“NOW YOU SEE ME” Trailer: The Self-Conscious Magic of Movie Marketing

[Official Trailer #1]

Last weekend, a friend suggested we take in “Now You See Me” and I said, “yes” to oblige more than for any great interest in the film. Unexpectedly, we both thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it that increasingly rare species of Hollywood “popcorn” movie that entertained, providing the requisite stars, spectacle and genre satisfactions without condescension to or contempt for its audience. We exited the cinema energized, not bludgeoned or bored. I wondered how I’d missed its opening weekend, trailer, reviews or buzz, since it has done respectable business ($111M domestically; another 60 internationally) on a $75M budget (thanks B.O. MOJO!). I resolved to learn more.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics panel panned the film, posting a 48% Freshness Score and this sour review: “Now You See Me’s thinly sketched characters and scattered plot rely on sleight of hand from the director to distract audiences.” The audiences response, at 76% was better; though not stellar, it was at least competitive with the competition.

Because I thought one of the film’s strengths was its editing pace and visual energy–it was cut with the hyper-kinetic speed and non-linearity of an action trailer– I wanted to see how the trailer shaped and positioned this tale of perception and deception, distraction and sleight of hand, of spectacle and magic, considerations germane to the production and impact of audio-visual movie marketing.

Beginning with the title, “Now you see me,” (which invites the sequel, “Now you don’t,”) the film and its trailer tweaks the traditional incantation of the stage magician: “now you see it, now you don’t.” In this proverbial utterance of the disappearing act, magic arises from the simultaneity of presence and absence, there and not there, a physical impossibility (contradictory states occupying the same space in the same time) at the Magician’s command.

A film editor enjoys an advantage over a live performer in that the “now you see it, now you don’t” trick requires neither distraction nor sleight of hand, but only an editing suture between two different pieces of film. And yet this most common type of Movie Magic is it’s own idiom, a cliche that persistently expresses our now 120 year sense of wonder at the technology and artistry of film.

In this trailer for a film about magicians who explore and expose the secrets of the craft as part of their act, inviting audiences to look closely and share in the magic, the better to distract attention from an ongoing and different “trick,” “scheme” or “plot,” formulae (dare I say, “magic”?) of trailermaking are explicitly, self-consciously and expertly marshaled to perform an analogous function with respect to selling the concept and world of the film. To position the film within the marketplace and motivate a ticket-purchase decision requires that an audience be seduced by audio-visual means into suspending disbelief, relinquishing critical perspective, forgetting the commercial context and committing to the story of the trailer, regardless of the story of the film it heralds and purportedly represents.

Let’s see how the trick is accomplished: The trailer is bookended by nearly identical voice-over narration from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) a professional debunker of magic and magicians. He serves both as an explicator of magical practice and lore and a consultant to the various antagonists of our four magician-protagonists.

“Come in Close because the more you think you see, the easier it’ll be to fool you” he intones as a magic trick develops on stage. Given the misdirection practiced by professional magicians, his words are warranted. Audiences of movie trailers, similarly, can learn from Freeman’s advice about trusting the evidence of your eyes, even after close and repeat viewing. Trailers operate by misdirection and re-presentation of content. By focusing on certain topics and backgrounding others in pursuit of objectives other than full disclosure or faithful representation of the film text, a commercial objective is achieved. Or, as in the magic trick, a distraction of the audience from the visible (albeit quick and subtle–assuming you know where to look) mechanism of the trick to its appearance, it’s representation, its screen.

“Look closely Because the closer you think you are the less you’ll actually see,” Thaddeus repeats himself with a twist as the trailer concludes. While the application of this advice to my own work of trailer analysis is not lost on me, the takeaway, for audiences of magicians or movie trailers, is that what’s selected and shown on screen– or revealed at the end of a magician’s wand– is determined by larger forces, subordinate to ulterior motives, and merely a part of the film and part of the act, not actually representative of it. Important business happens elsewhere.

After Freeman’s V.O. frame, Isla Fisher, one of the four magicians, explains to her interdiegetic Vegas audience, which is also, the extradiegetic trailer audience, what the magic act (and the film about a magic act) is about: “For our final trick, we are going to rob a bank.” As she counts down “1, 2, 3…” the editing matches the countdown and on 4 the trick is accomplished in a blur of on-stage machinery and cuts. This self-conscious moment, from a self-consciously “performative” film, emphasizes the multiple perspectives that editing provides, but also the rhythm on which it relies.

As magicians, entertainers and criminals, the Four Horseman (an awful name that resonates far beyond the needs of the film) also purport to be (and eventually become) social activists, modern day Robin Hood‘s, concerned with redistributive justice. This political angle is topical and popularly appealing, 5 years into the Great Recession.

We next find our antagonists in custody, where they confidently and audaciously defy bungling FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) supported by his capable, lovely and intuitive French Interpol associate, Alma (Melanie Laurent). Thaddeus advises Ruffalo and offers his consultative services to rich, villainous promoter, Tressler, (Michael Caine), providing the exposition so necessary to a complicated plot like this one. The initial, on-stage bank Heist, Thaddeus explains was a distraction from the real trick (to steal Tressler’s ill-gotten gains) and ultimately from an even more elaborate and populist scheme, occupying the second half of the film

While the audience member (and the viewer) thinks she is watching the entertainment (the film), she is only just watching a representative of it, a distraction as it were, a teaser or a trailer. You might call this bait and switch, an ugly term, but one that is all too apropos of the magic moment as well as the movie marketing dynamic.

Tressler, initially the impressario behind the Four Horseman, quickly becomes their target and victim, whereupon he morphs into a co-antagonist, alongside Agent Rhodes and the law. “Expose them and destroy them” Tressler demands of Thaddeus whose exorbitant fee he is ready to pay. A shot of Fisher (in the role of escape artist Henley Reeves) chained in a Piranha filled tank provides the visual correlate to the idea of their destruction. But, as often happens in trailers, this scene is borrowed the opening sequence and has nothing to do with their endangerment. It portrays merely a “scary” moment from a brilliant escape trick.

An action sequence that then unspools, provides spoiler information for the feature film. But, because it’s a trailer and the action is quick cut and the audience probable viewed it, if at all, months prior, and it’s completely out of context, impossible to remember and thus neutered in terms of its potential for revealing how the final trick is accomplished. (For example: We see the disappearing act performed on a gigantic scale, hiding a massive safe; we see the concealing mirror shattered by a character we had seen die in a car crash.)

Here, in the trailer, as in the better magic tricks, the information you need to understand the “trick” or the plot is shown to you, only you don’t know how to make sense of it. Through trailer “sleight of hand,” key information is unassimilable or incoherent, and yet the stakes and the cleverness quotient have been significantly raised. I find these “tells” or “tell-alls” to be among the more sublime moments in the trailer brief, which in copy and shot selection imitates the logic of the film it advertises, foregrounding the very challenge that the narration delivers to the audience consuming a magic act.

Thaddeus returns to provide additional context: “Whatever this grand trick is, it was designed a long, long time ago. And I believe that what’s about to follow, is really going to amaze.” At the same time the concept/plot of the magic trick is grounded in a larger historical narrative, gaining gravitas in the process, Thaddeus’ prediction applies equally to the film we are watching AND to the trailer about the film we are being encouraged to consume. It’s a diegetic remark with extra and extra-extra-diegetic consequence. It’s dense, layered, resonating in different registers and, well, performative. Who among us can resist the authoritative voice of Morgan Freeman?

Lastly, on searching for the author of “Now you see me, Now you don’t,” I came upon boxing legend Muhammed Ali, who uttered these lines preparatory to his bout with George Foreman. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.” Apparently the pronoun “it” in the original, “now you see it, etc” didn’t engage the audience, who needed a person with whom to identify.

And, as I thought about this phrase, it struck me that the power of the formulation, derives from its repetition-mastery of one of the fundamental stages of psychological development and individuation. I mean, of course, the infant’s play of “fort…da” (literally “gone” and “there,” or not here & here, now you see it, now you don’t) described by Freud, whereby the child comes to acknowledge loss and absence (of the primary caretaker) for whom this primal trauma precipitates the now-differentiated subject into language and culture.

The game, the vocalization of here and not here, returns power to the powerless, allowing the illusion of mastery and control, where neither is present. It’s an impossibility, of course, for it to be both here and not here, visible and invisible, fulfilled and empty, but that fantasy, indeed, like the promise of the perfect film, the movie trailer, is the magic.

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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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