Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.

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Small Moments, Big Awards: Oscars 2012

Life of Pi Screenshot

Scene from Life of Pi, one of this year’s Oscar contenders.

For me, 2012 was a year of small but startling moments in film: Bruce Willis realizing who the Rainmaker was and why he had been given that name, all in the course of about one second in Looper. Denzel Washington snorting cocaine, the camera shooting up like a rocket to a high-angle shot, the screen saturating with color and Joe Cocker on the soundtrack singing “Feelin’ Alright” (a song that returns at the end of the movie in a very different context) in Flight . “Eve” telling Daniel Craig her last name and Javier Bardem saying, “Life clung to me like a disease” in Skyfall. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop revealing his nickname in The Dark Knight Rises.

What do all these films have in common? That’s right: None of them were nominated for Oscars. I’m sure that, in some parallel universe where I have unwisely been appointed God, they would have been (except for The Dark Knight Rises, which was just another bloated and pretentious post-Batman Begins Christopher Nolan Batfilm). But enough about films that didn’t get nominated. Here’s my assessment of the films that did, in roughly reverse order of preference:

Amour. The moral of this film, I think, is please don’t let yourself get old. But if you make the mistake of doing so anyway, please don’t let anybody make a film about it, because they might inflict it on an audience. One hour and 40 minutes into the movie, something actually happens. I noted this because this was the first movie I’d ever seen that could have reduced its entire plot to 15 seconds without seriously losing anything. I suppose if I were younger I might have wanted to see this film, but at this point in my life I’ve already lived too much of it and never want to see it again. And, just to warn you, nothing else happens in the final 20 minutes.

Les Misérables. Not as bad as I feared it would be, but that’s the best I can say for it. When I saw it on stage I thought I didn’t like it because I couldn’t understand the sung-through dialog. Now that I can understand it, I realize I was wrong. Not understanding the words actually helps. Worst moment: The first stunningly vivid image of a foundering ship filled with prisoners dragging chains, who then embarrassingly break out into “Ole Man River.” (Oh, wait, that’s a different show!)

Beasts of the Southern Wild. An unpretentiously charming film about the false divide between humans and the rest of nature (hint: the “Beasts” of the title aren’t just farm animals and the occasional anachronistic aurochs), with a seemingly untrained cast that you’d really like to share a beer with in a sunken Louisiana bar, but Beasts was a little too much of a rough indie for my tastes. Nonetheless, I liked it.

Zero Dark Thirty. Too long by half and surprisingly lacking in dramatic tension, but it still managed to be vastly better, or at least less rambling, than Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which won this award a few years ago. I have to defend it against charges that it was pro-torture — “depiction isn’t endorsement,” as Bigelow puts it — and of being anti-Arab (if anything, the movie justified every nasty thing that Arabs have said about the west since the Crusades), but the movie is slow. If it hadn’t thrown in the occasional explosion, it might have turned into Amour.

Argo. Okay, so the last 15 minutes of the film pull out all the hoary, hokey screenwriter tropes that Hollywood eternally gets blamed for, but everything else is great. I’d put this in the Top 5 for the scenes between Alan Arkin and John Goodman alone. I laughed, grinned and sat on the edge of my seat through much of the film and not because it was some kind of intellectual James Bond pastiche. It was simply a good movie. Period. It certainly doesn’t deserve the backlash that it’s gotten.

Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell is such a quirky filmmaker that I don’t think it’s fair to ever accuse one of his films of being “just” a rom com. Russell is incapable of doing a movie that could be described that simplistically. What it is is a wonderfully funny and idiosyncratic film with Bradley Cooper (who I’ve liked ever since he was in Alias) and Jennifer Lawrence (who I think is a thousand times better than that Jennifer who was in Alias). I’ll even forgive SLP that whole stupid betting-on-a-dance-competition subplot just for the chance to see Cooper try to lift Lawrence over his head. I was utterly, completely charmed and fully expect Jennifer Lawrence to become the next Katharine Hepburn. Or at least Audrey Hepburn.

Lincoln. Yeah, it was talky, but what talk! Politics may be hard to put across on film, but when you’ve got a team like Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis, Jones and most of the national political figures of 1865 channeled through Doris Kearns Goodwin, it’s hard to produce anything short of brilliant. This was fascinating, riveting, and I’d be happy if it wins.

Django Unchained. Tarantino has become a true artist. His particular art is for turning the small, unexpected moment into the stunning, jump-right-through-the-ceiling moment, something he can do in the tiniest possible fraction of a second. He understands, like George Stevens in Shane, that violence isn’t something that goes on and on and on but something you build, winding the tension so tight that the slightest twitch of a pinky finger will make the screen explode. That was what made Inglourious Basterds great. Here he goes further, making violence arise out of seemingly banal, tedious conversations that in the end turn out to be neither banal nor tedious (not that you ever thought they would be). What’s most amazing, though, is that he’s found an actor — Christoph Waltz — who is the precise human equivalent of his quirky, out-of-left-field writing and directing approach. I could happily see this film win the Oscar.

Life of Pi. A moment ago (though it probably seems like eons if you’re reading this in one sitting) I said that 2012 was the year of small but startling moments in movies, none of which got nominated. Actually, one of them did. At the end of Life of Pi, Ang Lee changes your entire view of the movie in about four lines of dialog in a way that would take most writers and directors entire scripts. Up until then the movie is beautiful, riveting, eminently watchable and everything a movie should be, but it is that brief exchange of dialog, when you suddenly realize what the movie has been about, that changes a very good film to a transcendent one. If any of these last three films wins, I’ll be happy, but if this one wins, I’ll be ecstatic.