: Trailers As Art

"Snakes on a Plane" inspired hack-up versions of the trailer on the Net. (James Dittiger - New Line Productions)
By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Babied by the three-minute narratives of MTV, reared on DVDs featuring trailers in the extras menu, and content to watch entire films online, many of today's young moviegoers are happy not to go to the movies at all. Instead, it's trailers -- and specifically online trailers -- that mesmerize: so easy to gulp down dozens in the time it takes to swallow one lousy movie.

No, it's not jaded cynicism at the prospect of too many movies, too little time. The allure of the trailer is the realization that immense power need not come in a 90-minute package. Like the Cold War's minimalist painters, trailer editors should be admired for their ability to filter out society's noise and distill an epic to its essence.

Sure, it's advertising. But often, it's art.

In 1964, Pablo Ferro's trailer for "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb" broke the louder-is-better mold by shuffling title cards into a slide show of random clips from the Stanley Kubrick film, and setting it all to the syncopated flutter of a beat poet's conga drum. By breaking away from narrative, and editing in a deliberately jarring manner, the final trailer was just as adventurous as the film it advertised. Since then, a certain class of trailers has become more clever, more intricate, more intelligent.

The trailer for "Birth," a 2004 Nicole Kidman movie that opened to mixed reviews, is a masterpiece in gray-green, a swirling glide through snowy Central Park bridges and silky wallpapered East Side interiors. It skips and plays tricks where the movie just lumbers: The actress's sobby narration over a collapsing figure makes us wonder whether she is falling, or if the fallen is the one she mourns. The music crescendos as it turns diegetic -- revealing the actual quartet playing the song -- and then gives way to a surreal, muted fight scene.

For "Gerry," Gus Van Sant's 2002 drama of two friends lost in a desert, the trailer doesn't attempt to boil down the entire film. Instead, it draws out a few quiet, intimate moments between the actors and then turns to showcase the violet hills of the desert. The result is less teaser, more short film.

It's absolutely gorgeous.

The artful trailers stand apart from those that seem to rely on the same tired formula, like the ad for the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel -- it's mostly cut-and-paste fiery explosions and candlelit love scenes to the heartbeat rhythm of an MTV video. But mass-market movies can have great trailers, too. What seems like a typical horror advertisement for 2004's remake of "Dawn of the Dead" surprises when what's on screen begins to buzz and shift -- is someone upstairs playing with the projector? -- the reel bubbles and burns out (achieving the effect of a Stan Brakhage short film), and what seems like smoke in front of the beam begins to lift.

Trailers are increasingly getting their due. This is the seventh year of the Golden Trailer Awards (the Oscars of trailers) and 20th Century Fox even used a trailer to announce its movie, "The Simpsons." "This is the first film I ever remember where we announced the start of production through a teaser-trailer," said Pam Levine, president of domestic theatrical marketing at Fox. Web sites showcasing trailers have become popular, drawing users who view the site as entertainment in itself. "There is absolutely a trend of people who watch every trailer and who just love trailers," said Doug Werner, manager of .

A 31-year-old self-declared "fanboy" and "geek" from Arizona, Christopher Stipp claims that he watches "everything on the [Apple] Web site, every week."

"The new 'Spider-Man 3' trailer is up today," says Stipp. His online column, "Trailer Park," is on , a Web site created by filmmaker Kevin Smith. "My first impulse is to pick up the phone and call a friend and say, 'Hey, check this out.' "

MIT grad Christopher Beland admitted to staying up until the wee hours trailer watching. "Online, it can get a little dangerous because there's an almost unlimited supply. . . .Before I know it, it's 3 a.m. and the adrenaline has worn off and I'm exhausted."

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