A genre in film is analogous to a commodity category in non-experiential consumer products. Marks of generic or categorical membership represent bids to fulfill expectations, to anticipate desires and rationalize their satisfaction. Trailers, whose typical and predictive markers are the constant subject of this blog, mobilize formulae and convention in order to convey information and appeal to audiences along well-grooved pathways of solicitation, communication and delayed (deferred?) gratification; at least most of the time.
Often, as I review trailers for new and upcoming releases, I despair of an opportunity to say something different about movie marketing and to discuss those films and their previews that propose a different model of cinematic pleasure and commercial appeal. But understandably, given the production budgets and the economic risks, there’s safety in the tried and traditional methods of cinematic storytelling and advertising.
All of which is to say that Richard Ayoade‘s much talked about new film, The Double, and its unaccommodating trailer, above, command attention for their explicit refusal to play by the rules. And yet, doubtlessly, it is because of the rules (conventions) that have been flouted that such a trailer (and its film) is generally intelligible to the right audience.
I’ll begin with structure. In this 1:22 trailer, there are 33 edit decisions or cuts. This is 2+ second per image pace, frankly glacial relative to the competition. A few extended scenes, while kinetic, are no more than tracking shots, allowing the image (mostly, Mr. Eisenberg, playing Simon and his doppelganger, James) to engage and penetrate into consciousness. There is no voice over. There are no taglines. The only graphics are cast cards, a title card, and a directorial credit. No Laurels from Toronto, where this film was released; no production or distribution credits, and no final credit block or website url or Facebook friendship exhortation.
In terms of trailer convention, what is most salient is the wall to wall sound of a music cue: the blues classic “Grinnin’ In Your Face” by Eddie James “Son” House, a rhythmic and hypnotic, hand-clapping and minimally instrumentalized production.
Judging by the visual content of the trailer and the synopsis of the film, the refrain of Mr. House’s song, “don’t you mind people grinning in your face,” defines “grinning in your face” as contempt, mockery, and disrespect. It’s relevant advice for a film based on The Double, Dostoevsky’s famous novel of the same name. In the book and the film, the protagonist (Simon) is the constant “victim” of just such grinning, whether from co-workers, or from his uncanny “double” (James), who is his mirror image physically, but his opposite in terms of personality.
What occurs in the trailer is the following: Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), walks rightward against a dark, undifferentiated backdrop. The first character “grinning in his face” is his office love interest, Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska, although her grinning seems more a flirtatious pleasure rather than provocation or contempt. As he keeps walking, other co-workers are cross cut into the grid. They, as well as his malevolent double, James (also, Mr. Eisenberg), appear to relish the opportunity to show the timid Simon that they see and despise him, although their grins and waves can’t absolutely be interpreted that way. That they may actually be behaving in a friendly, benign manner is partly what’s driving Simon mad.
In the next “act” (if I may call it that), both Simon and James (Mr. Eisenberg in both roles) walk leftward against the same backdrop, side by side and wearing the same ill-fitting, baggy, beige suit, before emerging into a cavernous, darkened room. The camera lingers on a left profile of Simon (presumably, based on his body language) before feasting on a right profile of a confident, nearly swaggering James. Next comes the cast run, with shots of Eisenberg, Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige & James Fox presented before their names appear in white block font against a black screen.
The trailer ends on Eisenberg repeating his opening rightward march to the beat of Mr. House’s slide guitar, passing the same dark and unrecognizable background. At a few seconds to the conclusion the title card, “The Double” appears, followed moments later by the director’s card. “A film by Richard Ayoade.” That’s it.
A trailer this averse to the provision of ordinary movie-going information defies its audience to make sense from the resources on offer. And yet, trailer audiences understand the genre well enough to generate an interpretation even in the absence of conventional trailer content. The title tells us that this is a Dostoevskyan (or Kafka-esque) story of the uncanny other who is both one’s reflection and one’s alter ego. We’re prepared, at the least, for a story of psychological alienation, which the visuals–especially Eisenberg looking at Eisenberg– confirm.
The cast, Eisenberg, Wasikowska, Shawn, et al., indicates that we are in the world of independent film making, and possibly in the realm of serious cinema, an assumption reinforced by Ayoade at the helm, as well as the cinematography, the music cue and the self-conscious editing. The presumed audience for such content is one that appreciates the film’s unconventionality; indeed, such an imagined audience prides itself on preferring cinema that requires work and which would not be of interest to regular cineplex viewers and fans of summer blockbuster fare.
By this approach, the trailer makers (and marketers) address their audience with a message that it should be able (if not uniquely so) to comprehend, while providing an earnest warning to those “who may not be able to enjoy” the film, to stay away. The narrowcast strategy works well with a motivated and informed target. It is unlikely that mainstream audiences will accidentally see this movie, since it will not be playing at the cineplex and the trailer, while not incoherent or hostile, is not accessible or user-friendly, apart from the recognizable and distinguished cast.
While it takes confidence to prefer style and tone over explicit description and information, this approach is by no means rare. Nonetheless, without compromising its artistry too much, the trailer might have hedged its bet by the inclusion of a few rave reviews from the Toronto Film Festival, providing context, authority and a little bit of story. Instead, it appears, Mr. Ayoade, his producers, distributors and their marketing team, prefer to lead with a trailer that resists the trend to tell much and tell more. Those who like this sort of thing, will, well, like this sort of thing, and all the more so that it defies convention. I did.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License