A couple of years back, the AFI put together a list of the 100 greatest trailers of all time, with short descriptions and appreciations of each. It’s a great “filmography” for trailer afficionados and a reliable inspiration to my own bi-weekly posting.

Here’s what the AFI critic said about the :53 teaser for the first South Park movie:

The late, great Don “Thunder Throat” LaFontaine, king of the voiceover, commands as this teaser begins (and as the camera slowly zooms into the screen of a fancy home computer, circa 1999): “As we near the millennium, the tools for visual effects and animation are evolving at an exponential rate…” A laser-guided, 3-D animatic is being rendered in close-up before our eyes, and we’re told that Paramount has enlisted the help of the world’s top animators, with a budget of over $630 million, to bring us “the most advanced animation ever seen by the human eye.”

Cue the punchline: the computer matrix system has formed the eye of a defiantly lo-fi Eric Cartman — by that time as iconic an animated character as Bart Simpson — goose-stepping on an empty black background. “I will do the German dance for you,” he sings in his nasally whine, “it’s fun and gay and tra-la-la.” Irreverent as ever, the “South Park” boys pull another fast one on their audience, making us laugh by holding a mirror up to our own lemming mentality for bigger, faster, sleeker blockbuster bombast. –Aaron Hillis

Mr. Hillis neglects to mention the music cue, “Tommy the Cat,” by Primus, which follows hard and loud on the conclusion of Cartman’s German Dance performance. A smash zoom-out title graphic obliterates Cartman. The Primus cue, a funky-guitar line followed by funky-punkish percussion and vocals, plays over the white lettered title card on black background, before a fast-zoom restores Cartman (presumably lost to sight among the zooming titles) to center screen where he demands, “Who the Hell are you people?” A smash cut to a release date card “Coming 1999” ends the trailer, the Paramount name and logo barely discernible in small font along the bottom.

While the AFI critic’s claim about the teaser’s irreverence is indisputable, I do not think the target viewer and ultimate audience is motivated to see the film by the hilarity of recognizing his or her own “lemming mentality” and desire “for bigger, faster, sleeker blockbuster” fare. The teaser is not hilarious so much as baldly parodic and defiantly random, qualities familiar and appealing to fans of the series. Since the teaser, as a teaser, is fundamentally a vehicle for awareness, for staking a claim in the mental real-estate of the potential movie goer, it needn’t explain, although it must compel, whether by inexplicability, mystery or conceptual brilliance.

In this teaser, specifically, what is exploited is familiarity with and enjoyment of the South Park sensibility as a recommendation for a feature length film about the South Park characters and their world. We learn nothing about the plot, nothing about the visual spectacle being heralded, although Cartman surely constitutes an earnest of character and genre in the anticipated film. “Trust me,” it says, “you will want to know more and see more,” which is what a teaser is supposed to do.

But in making this promise, it relies primarily on parody of trailer formulae and bombast, making fun of the promotional machinery of the movie industry, rather than our own implication in that phenomenon. For a viewer unfamiliar with South Park, Cartman’s German Dance must have been incomprehensible, not to mention appalling!

This preview, then, is not only irreverent–it’s audacious, obnoxious even, given Cartman’s hostility toward his would-be fans. Remember that 13 years ago, moviegoers were justifiably skeptical about the cinematic pretensions of Mssrs. Parker and Stone, and Eric Cartman was not yet then the cultural touchstone he has become. In 1999, there was no reference point for a South Park feature, apart from the mixed track record of other cult tv series that made the leap to the big screen.

The official trailer, irreverent like the teaser which advertises it, is much more forthcoming about story and scale and the ribald amusements of an adult cartoon. While a teaser is free to tease, a trailer has to reveal at least some of its trump cards in order to sustain the trick of building suspense by incremental and deferred disclosure.

Somehow, Paramount was convinced that the uninitiated viewer would remember and wonder about this teaser, even if he or she had no context for making sense of it. 13 years later, we see, to our continuing delight, that Paramount’s risk paid off. Parker and Stone did indeed have the goods, which they have regularly and generously distributed ever since to grateful TV audiences, film-goers and Broadway ticket buyers alike.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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