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Poetics of the Movie Trailer

The Judge tests the progress of visual media towards a new kind of poetry – one already broadcast to millions.



I. The restless age of multimedia


There seems to be little disagreement that the speed and extent to which the arts are changing around us is something unprecedented. Not only the vehicles for expression, but also the measure and degree to which artistic products are consumed and their true or apparent role in society – all of these factors have been trailing the technological revolution of the past century, becoming more complex at the same rate as our lives got infused with new signs, codes, objects and voices. The criticism and theory behind them have been subject to equally drastic changes.

Movie trailers point – perhaps more so than any other form – to the potential held by visual narrative to develop towards lyric and epic forms, given due time.

The comforting thing about studying literature is that its history is comparatively linear. In general, literary cultures seem to follow this pattern: first comes poetry, subdivided in epic and lyric expressions, representing the social and the private voices of a culture. Then comes drama, potentially in verse, subdivided in the tragic and the comic (or comedic), which brings together private needs and public laws and stages their conflict by means of dialogue. Finally, as the third and last stage comes the novel, a universal space of narration where all voices are allowed to come and play out. The Classical ages followed this evolutionary line, with Homer and Sappho followed by Aeschylus and Sophocles, in turn followed by Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus. Europe did the same, starting from Dante and Petrarch, on to Shakespeare and Lope de Vega and Molière, and lately flourishing into countless great novelists.

I describe this tripartite schema for literary history because it will later turn out to be crucial. Literary traditions come in first-, second- or third-order forms, referring primarily to poetry, drama, or the novel. The work behind this literary theory of evolution has been carefully formulated by thinkers like Hegel, Bakhtin and Frye, and we shall come back to their theories further on.

Now, attempting to discern a similar thread of order in the history of visual narrative, most notably cinema (and television), is a much more difficult task. It is generally agreed that cinema is a ‘young’ art, but the definition comes far too short; a better term to describe it would be embryonic. Cinema is barely a hundred years old, which is an eye-blink in terms of a medium’s history. It is so young that not so much the genres and themes have not stabilised, but the very technology behind it seems to impede any sedimentation by revolutionising its assets every two or three decades. From silent films we passed to sound, then from black and white we turned to colour, from projection halls we moved to television screens, and from on-set special effects we went to CGI. Today we may be witnessing the ascent of 3D and, no doubt more importantly, a tremendous process of democratisation that is taking place through internet and the digital phenomena: it is enough to have a Youtube account and know how to use Windows Media Player, and you can practically make and distribute your own shorts. Television once changed the phenomenology of the visual arts, and the digital age is now putting them back in the blender.

These advancements were not simple progressions in form. They changed everything in the way that films were made and seen, including the techniques used by artists to express themselves. The result is that masterpieces of their time which are less than a hundred years old (sometimes less than fifty!) have become borderline unwatchable. Go anywhere but in a film school and see how many people you can find who will genuinely enjoy The Potemkin Battleship, The Passion of Jean of Arc, or Tokyo Story. See how many people have even ever heard of them.

The problem presents itself again, in an even sharper form, with that fascinating emergent art, that of videogames. Again we have a medium of expression which makes it hard to speak of a masterpiece because the development of technology alone is enough to make masterpieces obsolete very quickly. How many people nowadays play the original Castlevania or Metroid? Except that while films seem to witness such a shift every twenty-five or thirty years, videogames seem to transform their core mechanics every decade.

Part of the problem is that these new forms of expression have been contaminated by traditions already established in other mediums. Cinema, in theory, finds its closest relative in drama, the second stage of development in the evolutionary schema we discussed above. Nevertheless it also folds over with the visual arts and with music. From a narrative point of view, so many films are developed from novels that they will inevitably assume some of their narrative techniques, thus blending second- and third-order forms. This may be part of the reason why cinema never slipped into the pre-ordained structures of tragedy/comedy which instantly took hold of the stage wherever major dramatic traditions developed – in Greece, in Rome, in England, in Spain, in France. More likely though, it’s simply that it is too early. Cinema has not had the time to develop a unified tragic tradition (notwithstanding a few isolated films, particularly in crime fiction, which deserve to be called tragedies in their own right). Perhaps it never shall. It may just be that stability will never be in reach of cinema, and that its form is defined precisely by its transience, like the glamour of its stars.


II. The lyra, the lyric, and the song video.

While the above questions are perhaps best left for scholars three-hundred years from now, when the digital dust has had a little time to settle, it is fascinating to look at some of the sub-genres that are beginning to ossify in the meantime. I mentioned that cinema has its closest ties to drama. Films usually last between ninety and one-hundred-and-sixty minutes, a duration similar to that of plays. This duration befits stories of a given type – stories with multiple characters, a certain unity of time and space, and a focus on the concept of pathos. It is rare that a film will feature less than four characters, or that it will span five centuries in its representation. Yet it is enough to change something as simple as a motion picture’s duration to bend or modify its dramatic structure, leading it away from the second-order form and towards other types of narrative.

Among the most interesting, incipient forms of non-dramatic visual narrative there are song videos and movie trailers. Are these ‘dramatic’ forms of narrative? And if not, how do they distinguish themselves from the story-telling structure of films?

Song videos often contain a narrative. We may have, for instance, a disappointed lover accusing, rejecting, dismissing or defaming the object of his/her former love. But the primary difference with long feature films (and how they may construct the main story) is that the music video is not based on dialogue. The images throw back to the monologue (or, in Bakhtin’s original terminology, monologic language) of the song’s lyrics. The word lyrics, which refers to the words of a song, indicates the bond of songs with lyric poetry, as originally accompanied by the Greek instrument known as the lyra. Indeed there is an argument that modern songs have taken up the role of personal expression originally held by poetry, particularly in countries like France, with a strong tradition of poet-singers.

Songs are clearly first-order rather than second-order, in the sense that they are far closer to the lyric than they are to the dramatic tradition, and song videos reflect this. Not only are they founded on monologue rather than dialogue, they do not possess the unity of time and space we find in film. Their images jump around at will between different settings, moments and scenes: we may find the singer in two or three different outfits, singing in or from different locations and situations, with the shots cutting from the one to the other with no necessary relation between them. In films, the images must follow a logic of causality: successive images are explained by the ones which came before them, in accordance with the concept of the stage as a neutral plane with its own suspended time continuum, separate from real time. Music videos lack external referents to demand cohesion and they are allowed to go in any temporal or spatial direction they please. They are always imminent, they are always – and only – the present.

Movie trailers are an even more interesting case of visual narrative turning away from the dramatic and towards the lyric, and they point – perhaps more so than any other form – to the potential held by visual narrative to develop towards lyric and epic forms, given due time. They are worth considering now.


III. Poetics of the movie trailer.

What is so unique about the narrative structure of trailers is, well – that there isn’t any. Trailers usually begin by establishing a traditional narrative, with shots of characters interacting and dialogue setting up the situation, only to break down into a succession of completely unrelated images, accompanied by music, and then closing with the film’s title.

This ‘breakdown’ structure has in fact evolved only recently. Originally, trailers were every bit as dramatic and successive as the films they publicised. The promotional short for Orson Welles’ 1972 Treasure Island consists in segments of the film shown in correct chronological order, with a narratorial voice to explain the story. Outside of the fact that it did not include the ending, it was to all intents and purposes, a summary of the film. While there were alternatives to this structure (the original Star Wars trailer from 1977 consists of a narratorial voice expounding on the qualities of the story rather than on its content, showing independent mini-narrative sequences as ‘evidence’ for what it says), for a long time the idea of the trailer remained essentially that of the synopsis. Only in the middle of the 1980s do we start finding traces of what will later become the standard. The trailer for James Cameron’s Aliens, for example, includes some remarkably disjointed battle sequences, but the rest of the trailer is still built as a plot-summary, with no significant steps forward with respect to that of Treasure Island except for the fact that the narratorial voice has been discarded, and all speech comes from the original film scenes themselves.

Trailers today are something very different. I propose that we examine one closely. Here’s my case-study:

This is one of the trailers for Zack Snyder’s 2006 blockbuster epic 300 (from a visual point of view, an extremely interesting film and another example of how new technologies keep changing our forms of visual story-telling). It opens with three wholly unrelated images: a moonlit temple at the top of a mountain, then a group of soldiers in front of a tree nailed with human bodies, and finally a ship sinking in a storm. A prologue, we may say, for what comes later.

After this, the trailer appears to establish itself into a conventional structure of causality – a recognizable narrative. The Spartans are ‘presented’ by the narrative voice, the first-person plural, We Spartans descended from Hercules himself, with images of the Spartans to illustrate the point. This is followed by the presentation of the antagonists, first by the dying child who refers to them indirectly (They came from the blackness, and everything in this sentence already overdetermines them as foreign, against the centrality and protagonism of the We-Spartans), then by means of the incoming horsemen. After that, the characters interact, and the script essentially makes for a plot summary for the whole movie. Textually:

AMBASSADOR: Be afraid. Sparta will burn to the ground. The thousand nations of the Persian empire descend upon you.
KING: What must a king do to save his world?
WIFE: Instead ask yourself: what should a free man do?
KING: You threaten my people with slavery and death.
AMBASSADOR: This is madness!
KING: Madness? This is Sparta!

This is, in essence, the common ‘first act’ of a movie trailer, the part where the traditional narrative is established. And the ‘story’ of 300, by this stage, should be quite clear: a foreign, threatening army invades a country, but its inhabitants, the Spartans, are so tough that they fight back.

The second part of the trailer, starting from the king’s assertion ‘We will stand and fight,’ is where succession falls away, and by extension, so does dramatic narrative. Trailers have a two-act structure, as opposed to the three-act structure of tragedies. The images become a blur of broken scenes which it is impossible to arrange into a story. In the space of less than sixty seconds, we see soldiers in formation, a girl dancing, a mother hugging her child in a cornfield, a soldier hollering, horsemen riding, a charging rhino, a battle in the night, an ogre throwing an axe (and the king dodging it), a ninja, a deformed human being, concubines dancing, the queen spitting at a man, a Spartan in a firestorm and two scarred lesbians kissing, to mention but the most prominent sights.

While a number of idiots have suggested that narrative doesn’t need logically successive signs to be produced (see, for instance, the studies by Marie-Laure Ryan and Brian Richardson), practical evidence suggests the opposite: when passing through a corridor full of independent paintings in a museum, when presented with a string of different adverts on television, or when listening to a compilation of songs on a CD, we do not automatically arrange these into a narrative. Much like it is not enough for this set of unrelated images to be presented in sequence for them to become a story, so the images in this trailer do not make for a film. They are something wholly different. It is the present simultaneous to the audience rather than a self-contained time-continuum, that is to say, the lyric rather than the dramatic. As may be expected, the only thing that remains consistent, orderly and linear in trailers is the music – again, the most explicit link to the lyric tradition. There are only two tracks (choral prologue aside), a soft and a heavy one, and we switch from one to the other at the exact moment of transition from the first to the second act of the trailer. To pinpoint this, it is in the space between the king’s sentences ‘This is Sparta!’ and ‘We will stand and fight.’

(As an aside, Hegel viewed the lyric as a form where multiplicity and difference are synthesised into subjectivity – a case where the specificity of individual events is dissolved into a harmonious unity of experience. I think it’s quite clear that this is exactly what the music is doing in the trailer, that is to say, synthesising the emotional experience of the (non-)successive and disjointed images, distilling order and unity from chaos).

I made the case in a previous article that the lyric is a poetic effect defined by a passage from Apollonian to Dionysian signifiers, these being symbolised respectively by the I and the O. Such a passage results in a sense of transition, or transport, from a condition of action to a condition of being, and this sense of transport is precisely what we call the lyric effect. The Apollonian and Dionysian signifiers are usually represented by symbolic or metaphoric tropes, such as a passage from life to death, from spring to autumn, from agency to passivity, from joy to sorrow, from empire to ruin, and so on.

I point to this because the trailer’s transition from narrative to chaos, from linearity to disorder, represents precisely such a passage from Apollonian to Dionysian values. In terms of structure, a trailer is explicitly lyric. Consequently, it’s also often satisfying to watch (a bit like a music video). Makers of these little lyrical pills have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort (eight decades of promotional history, in fact) thinking how to produce trailers which would be agreeable to watch, inducing the spectator into believing that the film will also be good. Their solution turned out to be quite simple: they have rediscovered the lyric. And though their tonalities when publicising a romantic comedy may vary from those which promote a techno-thriller, the two-act Apollo-to-Dionysus structure is the one thing which remains constant, in family movies as in sci-fi flicks, in historical dramas as in action films.

I’d like to point out that I’m not postulating a link between the poetic tradition itself and the trailers. There’s no identity in terms of intent or themes, much less in artistic value. However I do point to the fundamental similarity in structure, exploited in one case by means of language, in the other by means of visual narrative. They’re both first-order form narratives. Trailers stand in the same structural relation to lyric poetry as feature films do towards drama. The same can be said of music videos.

If there is one thing that shows just how young these forms of visual narrative are, it is precisely the history of trailers. They are primitive, rudimentary pieces of expression, earning so little respect by their institutions that we don’t even know their authors. And yet they point to the tremendous space that visual narrative has for expansion and maturation. By the time this medium has become almost as democratised as language (and it is happening very quickly – as we said, it doesn’t exactly take much more than Windows Movie Maker and a Youtube account), the directions in which the visual lyric can go are endless. If nothing else, it could start a genuine, primary lyric tradition, like that of the Homeric bards, or the medieval troubadours. And, who knows, second- and third-order traditions may also stabilise after that.

It would be tempting to imagine the future of visual narrative to fall into the same historical line of evolution as that of language – from lyric/epic poetry to tragic/comic drama to the ‘novel’. But of course such an expectation is not sustainable. These arts have come into being in a culture that was (and is) already saturated with numberless artistic traditions, and where such notions as the lyric and the tragic were already familiar and well-developed. You cannot make a lyric without simultaneously saying something about the lyric – all textuality slips into metatextuality, and inevitably this affects the structure in its inception. It is more likely that cinema will not stabilise in the same order as literature did, and in fact it may even never stabilise at all. It certainly makes for a fascinating and exasperating time to be an artist. Never have things been changing so much and so quickly, never have so many mediums been so interdependent (and, simulteanously, so conflictual), and never, perhaps, has it been more difficult to tell what shall be relevant to the future, and how. The way you’re reading this essay is likely evidence enough.