Dunkirk, and the Importance of Movie Trailers

I went to see Dunkirk this past week. The film itself is very well put together, though not at all what I expected from the trailers.

(Some minor spoilers below)

Dunkirk’s trailers imply a sense of tension, but they also emphasize the “miracle at Dunkirk.” Phrases like, “When they couldn’t get home, home came for them,” and, “Survival is victory,” spring to mind. The emotional balance implied by most of the trailers is therefore a kind of pendulum, swinging back and forth between the horror of defeat and the heroism of the British civilians out to rescue their troops. The trailers make us expect a film that will pit those two emotions against one another more or less equally: we will experience horror, then heroism, then horror again.

But the emotional balance present in the film itself is very different. If it is a pendulum between horror and heroism, then the pendulum remains stuck on horror for much of the film. It actually reminds me a little of a nightmare. In a nightmare, no matter what you do you end up in the same unpleasant situation, over and over again until you wake up. And so, the vast majority of the film shows characters being stuck in this horrifying situation, waiting for a rescue that seems impossible. We know (from the trailers if not from our knowledge of history) that a good ending is on the way, but we cannot see from the film how it could possibly happen. And then, almost at the very end, we wake up from the nightmare. The civilian boats arrive, there is a tense climax, and the British forces go home to the tune of Churchill’s famous speech: “We will never surrender.” One brief moment of relief at the conclusion of a movie that otherwise grabs hold of your gut and clenches unrelentingly for almost two hours.

This is actually an incredibly interesting tension model, using the intense contrast with the long nightmare to make the brief awakening all the more powerful, but it isn’t what the trailers sold us. And that hampers the success of the film’s model. If the trailers had emphasized the nightmare, then the resolution might have been an incredibly satisfying culmination of that nightmare. Instead, the final frame left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied: “It’s great, sure, but it’s not what I thought I was going to the theaters to see.”

That isn’t a criticism of the film itself, but I do think it’s interesting how often the experience of a trailer affects the experience of watching a film. A good trailer can set us up to experience a film even more powerfully. A bad one can actually take away from the ultimate experience of watching the film.

Take another example: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I actually really enjoy this film. It’s cheesy, goofy, full of bad accents, and so on and so forth. And, for all that, it’s also a lot of fun. But I didn’t like it all that much the first time I saw it. Why? Because the trailer showed the whole film. It told me too much, and so the experience of watching the film turned into checking boxes off of a list provided by the trailer. I felt like I’d seen it all recently. The trailer sabotaged its own film.

Some of my favorite trailers actually have nothing to do with films: they are cinematic trailers for video games. Like movie trailers these can be good or bad, but they take an interesting approach to the problem of selling the larger experience. In the case of movie trailers, segments of the larger work are cut down into a smaller one. In other words, we see the physical pieces of what we are buying. But cinematic game trailers often take a different approach. They take the characters and themes of the game in question, and they create a short film that tells the audience what those qualities are. The images onscreen are only circumstantially related to anything in the actual game, but that doesn’t matter. So long as the characters and emotional tone make an appearance, we get an idea of what we are buying (at least on a story level). For examples, check out the original cinematic trailer for Assassins Creed 2, the “Rendez-Vous With Death” trailer from Gears of War 2, and the “Killing Monsters” trailer for The Witcher 3. The principal at play is this: tell a smaller story, to make the viewer want to experience the bigger one. When done well it can be incredibly effective, and I’d be interested to see more feature films make use of it.

The bottom line is that a good trailer should give us an accurate picture of a film’s emotional content without exhausting it. It’s an emotional snapshot, giving us a taste of what we’re buying. That’s all marketing. The idea is to get peoples’ butts into theatre seats. But it’s a mistake to think of trailers solely as marketing. Because trailers can’t help infecting that first pristine viewing of a film. They are our prior experience. On some level we judge the final film by its trailer. Trailers aren’t just a marketing ploy; they are actually in dialogue with the films they represent.

Making use of that dialogue both for better marketing and to improve the audience’s experience of the film is an exciting and under-explored area of the filmmaking process. It isn’t set in stone that a trailer has to be cut from the same footage as the final film. As we see in the games industry, a trailer could be a short film in its own right, one designed specifically to give an idea of the emotional tone set by the larger piece. Such a trailer might resemble something like the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a separate but related story that informs our experience of the larger adventure.

A trailer might also bend the truth when it comes to what happens in its feature film. Many films reach for big reveals, but how many of those are undermined by the content of their trailers? The trailer shows too much, and suddenly the reveal isn’t such a big surprise after all. But that sword has two edges. I can easily imagine a film trailer being used to mislead the audience, presenting a sequence of events that would suggest (though not state outright; we don’t want anyone to feel lied to) that, say, “The butler did it.” When the truth lies down a very different path. In such a case, the filmmakers would actually be using the trailer to create a set of expectations, reinforcing the surprise we feel when those expectations are shattered. It’s a classic filmmaking technique taken a step beyond the contiguous body of a single film.

The possibilities for making interesting trailers are extensive compared to the run-of-the-mill work that we see on a day to day basis. There is a great deal of competition out there, all vying for our movie dollars, and if filmmakers want to get ahead of the pack they ought to take a more creative approach to creating movie trailers. Like films, trailers tell stories and express ideas, and that makes them an essential part of the filmgoing experience. It’s a cliche, but, so long as the trailer shows us what kind of emotional experience to expect from the finished film, the possibilities really are endless.

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The Problem with Frozen

I’m not going to make many friends with this one. When I first watched Frozen, I thought it was tedious, bloated, and just about the worst Disney musical ever made. Yes, that includes Princess and the Frog. A lot of people feel very differently, but, like I said: I’m not here to make friends. For a while I was actually convinced that I must have missed something; I must have blinked through whatever little spark transformed this from a half-baked film with admittedly beautiful visuals, to something worth seeing in the theater. So I decided to read the screenplay. The “final shooting draft” is 112 pages. A screenplay that length usually takes me between two and three hours to work my way through. This one took me the better part of a day, and I fell asleep three times. Maybe I’m still missing that little spark of wonder at the heart of this movie. If I am, please tell me what it is. In the meantime, however, here’s a short list of the film’s most important weaknesses.

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First up, we have Olaf, the talking snowman. He exists for comic relief. That’s right, he has no purpose in the story other than to crack insipid jokes about his butt and to sing a rather annoying song about his hopes and dreams. Is it funny that he’s a snowman dreaming of summer? Yes. Is it a funny enough joke to stretch across an entire musical number? No. Olaf’s presence adds nothing to the film’s conflict, and, on the contrary, continually dumbs the story down by distracting us from what is really at stake with repetitive and quasi-scatological humor. His presence is pandering to the idea of a children’s film at its worst (for more, see my post, Little Grownups).

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The Rock Trolls. On a structural level, the rock trolls are symptomatic of something that Olaf is also guilty of. The question of the hour: “Why are they even in this movie?” They have nothing to do with the film’s conflict, although, unlike Olaf, they do fulfill a couple of essential plot functions. First, they provide the initial exposition as to the downside of Elsa’s powers, causing her and her parents to freak out about the dangers, and thus creating 90% of the story’s problems to begin with (thank you, Rock Trolls). Second, they provide the second round of exposition about what Anna’s frozen heart means, and how to break the spell. These two bouts of exposition are undoubtedly necessary, but we didn’t need an entire colony of rock trolls to deliver them. One would have done it, or a witch, or a fairy godmother. Or Disney could have been even more efficient and gone with a narrator.

What else do these trolls do? Like Olaf, they provide so-called comic relief. And they also perform an unnecessary musical number about how Anna and Kristoff should get together, thereby foreshadowing, if the word can apply to something so heavy-handed, the main characters’ inevitable romance. Also, I can’t be the only one whose flesh crawled during that song. The message seems to be: “He’s not good enough for you, he’s broken, but you should be with him to fix him. Your self-worth is irrelevant.” But I digress.

I’m picking on Olaf and the rock trolls, but in truth they are simply the most prominent examples of a larger trend within the film’s story. It is bloated, stuffed full of characters, jokes, and musical numbers that are only loosely connected to the main conflict. Look at my favorite Disney musical, Beauty and the Beast. Every song in that film has something essential to do with the plot. From Belle’s initial song about how “there must be more than this provincial life,” to “Be our guest,” which initiates the transformation of Belle’s role in the castle from prisoner to guest, they all do something. The ice-cutting song, and Olaf’s little dream sequence only try to distract us, like a red-dot pointer in front of a cat. The end result lacks focus.

Hans. Before you reach for your pitch-fork, I have no problem with the inversion of the handsome prince trope. On the contrary, revealing Hans to be a dastardly villain in the third act is probably the most interesting thing about Frozen’s plot. But the set-up for this big reveal undermines the reveal itself. Something like that has to be foreshadowed. It needs a foundation to rest upon, even if that foundation is simply a moment’s hesitation or a casual glance. There should be something there to make us look back and think, “Ohhh, it was there all along, and we missed it!” Otherwise, it just feels random. It’s like showing the Red Wedding without showing the immediate fallout of Robb’s marriage, or without Tywin saying, “Some wars are won with swords; others with quills and ravens.” The lack of foreshadowing for Hans’s villainy detracts from what otherwise might have been an excellent and compelling reveal.

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Finally, we come to Frozen’s biggest fault, the structural problem that undermines its entire story: It is about the wrong sister.

At their deepest level, stories are about conflict. We have a character. That character has a problem she wants to solve. And some obstacle stands in her way.

Frozen’s conflict really centers on Elsa. She has dangerous magical powers, which have the capacity to hurt those she loves. Her subjects fear her and, more importantly, she fears herself.  She wants to control her powers, and to gain a measure of stability and acceptance. What she really needs is to accept herself. This is actually an incredibly compelling conflict: a young woman attempts to escape her curse, only to find that what she thought of as a curse was really a gift all along. As Faulkner would put it, the human heart is in conflict with itself.

So what does Disney do? They shunt this compelling and dramatic conflict aside in favor of – drumroll please – nothing very much. Anna is undoubtedly the film’s protagonist in terms of sheer on-screen time, but what problem is she trying to solve? She’s a little lonely, she’s a little love-struck, and she wants to help solve her sister’s problem. The first two of these are legitimate conflicts, but they both pale before the importance and drama of Elsa’s conflict. The third relegates Anna to the position of a supporting character in her sister’s story.

In practice, this means that the vast majority of the film’s runtime is spent following a character whose conflict is secondary to that of another character. As a result, the film seems to chase its own tail. We sit there, waiting for Elsa’s story to advance, and instead get more and more of Anna’s side-plot.

So that’s my rant on the highest grossing animated film of all time. Did I miss something? Do you think it’s all much ado about nothing? Let me know in the comments below.

Little Grownups

You’re watching Princess Mononoke, a Japanese animation from the same creators as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Japanese it may be, but it’s still an animation, right? Still a kids movie. The main character shoots an arrow, and you prepare for it to either miss or bounce harmlessly off the target’s armor. You know that something will happen to shelter children from the realities of death. Instead, the arrow hits, and the target’s head pops clean off his shoulders. Death.

For an American audience watching that scene, the violence it depicts poses a problem of classification. We are used to thinking of animations as kids movies, although many of the people who go to see animated movies are actually in their twenties (which is of course a topic for another day). But, at the same time, we’re used to thinking of kids movies as clean and innocent. Filmmakers purge them of issues and images that we view as too grown-up for children: sex, violence, sacrifice, death and loss. A movie, like Mononoke, that challenges those expectations in an animated format therefore seems unusual, fresh, and even a little edgy.

We could attribute this edginess to the fact that the film is Japanese. Maybe standards are different in Japan. Maybe animations there are aimed at adult audiences. Maybe the issues kids are thought mature enough to wrestle with are simply different in Japan. That question itself, however, invites us to examine the animated films produced in our own culture.

Surprisingly, the best animated films produced in the West do not stray too far from Mononoke’s mark. I’m not talking about recent Disney films like Frozen and Moana, which follow the kiddie pattern to a fault. But you don’t have to go that far back to find something like The Incredibles, which, when you strip away its superhero bells and whistles, is about a mid-life crisis. Why aim a story about a mid-life crisis at kids? They’re still in the middle of their early-life crisis (don’t ask me when life stops being a crisis; I’ll let you know when I get there). More than that, the film addresses issues like adultery, betrayal, death and violence. Take a look at the following speech one of the characters gives: 

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This is more than a clever speech written for one of the characters. It tells us something about the world of the film, and how it differs from the worlds of similar films. Simply put, the issues on the screen are going to be real adult issues, despite being marketed at children. And because of that, even if the kids watching miss the little references to adultery, there is a sense of reality and danger to the world of the film that most kids stories can’t come close to emulating.

The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, for all of my favorite kids movies. Renaissance Disney did a particularly good job with Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and many others. Ratatouille incorporates its fair share of the adult world into the world of the film, although, like The Incredibles, it sometimes has these issues lurking beneath the surface (as when Colette reaches for her pepper spray after Linguini starts talking about his “little chef”). The best, most long-lasting kids films all seem to shy away from the conventional wisdom that movies for children can only address children’s themes.

A while back I read a quote from Miyazaki, the man behind Princess Mononoke, that I think brilliantly sums up the truth at the heart of this trend. I can’t find it now, and I’d love it if someone could point me in the right direction. That said, the content of the quote was as follows:

Children’s stories try too hard to cater to children. And in so doing they miss the issues that children actually care about, because the issues children actually care about are the same issues adults care about. Children are not ignorant of death, or hardship, or the darker content of the world. What they lack are the tools and experiences needed to process these ideas on their own.

And that’s where stories come in. Stories serve as a framework for kids to lay to rest the real things that go bump in the night; they help kids process. So, when a kids story refuses to address its audience’s real-world questions, it fails.  If the makers of kids movies want to earn the trust of both children and parents, they cannot coddle their audience. Instead, they ought to treat kids like what they are: little grownups.

The Visual Hero

There’s a moment like it in every heroic action movie, at least every heroic action movie worth watching. It isn’t a fight scene. There’s rarely any dialogue. For all intents and purposes, nothing happens. And yet the music swells, your pulse picks up, and there is an undeniable sense of the heroic radiating through the air. Why? How can a break between moments of action carry such a distinct and exhilarating emotion? It’s more than the music, influential as it is. And it’s more than the narrative situation, which can generally best be described as the calm before the storm. Films like this use a number of visual tricks to quickly ratchet up the tension in a heroic direction. Certain camera angles, central framing of the hero, and stark color contrast can all help produce such an emotional shift. But here I want to talk about another visual technique, one with interesting implications for how we interpret heroism in the first place.

Let’s start with an image that you’ll undoubtedly find familiar. The bad guys are doing their thing: villains bullying  their helpless victims. They’re in total control, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Suddenly, a voice from off-screen pulls our attention away from the sinister relationship playing out in front of us. The next shot shows a figure standing alone at the center of the frame, calm and poised, ready to intervene. Our hearts surge with a sense of the heroic.

The ingredients of that emotion are probably obvious. There’s the situational: we see an injustice, and then we see someone with an opportunity to correct it. But there’s also the simple numerical contrast. In one shot we see the villains, who are generally numerous. In the next we see the hero standing utterly alone. As the Musketeers would say, “All for one”.

We can look to old Westerns for particularly skillful uses of this two-shot technique. In recent action films we generally see the hero on-site, already arrived to save the day. But in old Westerns, the second shot would often feature no more than a faint figure appearing out of an empty horizon. The villains hesitate; they turn in confusion to address this intrusion, preparing themselves even as the hero approaches.

This change on the two-shot pattern has a couple effects. First, it makes us wait. As anyone with a fondness for Westerns knows, the genre is defined by its empty spaces, by its ability to ratchet up tension and emotion simply by postponing action. By putting the hero further away on the horizon, the filmmakers make us wait for the confrontation we know is coming, and in so doing they amp up the suspense. Second, this change makes the hero start out small on the screen and grow larger as he comes closer.

Another way of achieving the same effect, often even more powerfully, is to situate these different elements within a single shot. Take a look at the following shot from Once Upon A Time In The West

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It is probably my favorite example of this kind of a shot. The opening of the film shows three hard-bitten men waiting in a train station. The train pulls in, and they all approach, hands held close to their weapons. But it seems that no one is going to get off the train, so the men assume that their quarry has not come after all. In one shot we see the three men relax and start to turn away as the train pulls out of the station in the background, revealing a lone man standing behind it. The three assassins notice him at the same time that we do. All in the same shot, they turn, placing their hands by their weapons, and setting up the three-on-one duel to follow.

The brilliance of this shot lies in the complexity of emotional storytelling that it conveys with relatively little narrative information. We know nothing about the man that these assassins are hunting. To this point we haven’t even seen his face. We only know what the shot tells us visually: three men have come to kill one. And that simple fact, together with the imbalance inherent in it, makes us feel a kind of heroic attachment to the man on his own.

Take another example, this one from the climax of Kill Bill Volume One

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What are the elements of this shot? The camera is placed over the shoulder of the film’s direct antagonist, O-Ren. Tarantino thus shows us that what we are seeing is from her perspective, but he does so without exactly asking us to sympathize with her (as using a Point-of-View shot might in this situation). We see the Bride standing below, situated away from the center of the frame but with a direct line between herself and O-Ren’s eye line. A massive semi-circle of people surrounds her, staring at her in shocked silence (she did just cut off another woman’s arm after all). As the Bride moves towards the center of the frame, the crowd breaks and runs for the door behind her. The next several shots show the Bride advancing while the crowd rushes in the opposite direction.

So what does all this add up to? The fact that all of the characters stare at the Bride at the beginning, when everyone is standing still, centers our attention powerfully on her, despite her position out of the center of the frame and her small size (groupthink for the win). That alone wouldn’t be enough to create the sense of the heroic that the scene carries. It simply tells us, “Look here. Everything that’s happening turns on this person.” O-Ren’s position above the Bride and in the foreground makes her seem bigger and more powerful within the frame, which creates a sense of imbalance between the two. We have the little Bride in the background moving toward and taking on the huge and foregrounded O-Ren. Finally, the mass outflux of people from the room creates contrast within the visual movement of the shot. We have one character moving forwards and to the right, while many characters flow around her in the opposite direction.  This last point suggests a different kind of imbalance. Instead of an imbalance of power, it hints at an imbalance of will. The majority flee danger, while the minority moves towards it. The two concurrent flows emphasize that contrast.

All of these different examples of how heroism is expressed visually can be summed up as follows: heroism = one against many. We interpret heroism as a solitary quality. It’s about being outgunned and outnumbered, and moving towards the danger anyway. It’s about moving against the grain. Heroism is all about being alone. The caveat to that observation, of course, is that a small group can be heroically solitary together, provided the odds against them are obviously and visually greater than they are. This imbalance can be portrayed numerically (how many people are physically on each side). It can also be portrayed through differences in size and elevation (ironically, the smaller and less highly positioned in the frame a character is, the more heroic they will often seem). And finally, it can be portrayed indirectly, by showing a crowd of bystanders fleeing something that the character moves towards.

In all of these cases, the visual portrayal of heroism is a matter of contrasts: we compare the hero’s power to the power of the forces opposing them, and we find the hero wanting. And that’s what I find fascinating about this as a topic. Little about the emotion we interpret as heroism is actually moral in scope. Justice coming up against injustice helps, to be sure. But it isn’t the central feature. In Kill Bill the moral balance can go either way. There is a certain kind of quasi-moral satisfaction in the Bride’s revenge story, but it isn’t the cut and dry justice of more traditional adventure stories. In the example I chose from Once Upon A Time In The West the amorality of the situation is even more profound. We know nothing about any of the characters onscreen. We don’t know if the three men are justified in trying to kill the man on the train, or if they are simply thugs and assassins. All we know is what’s visually in the shot, and that’s enough. Taken together, these examples suggest that heroism, as a cinematic emotion, is not a matter of good or evil, truth or justice. It has little to do with right or wrong. In some ways it is only a matter of numbers.