Are Movies Obsolete?

| 4/3/2008 10:51:39 AM

Palace Theatre San FranciscoToday, I am confessing precisely one sin: I seek out and watch movie trailers. Online—at Apple’s website, at Empire Movies—I find them piled up, ready to go, waiting for me.

The appeal of the movie trailer is simple. Most of them convey an explosively transparent emotional arc, a film in miniature, with music to cue your emotions as you accept a movie’s premise and experience only its dramatic highlights and plot twists, often inter-cut with rhetorical questions (“What if you lost everything?”) presented over a black and otherwise empty screen. With the resounding basso of the movie-trailer-announcer-man, a preview has the potential to make every movie seem incredible, mostly because you don’t see or hear much movie at all; a few facial expressions, a sentence or two of dialogue, and some rousing music all constitute great movie trailers. 

Christopher Orr, an editor at the New Republic, has his own peculiar relationship with trailers, though his is less drooling addiction and more beef. He believes that today’s previews ruin movies, mostly by doing just what they do: revealing too many dramatic highlights and plot twists. To prove his point, Orr recently engaged in a little film criticism experiment. First, he reviewed the movie 21—which he dubbed “a slick thriller about card-counting MIT students”—based solely on the details of its trailer. The next day, he reviewed it again after watching the actual movie. Much to his delight, he found his own trailer-review near-complete in grasping 21’s plot and characters. More to the point, Orr’s critical assessment of the movie remained unswayed and un-dented by actually seeing the film. It was still crap, point proven.

But what gives? Sure, I think it could be interesting if more critics took a swing at Orr’s thought experiment, especially since trailers often do contain spoilers. But the before-and-after critique has its faults. First of all, many a bad movie can be sighted from miles, nay, even leagues, away. Mainstream film is homogeneous enough in narrative structure, character development, and thematic content, that busting 21 might be something of a cheap shot, regardless of its entertainment value. Most importantly, though, Orr’s whole shtick admits the obvious: Critics often have little need to actually watch a film in order to write their reviews. Watch the trailer, make a few witty remarks, and that sucker is cooked and ready to file.

(Thanks, Columbia Journalism Review.)

Michael Rowe