La Dolce Vita: Marketing the Sweet Life as a Still Life

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Film scholars date the contemporary period of trailermaking to the early 1960s’, pointing to such bold and formula rejecting previews as Dr Strangelove and The Night of the Iguana (both 1963) as avatars of the new approach. But the trailer for Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, anticipates many of the signal innovations that define the revolution to come in movie marketing. Looking at it in 2012, its sound design, editing, and visual storytelling seem fresh, provocative and powerful. Who its producer and editor were, and whether they continued their trailer-blazing work, I’m unable to say. But in this post, I want to celebrate their filmmaking artistry and marketing craft.

Let’s begin with the editing: a combination of live action and stills, quick-cut into a dense, surreal 2 minute impression, that emphasizes feeling over narration and style over storytelling. There are over 100 shots/scenes in this trailer, far more than ordinary. But then, this is neither an ordinary film nor a typical preview.

Two multi-second, live-action sequences bookend the central sequence of stills edited to an infectious, exhilarating, maddening conga beat. Both live sequences show a scrum of photo-journalists jostling one another for the best shot of movie-star Ekberg, de-planing, but simultaneously suggesting, presumably, that what they’ve framed in the viewfinder, is what we’re seeing on screen. Late in the trailer, the edit decisions come 3 or 4 to the second, the pace quickened, the action near-frantic, the events almost unassimilable, apart from the sense that all is not right with this world. Roman sophisticates participate in louche and scandalous (rouged men in women’s clothing!!) entertainments; media types and movie stars, aristocrats and streetwalkers, paysans and urbanites people a frenzied tableau of Dionysian sensuality, religious mania and existential dread.

The copy, rather than explaining the characters, story or conflict, advertises the impact and the quality of the emotion. The French trailer (only the language of the copy is different than the Italian, original) describes it as “Une Fresque Grandiose et Fascinante. / Le Portrait la plus bouleversant et le plus decherent de notre époque:” — A grandiose and fascinating frescoe/ the most wrenching and affecting portrait of our era. (Translation, mine.) Such claims deploy the promotional rhetoric of the Circus ringmaster. They’re grandiloquent, hyperbolic and superlative.
But such an approach is, it should be remembered, also the dominant and defining style of film advertising since the 20’s. In this regard, the trailer keeps faith with tradition.

In terms of positioning, the film is presented as an event, rather than a story or a character study which it also is, more precisely. Of course, the language of the copy run might have been borrowed from a review, rather than generated expressly for the trailer, but if so, they are without attribution and harnessed to promotion rather than criticism.

Now, if the movie is as claimed, a frescoe — a fresh wall painting — or figuratively, a living tapestry; a portrait of life, presented to the public for its consumption– the trailer foregrounds details of that tableau, showing discrete scenes and characters and situations without establishing shot, context or a discernible plot line, beyond the evaluative title, “The Good/Sweet Life.” It will be clear to competent viewers that the sense of these words is ironic.

The trailermakers rely on human curiosity, whose appetite for further knowledge has been whetted by the provocative photos of Mastroianni’s Roman Holiday. Of course, if you haven’t a taste for moving and wrenching tales of glamorous, dissipated, world-weary and godless Europeans, this isn’t your kind of movie. But in 1960, those who wanted to know more were, I’m guessing, college educated, urban, traveled, sophisticated and interested in film art. This was not (and still isn’t) a 4 quadrant movie or a blockbuster. Still, were you to have bought a ticket when the film came to town, you couldn’t say you hadn’t been informed as well as warned.

The marker of its film-art bonafides and cinematic pretension is celebrated/notorious Director, Federico Fellini. And, beyond Fellini’s brand, there are luminaries of the European film world: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee and Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg are recognizably featured despite the absence of cast run.

The images—of characters, event, and place—mostly depthless interiors and a long shots of dusty, non-establishing exteriors—are fragmentary, discrete, frantic and euphoric, cynical and yearning, much like, I suppose, the movie they herald. In this way the trailer tells you little; but it shows you everything, except for the order, the meaning, and the emphasis, which is, come to think of it, a pretty good sample of life, good, sweet or otherwise.

Beyond the driving, seductive and hypnotic drum beats, the only other sound cues derive from shouts and curses of the scuffling journalists, jockeying for position as the object of their photographic gaze (movie star EKberg) descends from the plane. Of course, what they’re looking at, flashbulbs popping, lenses focused, is you, seated in the audience, hungry for glimpses of the sweet life found in movies generally, a vision revealed as an empty imposture by this movie in particular.

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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