Django Unchained International Trailer: Marketing (and Exploiting) Tarentino’s Signature Style

I love Tarentino films, despite their trailers, which emphasize the visual pleasures of his style but miss the sublimity and substance of his films. (Perhaps that’s an impossible expectation for a trailer?) Hearing of the Django Unchained trailer (above) for the December 2012 release, I thought I’d use this post to understand why.

[Note: I’m writing of the International “official” trailer rather than the official trailer for domestic audiences. One is a close variation of the other, in terms of shot selection, music cues, and editing, although insofar as the international trailer better confirms my biases, it’s that which I consider here.]

Mining the “justified revenge” thematic and vigilante generic vein first opened by Kill Bill, and further explored in Inglorious Basterds, Tarentino, in Django Unchained, tells the story of an African American Slave (Django, played by Jamie Foxx) who accompanies a white bounty hunter (Christian Waltz) into the ante-bellum South in pursuit of fugitives, to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) and to exact revenge.

To the pantheon of victim turned rampaging vigilante, Tarentino has added a black male slave to such enduring types as the ill-used woman (The pregnant, left for dead Bride) and the European Jew (Shoshanna) under Nazi rule. Given the context and the horrors endured by his protagonists, their subsequent, remorseless, and triumphant bloodletting is sanctioned and celebrated, with audiences invited to glory in violent, even excessive retribution. Tarentino’s gift, or habit perhaps, is an ability to usher his audience along the passage from shocked spectator to applauding and complicit participant in torture, mayhem and bloodlust. Yet for all its guilty pleasure– the moral complication and emotional ambivalence of one’s spectatorial position– a journey that begins in grindhouse locales often ends in instructive, affective and even transcendent precincts.

The trailer, for its part, lacks the time and the dramatic opportunity to fully engage either the horror of victimization or the nihilism of rampaging revenge. Though replete with story, characters, spectacle and generic pleasures, trailers for Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds and now Django Unchained tread the shallow waters of exploitation, displaying their appealing and appalling materials but neither elevating nor transcending them. I assume that this is a result of the trailer formula itself, a short-form film format that is always already artificial, self-conscious and mannered in style. When you’re advertising and “previewing” a film whose style is similar stagey and “over the top” (as are the Tarentino films noted above), the ascend from parody to irony, from camp to melodrama, or from comedy to tragedy becomes well-nigh impossible.

But enough about what the trailer may be incapable of. Let’s consider, instead some of those things it does well. Once again, Johnny Cash is tapped for a music cue. Opening on a chained group of escaped slaves, Cash’s gravel-throated baritone delivers an instant and generous dollop of authenticity, singing the American roots gospel standard, “There ain’t no grave.” The lyrics both comment on escape and transcendence, as subjects of the film, while connecting to a religious faith and cultural practice that supplies narrative context.

After bounty hunter Waltz rescues Django and explains his bargain–Django is to identity the notorious Brittle (sic?) Brothers, in exchange for his freedom and help finding and liberating his wife, who the Brittle brothers sold to an unknown buyer–the two join forces. Initiating the second half of the trailer as a road and buddy film montage of extra-judicial murder, James Brown’s “Payback” is the chosen cue. When it kicks in, the trailer gains an upbeat cue that drives the editing, transforms the sensibility and explores, lyrically, the revenge theme.

I wanted to point out a sustained example of rhythmic cutting to the funky, syncopated beat of “Payback,” especially notable from 1:25 (or so) to 1:42. Gun shots, cast cards, screams and yells, whips, explosions, toasts, falling hats–are all choreographed to the music. It’s fun: you can dance to it, and yet, beneath the music-video charm, we see scenes of battle, cold-blooded murder and general bloodlust, represented by the red-wash over the cast-cards.
Such is the power of music to emphasize emotion and substance or to sublimate it. In this case, the latter occurs, with hip-shaking, foot-stomping, head-nodding good times abstracted and extracted from harrowing experience and brutal practice.

[Notably, There’s a striking image, of a spray of blood from a hapless target, that showers a field of white, cotton flowers, the crop most identified with American slavery, now nourished with the blood of the slaveholder rather than his human chattel.)

Renowned feature film editor Walter Murch insists that the ideal cut (in features, that is) is true to the emotion of the moment, advances the story, occurs at a rhythmically interesting moment, acknowledges eye trace, respects the translation of a 3 dimensional scene to the 2 dimensions of film and respects the 3-D continuity of space. [See:

, p. 18] Trailer editing clearly has a different set of priorities, whereby rhythm and eye trace frequently upend and rival–if not displace– emotion and storytelling in the original feature, in order to tell and sell another story to the potentially ticket-buying audience.

In the example above (1:25-1:42), the trailer uses music to sell the Tarentino sensibility and style, the bigger-than-life, fabulistic quality of his films, over the clearly serious and complex emotional substance of the film itself. Even the graphic design–in which title cards, copy cards (“The Chains Come Off”) and cast-card are washed in blood red–speak to the expectations that come with this director, and to which audiences respond passionately.

Django, like Kill Bill, or Inglorious Basterds, may be a cinematic masterpiece; it certainly has the stars, the subject matter, the directorial (and cinematographic and editorial) talent for that eventuality. But that is not what the Weinstein company appears to believe is the best way to represent the film as a commercial product. For that, it’s exploitation –sensation, quips, gun-play, sentiment, and lots and lots of blood–all the way.

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