Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Trailer of Digital Nostalgia

With last week's debuting of the long-awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer, cinephiles, Indy fans, and casual movie watchers are now officially engaged in a three-month period of hype for the Man with the Hat's return to the big screen. For fans of the beloved 80's action series, the trailer serves up a heavy dose of nostalgia in painting Jones as a conqueror of worlds. The first minute (roughly) is a travelogue over the three films as a long build-up to the sight of Indy, 20 years later and fiesty as ever. After Indy and his hat are appropriately introduced via silhouette, all set to the instantly recognizable horn notes of the Raiders March, the trailer then presents a rapid-fire series of images from the new film, showing various explosions, wide-shots of exotic locations, character close-ups, and tons of "punchings." And within two minutes, the trailer has succeeded in reminding you why the world simply can't live without this character.

Although I don't usually keep up with the latest movie trailers (outside the occassional on-Demand trailer search), I should admit to having anticipated this one for some time. This is just one of those films that will escape all logical criticism for me. The series is too closely tied to my childhood for me to even pretend like this is any other movie. But now that I've seen it, digested it, and listened to various interpretations of its quality (or lack thereof), I've been thinking a lot about movie trailers in general; that is, how trailers and their condensed images work on viewers in the variety of ways they do. Obviously, a trailer for an "Indiana Jones" movie is different than your average trailer, especially with regards to how it's staged as "an event" (like the movie itself), and because it's function is not so much to advertise the movie as it is to envelop the viewer in a kind of cultural nostalgia. Specifically, the image-sound relations of this trailer are constructed in such a way so as to sell you on the idea that there has been a great void in "the movies" since Indy left the screen in 1989.

And indeed much has changed, both in the world and in mainstream filmmaking styles. While the cultural significance of "Indiana Jones" as a brand name for old-fashioned adventure, and/or the aesthetics of American action films are certainly interesting topics to think about and discuss, I'm more interested here in how these concepts are envisioned, drawn on, and constructed through a two minute advertisement. The notion that a movie trailer can create a kind of cinematic nostalgia as a device to sell a movie is really quite interesting, particularly when it comes to the warring aesthetics of the trailer. Also, how this discussion can be framed fromt the concept of "movie trailer as event" is .

In today's market for action films --as opposed to 20 years ago-- the trailer is everything. The task of the preview is essentially to play out the film in two to three minutes, or at least provide a sense of the film's visual styles. When it comes to plot, viewers don't want to know too much. But you can never have too many quick action shots of guns, explosions, and chases. Interestingly, action films themselves have disappointed in recent years. Even long-awaited sequels to Die Hard and Rambo, two of the more successful franchises in the heyday of action franchises, are failing to garner the same interest they once did. A large number of current action films fail both at the box office and in terms of overall cultural significance. The films (for the most part) are so dependent on the level of destruction rather than a sense of space, tension, and character; elements that must work for a strong action film. After all, there is an art to these movies -- the serious ones and even the throwaway B-movies -- that has largely been forgotten with regards to large-scale filmmaking.

Although the movies themselves may fail to resonate, their respective trailers are so hyped, so pumped-up with action, that they have become the event, or the movies themselves. Thinking about trailers for Bad Boys II, Pearl Harbor, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and others, there is an epic cinematic quality to them, something that wasn't present in the action/fantasy/adventure/sci-fi films of the 80's, and even the 90's. The aesthetics of movie trailers have changed so much in recent years to reflect changes in mainstream contemporary action filmmaking, which now prizes not seeing rather than seeing. With more close-ups, shaky camera work, and rapid editing, action films are intensifying established styles to such an extent that they are embodying a new aesthetic: a trailer aesthetic of sorts. (Of course, many filmmakers are fiercely contesting this popular trend; namely David Cronenberg. But I'm mostly talking about mainstream cinematic conventions.) This movement is so firmly established that when one looks back on old action flicks, it's easy to recognize the massive gap between the then and the now. It also may account for why trailers for mega-budgeted productions are more memorable than the movies themselves. These extremely popular hyper-styles of camerawork and editing work excellently in short stints, as for trailers. It's almost designed for trailers. But in many cases, this aesthetic doesn't sustain itself in two hour-long films. When it works though, e.g. The Bourne films, Cloverfield, etc., you've got a hit. Interestingly, the trailers for the Bourne films as well as Cloverfield were very different than the epic trailers for other established franchises that floundered.

Trailers aesthetics is one small part of the picture when it comes to analyzing the box office success and cultural impact of action films in the digital age. There are so many more elements at play, but before I blow this discussion up to something epic in itself, I'd like to regain a little bit of focus and get back to the trailer for "Indiana Jones," and tackle the issue of why it seems so... off. Broadly speaking, it's caught between two worlds: one that's firmly built around contemporary demographics and current mainstream action film appeal, and one that's built on nostalgia for an age of filmmaking that couldn't be further removed from now. The first half of the trailer employs synthesized orchestral music to accompany the digitally mastered images from the first three films, which is a clear nod to new/old appeal it's trying to bridge. But in the second portion, everything goes haywire. The famous Indy theme seems misplaced with the rapid-fire and somewhat artificial-looking computer-generated images.

Looking at the trailers for the previous films, John Williams' music was far more conducive to the rhythms of the longer shots, which, captured the more old-fashioned style in which the films are made. Even if the images were cut together more quickly, the sense of hyper-motion doesn't pervade the old trailers. Which is why they aren't nearly as exciting. Nevertheless, it worked for its time because trailers were not nearly as significant a force in selling a movie as they are now. For the new preview, this old-fashioned musical approach simply doesn't work, and comes off as quite awkward. From a visual standpoint, the trailer is thoroughly contemporary, making the melodic beats of the Raiders March seem almost cartoonish as accompaniment to the images, resulting in a disorienting experience. And yet, looking at the films themselves, one should note that the Raiders March fits like a glove in some of the more memorable action set-pieces, notably in the quintessential chase scene, the desert truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The average shot length in that eight or nine minute sequence is probably not too different from, say, the trailer to The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and yet the music is rhythmically sound with the images.

One the best criticisms of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer comes in the form of another trailer --fan-made, presumably-- using the same images from the recent trailer. This trailer, now on YouTube, is arguably more effective than the trailer we've got. What it does is break up the images of the trailer, re-assembles them, and present them according to the traditional model and aesthetic design for action films of the 80's. It uses audio and visual cues from previous "Indiana Jones" previews, displaying the disparate styles of trailers from 20 years ago and trailers from now. Despite the deliberate datedness and strange constrasts (especially after seeing the official trailer), this "old school" trailer actually works more effectively than the new trailer. It's still cut too quickly, which is perhaps inevitable since the source of most of images is the overcut preview. But it works still in spite of this. The images and the music together feel more appropriate for each other, and there is a consistent aesthetic structure throughout. The "old school" trailer is a strong reminder that a single image or shot is dependent on context. Its effect of an individual image depends on how it exists in relation not just to other images and shots, but to sounds as well. Which is why this fan-made trailer is more consistent and overall more satisfying than the colliding stylistic sensibilities of the official trailer.

Another fascinating venue of discussion is the 2008 representing a digital age, not so much in terms of specific technologies, but as a social environment. The conditions under which images are made and seen are overall much less linear than it was before the introduction of the digital. Information is not conveyed the same way or even defined in a similar manner. Which is perhaps why a sequel to a popular action series of the 1980's, made by a director who has long since changed his own aesthetics, is especially interesting in today's market. Twenty years ago this trailer analysis would not have even occurred, let alone have been possible. There would no old school trailers or discussions about the contrasts between aesthetic styles of different times. The "old school" trailer is reflective of the current sensibility of reflexivity with regards to how contemporary viewers understand older stylistic tendencies and conventions; it's self-awareness is oddly reminiscent of Tarantino-style pastiche, in which digital viewers come to udnerstand older styles through reflexive visual cues.

Ultimately, this discussion of digital reflections and nostaglia may breach on larger issues of why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was made at all, and what kind of movie it will be... if it's even a movie at all, that is, rather than an experience in cultural nostalgia and digital reflexivity. But in keeping this discussion closely linked to the trailer itself, I would like to know your thoughts and reactions, no matter what angle you're coming from. Thus far, most reactions I've read/heard have been either extremely positive, mostly people who have bought right into the nostalgia, or extremely negative, i.e. those complaining about the use of CGI and the rapid-fire editing, and such. I feel both positively and negatively about it. I was swept into old reliable state of watching an Indiana Jones film. But the aesthetics of the preview are a constant reminder that no matter how true to style this film may be with regards to the previous films, it simply cannot recreate something that it's trying so hard to recreate. That's not to say that the movie will be made in this style -- just that the trailer is disjointed because of it. The movie may be an entirely different matter. It will be quite an interesting movie to watch indeed. Although it will be set in the 1950's, we will undoubtedly be seeing Indiana Jones in the digital age.


Update - 2/20 - 4:25 PM: Some post-thoughts after reading one comment and writing one myself... If the trailer is any indication, this movie will be try to show that Indiana Jones is a timeless, mythic hero. After all, this trailer is not selling the movie at all. It's selling the significance and recognizability of the brand name of Indiana Jones. Just pay attention to how Indy is re-introduced without showing the face of Harrison Ford. The two most key points to Indy's re-introduction is the hat --seen first on the ground (when the music starts up), then in silhouette-- and the shot of Indy dodging bullets to the tune of "dah--dah-dah-DAHHH," which is the clear money-shot of the trailer. This trailer clearly demonstrates that it's not about proving anything in terms of Harrison's Ford age. If anything, they're using the impossibilty of his age --he is currently 65 years-old-- as an asset to Indy's timelessness and cementing as the modern heroic archetype.

Let's keep this discussion up!


In the next (and final) episode of The Cinematic Art's "Indiana Jones" discussion series, we will take a look at the evils of the Motion Picture Association of America, who have once again wreaked havoc on the American moviegoing public, using censorship to impose certain values and ideas on us in their phantom removal of guns. The real question is: whose values/ideas are they representing? All that and more in the next chapter in this blogging saga... "Indiana Jones and the MPAA's Crusade."


Mike said...

I think that the use of trailers today is nothing more than an extension of the marketing companies they hire and the demographics and focus groups that preview the movies. It is an art form, certainly, that is how they get the huge crowds to go to week one. Movies with staying power anymore are few and far between. The trailer and its success are crucial; that is why the Jones preview is being shown now trying to convince people that Harrison Ford is not going to lay another egg as he has had in so many movies of late. He needs it. I am sure this movie will be filled with more of everything a good action movie needs and has, and unless the script is a total dog this should do very well. Look what a good trailer and script did for Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for commenting, Mike. I'm just going to proceed as if I hadn't read that last remark about Alvin and the Chipmunks.

I wouldn't call movie trailers an art form so much as a skilled practice. Constructing a trailer that pleases target demographics and generates interest is not easy and requires a lot of skill, but I wouldn't necessarily call it an art.

You are absolutely correct about the purpose of the contemporary movie trailer: which is to get audiences in seats on opening weekend, and that's it. That's the mentality that pervades mainstream American filmmaking, which partly accounts for why trailers are an event in themselves. Studio execs are more interested in the commerce end of cinema rather than the art, naturally. Instead of bringing the two (commerce and art) together, which was more common in the 70's and 80's when the blockbuster was still young. They would rather keep them as far apart as possible and continue plugging $60 million marketing campaigns for movies that simply aren't very good.

This particular trailer is significant because it reminds how much of a skilled practice trailer-making is today. It is a great specimen for studying the economic and social changes in the film market today. Comparing it to the previous Indy films' trailers is especially interesting.

The most important aspect about this trailer, in my view, is that it's not really selling the movie at all; it's selling the mythic stature of its hero. Indiana Jones is bigger than Harrison Ford, so Paramount does not need to convince anyone that Ford may "lay another egg." I think most audiences are aware that in the right hands, any actor (especially one as legendary as Ford) can be good. So Paramount doesnt waste tim trying to convince you he can still do it. Henceforth, it re-introduces Jones via shadow. They don't even need to show Ford to show Indiana Jones.

Showing his silhouette first is central to the trailer's premise and the marketing push for the film. The idea we're being sold in this trailer is that Indiana Jones is an important figure American culture, crossing all generational and historic boundaries. He's timeless.

As for the movie itself, I still have hope and believe that it will deliver. If it were directed by George Lucas, I'd be worried. But something tells me this actually means something to Spielberg, and that he will try to get it right. Let's be honest here: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was no masterpiece, and Temple of Doom has its share of flaws (despite being rather brilliant), so it's not like these are perfect pictures. Raiders of the Lost Ark, on the other hand, is one of the very finest movies of its kind. So if this movie even comes close to that, or measure up with the less perfect sequels, it'll be remembered as a worthy Indiana Jones film. And in this market of action films, I'm sure it will stand out all the more for its qualities.

Damian said...

Well, that was--as always--an excellent and thought-provoking analysis, Ted. Once again, you've given me a lot to think about not just with regard to this Indiana Jones trailer but with regard to trailers in general and how they function differently today than they used to. Movie publicity is an aspect of filmmaking that I admit I have always been interested by and that's part of the reason why all this discussion about the "Indy IV" teaser is appealing to me.

The clip on youtube of the "old school" Indy trailer was fascinating. I agree with you in that in it is, in a way, more effective in capturing the "traditional spirit" of the Indy films and yet, on the other hand, I don't know that it is as effective because it doesn't, as you said, "bridge" the nostalgic with the contemporary as much as the other trailer does (it simply makes an "old" trailer using "new" footage) and that seems to be the key in promoting a recent entry in an old series. To be quite honest, I was just thrilled that we got any footage at all because my fear was that the teaser trailer was going to be either composed solely of footage from the first three films or even resemble this fan-made teaser (obviously produced before the film' official title was revealed) which, I have to confess, I think also works rather effectively and which precicts (with eerie accuracy) the shot from the real trailer where Indy picks up his hat and places it on his head.

I do think that you've hit the nail on the head, Ted, when you say that trailers are constructed differently nowadays because we as a movie-going culture "see" them and their purpose differently. Your observation about the trailer for a film being an "event" in itself is quite astute. I remember hearing about people paying money to go see a movie in the theatre before which the trailer to Tim Burton's Batman movie was playing. They would then walk out because the trailer was all they were really interested in. Of course, now in the age of the internet, people needn't do this anymore (although apparently the same thing happened with the Phantom Menace trailer), but this was 20 years ago and already we can see it now as the beginning of a shift in the people's perception of trailers.

I would like to add my two cents (for whatever it's worth) that I do think that movie trailers and posters are (or at least can be) art. I realize that it's difficult to think of them as such since their main purpose is primarily commercial (i.e. promoting a product, soon to be released, which they are trying to get people to "buy") but I don't think that means that they can't be art. I think it's possible for something to have commercial intent and still be a work of art. After all, people make the same arguments about movies themselves.

Ted Pigeon said...

I think you are correct, Damian, that commercial work can still be art. But I'm reluctant to call movie trailers an art. Then again, I'm hesistant to call them not an art. Like you said, it all comes down to how we define art. But maybe what we should really be thinking about is why we're even having this debate at all; over whether something qualified "as an art." Any exercise in labeling some media or practices "art" and others "not art" is fraught with problematic conflicts on an ideological level.

Often times, how these debates are framed are more telling than the debates themselves. Why is the "is it an art?" question even significant?

Cibbuano said...

I just saw the premiere of Indy IV last night in Sydney.

Instead of giving my opinions on the film, I'll comment on what you've said here: yes, the entire film is structured like the trailer, fast, rushed and, ultimately, throwing away the aesthetic that the first films embraced.

This latest movie is like a fragmented dream about an Indiana Jones sequel. There's no depth, no patience. You might even say that the entire movie is nothing more than a trailer - all the foundation removed and just action sequences for the thrill of the audience.

Exhausting to watch.