Movie Think: America Through its Movie Trailers

I’d be willing to agree that movies are our culture’s primary artform. Yet it seems that movie trailers are the quickest route to our cultural psyche. So much money goes into movies, so much collective intention, and trailers are the one-shot, hail mary pass to score your attention. They’ve necessarily condensed into maniacally efficient thematic declarations. Add to that our culture’s fluencey in un-nuanced thesis statements; shouted fragments that communicate attitude sans content, and it becomes inevitable that our cultural direction would appear more clearly in the five minutes of quick-cut trailers than in the subsequent two hours of finely (or clumsily) crafted story.

For one thing, you come to understand who the film’s distributors think you are. You make a tacit self-declaration by going to a movie, by saying you are interested in one film rather than another.

It’s kind of like clicking on a link or looking up a product online. You will then see ads that the algorithms say you’ll want to see based on your self-declared interests. With movies if you go to see Star Wars it means you are likely receptive to the new Avengers movie, or the Jurassic World sequel. And so on. It holds for any genre. You’ll know after two trailers if the distributors see you as an adult or infant, as feminine or masculine, conservative or cosmopolitan.

Things become most revealing though when the signals blend, when there are not very many of the type of movie you’re about to see coming out and the decision makers have to go with less complete matches. Then we get something approaching randomness and the looking glass turns the other way.

I recently saw Molly’s Game and The Post. Two thoughtful, word heavy, intelligent films that deal in nuance and cultural critiques from a noticeably liberal cosmopolitan sensibility. And there’s not too many more of those on the horizon.

But there are films aimed at the same general age group-demographic that would come out for these films, 35–65: serious looking films, insecure about the world. What I’ve seen, two weeks running, is the same line up of two military hagiographies, polishing a saintly glow onto the haloes of our post 9–11 war generation, and two post-Miranda Rights police pornos, glorifying the militarization of the police force and tickling the urge to just, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”

I contend that this unguarded moment of five trailers brought together nearly at random, trying to figure out what movie in the next three months someone paying to see The Post could possibly be interested in, this is our culture laid bare. And what we see is police-state America, post-military America, the America of perpetual war. These movies will likely exhaust the market for their type of subject. One of the two war films is likely to clear a hundred million while the other may just barely clear its budget. The one I’d bet on to do well is the one directed by Clint Eastwood.

The Police movies stand a slightly better chance of not stepping on each other’s toes though the one with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro (Sciaro 2)is perhaps crossing a few too many signals. Steven Miller and his nativist subreddit will likely go, but it will otherwise alienate both the basic action movie crowd for being too talky and plot heavy and the college movie crowd for its rank blood thirst.

There’s a heist movie (Den of Thieves) I’d bet on to do well if it manages not to open opposite anything too big. It’s essentially a gritty western set on modern city streets, fantasizing about a world with guns but no restrictions, where the good guys and bad guys are distinguished by who wins not who has principles, where the sides are allowed to sort themselves out based on their wits and strength. A simpler version of this story would just be two large men hitting each other with sticks until one is dead and the other is declared right by virtue of survival. It’s a premise that also makes a lot of money in sporting context, only without the sticks. And it always stands a chance of making money at the box-office.

Yet to just say this is our cultural self portrait and roll one’s eyes in disgust is a bit too facile. There is a blunt sort of nuance even in the short trumpet blasts of tone and texture that constitute movie trailers. For one thing we see a military society desperate to find a kernel of the heroic in nearly two decades of dead-end violence.

This is particularly clear in the film 12 Strong, about a declassified event at the beginning of the Afghanistan war when twelve men were sent into Afghanistan in a poorly conceived and seemingly pointless exercise in symbolic violence (That so perfectly encapsulates so much of this century we might as well stop there and all just go home to await the end of time).

Without having seen the movie, judging solely from the tone of the preview, I’m guessing they do not use the scenario to lampoon the absurdities of “Buy-Now-Button” style impulse invasion. But rather to find a pearl of the heroic among the rubble of war, to try and remind us of the orgasm of revenge that drove us into conflagration and try to reconnect us to that glowing moment of justified paroxysm. It is a culturally interesting take on fifteen years of continuos war that will be of interest to historians. Though I probably won’t have the energy to watch it.

Elsewhere we have another of Clint Eastwood’s high concept investigations of the culture of war. The slightly doddering figure who spoke to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention has already shown himself able to light the conversation/controversy around heroism in the time of pointless war with his film American Sniper. He is perhaps better equipped than most to capitalize on this moment of cultural paranoia and violence fetishism. He’s like the Roger Stone of filmmaking: There to capitalize on the 1st Nixon era, he’s hung around to ride the wave of the second.

The subject of his film, 15:17 to Paris, is the terrorist attack averted by the heroic actions of American soldiers who subdued a man trying to destroy a train on its way to Paris.

The concept of the film is that it stars the actual men who participated in the event (minus the attacker, I assume).

This puts the film self-consciously in the line of Italian Neorealist and seventies German New Wave cinema philosophies. Though it misses the point of both, turning the possible interpretive opportunity of real people on camera into a mere marketing ploy by turning them into actors rather than letting their authenticity shape the cinematic form. It consumes their nature in the crucible of Hollywood convention, rather than investigating the truth of their being by cinematic means. None of this makes the movie irrelevant on its face. In fact it’s made all the more reflective of our time and zeitgeist by symbolically devouring these men in service of exploiting their own story.

The trailer communicates in 90 seconds what I thoroughly expect is the ultimate rhetorical outcome of the film. That suffering in service to something greater than yourself is not only good, but necessary to attain readiness for the tests of life. One is encouraged to suffer, sacrifice, and prepare for the unnamed moment. And that is potentially a compelling argument in the face of the heroism of these men.

But I will be very interested to see if the film draws the distinction between principles and ideology. A principled person can aspire to heroism. A servant of ideology risks becoming a tool of evil. If one merely surrenders self in service of the greatest force demanding fealty, then yes you may end up like those soldiers. But if you fail to maintain your individual moral core you may end up like that terrorist. Service and self abasement cannot ennoble base and destructive ideologies. And only firm ideals of justice can protect against craven ideology.

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