Trailer Trash

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You...

First they took our car-

toons, and now they've taken away our previews!" complained a friend after a sneak preview screening of a now-forgotten film many years ago.

Well, no, they hadn't taken away those precious previews. My friend just didn't realize that the usual gob of previews, theatre "policy" trailers (shut up, and use the trash cans), and THX and Dolby sound system curtain-raisers are often jettisoned for studio sneaks and benefits.

Cartoons, indeed, are gone. Previews, or "trailers" as they're known in the business, are still very much with us.

The transparent purpose of the preview is to sell movies, of course. They provide exposure, exposure provokes curiosity. But for regular, avid moviegoers -- those who don't have to be sold -- they're a form and experience unto themselves.

To a person mesmerized by film -- especially kids on their way to becoming movie nuts -- the only meaningful purpose of a preview is to provide a tantalizing glimpse of the seemingly boundless joys promised soon at a theatre near you. The images on screen provide a skeletal framework; imagination transforms that scaffolding into a castle in the sky. More immediately, the preview is the first cue for the thrills that continue for the next couple of hours. Like when they turn off all the lights on stage before the opening of a rock show.

For those not under the spell, previews serve a practical function. This is the time for settling into the seats, running off for a last bathroom stop, opening candy boxes, installing drinks in cupholders, and last-minute schmoozing before the film begins.

But like a lot of situations in which a tantalizing glimpse is involved, the whole thing can turn out to be a whopping disappointment on fuller inspection. The film suggested by the previews -- and fleshed out, pieced together, and sensibly crafted in your mind -- what the hell happened to it?

One of the problems is that nowadays, and for the last several years, the preview is the movie. And that movie more often than not is surpassingly loud, vulgar, and sentimental. A preview of a mainstream film today is probably going to summarize the entire action in chronological order, reveal major plot turns, and often disclose identities of villains. (This is a particular irritation in a film like The River Wild, which attempts to confuse or conceal the villain's motives for much of the action.)

The loud and frenzied environment of many previews is made even more busy by the addition of a pompous, promotional voiceover and music that in many cases has been borrowed from another film. My favorites are the ones that tart themselves up by using a piece of classical music that won't be used in the movie itself.

And, boy, they do go on -- sometimes beyond 10 minutes. I hate to admit this, but more than once I have stupidly arrived at the theatre early. I sit there watching the idiotic slide show, answering those tough Movie Quiz questions and hoping that a couple and their noisy spawn don't plop down behind me. Finally, the lights go down. First come the previews, a string of sound and fury that treats the nerves somewhat less abusively than a Manhattan subway ride at rush hour. Then there's the theatre ad, which in ACT III's case has all the up-to-the-minute style of Star Wars. The whole irritating experience concludes with a bone-rattling Dolby or THX trailer.

Appalling but true: More than once I have simply wanted to get up and go home right then. By the time the movie rolls I'm trashed, with no undamaged synapses left to give the film.

(Trade secret: Arrive at the theatre five to 10 minutes after the printed start time. You'll almost never miss an opening credit.)

It's not as if the trailers for art-house "product" are any better. Many of the previews you see at the Village suggest films more wan, lugubrious, and pretentious than they are.

Another bad thing previews do is rob us of our joy of discovery. Imagine walking into a film like Platoon, Tootsie, Amadeus, or Pulp Fiction -- to name an absurdly disparate quartet -- without knowing a thing about them, without having been assaulted by all the advertising.

It was my pleasure, at a much more impressionable age, to stumble into a preview screening of American Graffiti in 1973. Hadn't heard a thing about it. Each new scene and situation in George Lucas' film provided a new rapture. Why? Well, it's a great film, but also because there had been no advertising to tell me which pigeonhole the film fit in, no honey-throated voiceover to reveal plot points and summarize characters. As a result, the film seemed to have been presented almost as a personal gift.

That said, the preview now circulating for the Spielberg factory's next big hit, Twister, is a doozy.

The first part of the trailer is standard-issue Spielberg: Lots of scared people running around, followed by several seconds of a cellar door about to rattle off its hinges while light from an unknown source blazes through the cracks. The title comes up, and you think it's over.

And then... a quick image consisting of a yawning, Satanic darkness at the far end of a wheat-filled plain, then a piece of heavy equipment, horrifyingly airborne, coming straight at you.

It's the scariest preview image since Stanley Kubrick released that torrent of blood through elevator doors for The Shining -- and less portentous.

That's two good previews in, what -- 5,000 films?

I don't like the odds. If you glimpse a figure coming through the door just as the first opening credit comes up, it's probably me. n

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