Contradiction, Paradox and the Political Unconscious of Trailers

In today’s post, I’d like to highlight the contradictory or paradoxical quality of trailers, a quality that tells me something complicated and significant is taking place within.

It was Lisa Kernan, one of our academic consultants on the Coming Attractions documentary that I researched and wrote in 2006, who introduced me to this aspect of trailers, what I might call their political unconscious.


In her landmark study of the rhetoric of American Movie trailers, “Coming Attractions,” (Univ. of Texas, Press pp. 8-9,) UCLA Librarian, Film Scholar and Trailer expert, Lisa Kernan offer this elegant and provocative claim:

“…the contradictoriness of trailers is perhaps their salient feature, and for me at once their greatest source of pleasure and the point where they most incisively display Hollywood’s view of its audience(s). In fact, trailers operate as a unique sort of cinematic gyroscope in which a host of contradictions are briefly (for one to 3 minutes) sustained in balance–not the least of which is the quality of nostalgia for a film we haven’t even seen yet. Because they are anticipatory texts, they need no resolution. For all the weightiness of their narratorial pronouncements and the booming sound effects of their cataclysmic imagery, they are breathless, liminal and ephemeral. They are fun because they play (or trail…) at the edges of narrative cinematic sense. Like the brief moment in which the cloaked Klingon “Bird of Prey” warships in Star Trek must become visible (and thus vulnerable) in order to have enough power to discharge their weapons, trailers are where Hollywood displays its contradictions right at the point where its promotional message is most direct. Describing the play of rhetorical features in this zone of contradiction and potential dialectic within and among trailers texts comes as close as anything to satisfying my desire to understand some of the contradictions of my own relationship to spectatorship.”

The following observation are intended to develop the claims Kernan makes above:

–They’re called trailers and yet they proceed.
–Nostalgically pitched (reminding us of movies we’ve seen and loved) trailers are anticipatorily positioned (heralding the film you’re eager to see).
–initially ephemeral and disposable, they are now enduring, archived and ubiquitous.
–Trailers are unique (like every film) and clichéd, as befits their formulaic quality and the need that they be accessible and immediately explicable to their audiences.
–They seduce us into their concerns and resist our critical distance by their dense presentation of narrative and promotional messages. Intended for multiple viewings (as commercial messages), trailers are nonetheless exposed to the critical scrutiny that repeated exposure allows.
–They engage us with their power of story telling all the while reminding us with titles, copy and promotional rhetoric that they are advertisements, packaging for more or less artistic content presented to our inspection, consideration and consumption.
–As free samples, they empower critical reaction (boos, hisses, laughter, cheers) and intense personal involvement from theatrical audiences. Trailers invite fan-generated production as well as mash-ups.
–While some cultural critics make a point of their bludgeoning and overwhelming quality as sublime spectacles, they are fabled for their ability to insinuate themselves into our awareness, engaging both our conscious and unconscious mind.
–Constrained by the dictates of marketing and advertising, they are freely distributed and available for repurposing by the public, unlike most other expensively produced and well-guarded Intellectual Property.
–They patronize audiences as abject consumers and simultaneously invoke them as informed cultural decision makers.
–They are at once disciplinary (propagandistic and controlling) and carnivalesque (a site of riot and audience freedom, deriving from its ability to respond or refuse).
–As a “cinema of attractions,” they hearken back to the earliest days of film; yet they’re indisputably narrative, often experimental in their approaches to story-telling.
–They are subordinate to their feature yet consistently rated better and lauded, when the feature is lambasted. The trailer is quite simply, “the perfect film,” the film that will never let you down!


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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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