I saw Django Unchained the other night at the New Beverly, which presented the feature within a program that began with a rarely seen and frankly disturbing Looney Tunes cartoon about a hound dog and a Southern Plantation Owner, called Dog Gone South. Next a succession of exploitation trailers provided a context in which to appreciate Mr. Tarentino’s genre homage and extension. The Arena Trailer (above) led off, followed by those for Mandingo and Take a Hard Ride, which I hope to discuss in the next few weeks. While it is not uncommon for exhibitors to select trailers in keeping with the genre or audience demographic, (a summer blockbuster trailer in front of a summer blockbuster), these trailers weren’t accessory to but rather constituent of the program; they are film-historical and cultural documents that situate and frame Django’s cinematic inspiration and innovation.
Rather than describe shot by shot and word by word The Arena trailer’s wall-to-wall voice over and dialogue, I think it more instructive to imagine the audience to whom this marketing communication is addressed. From the evidence of the trailer, what are we justified in presuming their interests to be? How are they being solicited, gratified and engaged for the coming feature? In other words, who does this trailer think it is talking to and why?
Here’s what the copy asserts, repetitively, salaciously, and consistently:
“History’s most blood-thirsty entertainment was pursued by the Romans who taught the world how to fight….They enslaved the most sensuous women to titillate the perverted pleasures of the roman public….Unchained wild women, their beautiful bodies shaped into superb fighting instruments….Women stripped of their dignity, piece by piece….Romans called it sport, but the Arena was an orgy factory, spewing forth untamed desires and violence….They live as slaves, fight as gladiators and love on command…..Gladiator women who live, fight and kill to please the blood-howling mobs….Proud, defiant and ready to kill for freedom…..Bloody and barbaric, corrupt and sensuous, the ultimate spectator sport in The Arena……Savage fighters, sold into an orgy of Roman Pleasures…The Price of Freedom in the Arena, one of them must die…Driven by fear and consumed by hatred, desperate to be free…..Black slave, white slave, fighting for their lives in The Arena.”
What the excerpted scenes show is gladiator women (Pam Grier & Margaret Markov, in particular) fighting in the coliseum against men and each other, as well as in their slave quarters among themselves. The Roman public is pictured as an undifferentiated crowd, apart from Caeser, whose appetite for this sport identifies him as the villain (as well as, it must be said, the audience surrogate.) All other male figures, whether guards, opponents or victimizers are shown from behind or partially disguised by their uniforms and helmets. The two men with whom Pam & Margaret have what appear to be gratifying sexual relations, black and white respectively, are not identified by facial appearance, but by hair and skin color alone.
The story, as far as it is discernible from the trailer, consists of the contrasting experience of two enslaved women fighting for their freedom within a system that exploits their most basic desire for freedom as a form of popular though lethal entertainment. One expects that they will forge an alliance, but that eventuality is not depicted.
Since repetition of word or image is a good indicator of emphasis in trailer making, I think it’s safe to say that the “orgiastic” promise (if not the reality) of the female gladiator spectacle is a prominent vector of the creative marketing direction. (“Orgy” is, of course, an especially fraught term.) Blood gets three mentions (blood-thirsty, bloody and blood-howling) whereas “free,” “freedom” and “unchained wild” contribute an ethical dimension to the violent spectacle. “Sold,” “slave” and “enslaved” resonate in opposition to freedom, much as the terms “perverted,” “corrupt” and “titillation” predicated of spectators are contrasted to the dignity, pride and defiance of the gladiators.
So, who is the audience implied by the marketing address? Let’s begin with the anxious voyeur who needs (or prefers, for appearance sake) his titillation spiced with historicity (Classical Rome) and moral uplift (the quest for freedom and personal dignity of the combatants.) Let’s agree that this is the primary customer for Roger Corman‘s exploitation film. This lover of women’s fight films would appreciate the fetishistic and revealing costumes and the violent contact that the trailer delivers.
We should then mention those audience members who finds a point of identification with the strong, victimized, but self-reliant and defiant female protagonists who, rather than submit, make the most of their limited opportunities. Pam Grier is an icon for good reason, and we can assume that ticket buyers in 1974 would have admired both her beauty, physical prowess and on-screen personification of a “black-power” role. The number of ticket buyers for whom she–or this role–is the chief draw, is not to be underestimated.
And, there is the audience who enjoys the brawling and the blood sport, whether for its campy choreography or for the girl-on-girl action. Certainly the trailer is not shy about reminding this audience of the pleasures in store for it.
None of these visual qualities are unfamiliar or shocking within the genre, or outside of it. But what sticks out to a 21st century trailer viewer is the length and repetition of both imagery and verbiage. While the excerpted scenes are strong and well-produced, costumed, staged and acted, the trailermakers do not appear to trust the power of the visual to sell the qualities emphasized. And for that, the nearly wall-to-wall copy is intended as a supplement. Looking at other exploitation trailers of the period, one notices a similar inclination toward verbal overkill.
But are we really so much better consumers of visual media that what required 3 minutes to process in 1974 takes only 2 minutes today? Are there more opportunities for viewers to learn about films (plots, actors, characterization, thematics) today than in the 70’s? Yes, indeed, and that may be all there is to it. Or, perhaps the relative “under-selling” of contemporary film rhetoric constitutes a decades long reaction to an approach perceived as aggressive, excessive and thereby ineffective?
However you care to think about it, we can all agree that they don’t make trailers like this anymore. And, one would have to look far and wide to find a gladiator woman with the inimitable qualities of Ms. Grier. Thanks to Mr. Tarentino for reminding us of our own complicity in the marketing and consumption of images that aren’t remotely innocent, while also celebrating this classic of the exploitation genre.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.