Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 22, 2011
I spent this morning watching a compilation DVD that was sent to me by filmmaker/artist/musician Cory McAbee. It was titled “TnT” (which stands for Titles and Trailers), and it was the focus of a presentation he did a few months ago for the UnionDocs Collaborative in Brooklyn in conjunction with Rooftop Films (whose byline is: “Underground Movies Outdoors”). Their program notes that short films have now become a predominant form of entertainment, thanks in part to the growing popularity of video-sharing websites. But long before everyone was glued to YouTube or their cell phone, we were (and are still) watching short films on the big screen in the form of trailers and credit sequences – both being made, for the most part, by “outside parties (who) were hired to create a short interpretation from the film itself or from unused elements.” Cory’s TnT collection were specific “short films” that had influenced his own work in meaningful ways. While I can’t think of title-sequences that have influenced my life, I can certainly think of more than a few trailers that had a big impact on who I am now.
Before I talk about the trailers that influenced me, here are some standouts from Cory’s collection:
Psycho trailer (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) – This is a great and unusual trailer because, of course, instead of seeing the usual snippets narrated by the “In a World…” guy, we have Hitchcock himself giving us a humorous tour of the Bates Motel. It’s full of morbid hints, and Hitchcock breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly (something Cory likes to do in his movies as well).
Lick My Decals Off Baby advertisement (Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, 1970) – This one’s a bit of a cheat, as it’s a filmed advertisement for Captain Beefheart‘s record, but that’s okay: trailers are advertisements too. This is basically a trailer for an album as opposed to a music video. It’s dadaist humor is an obvious predecessor to the musical style of Cory’s band: The Billy Nayer Show. (On tour now! Check ‘em out.)
Soylent Green title sequence (Richard Fleischer, 1973) – Making very effective use of photographic montage, we move from our pastoral beginnings to a fast-paced and crowded planet that is clearly in trouble. When Soylent Green first came out, the global population stood at about 4 billion. Now we’re at about 7 billion, so no surprise that a remake for Soylent Green is already in pre-production. Cory’s Stingray Sam episodes clearly take a page from both Soylent Green‘s playbook of social issues and the creative montage work seen here.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid trailer (Carl Reiner, 1982) – It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, but when I look at the black-and-white cinematography and deadpan delivery of funny lines, I can easily see how this would have influenced Cory’s work in The American Astronaut.
Do the Right Thing title sequence (Spike Lee, 1989) – Rosie Perez dances angrily alongside the opening titles looking like she wants to punch someone – quite riveting! Cory also does a dance for his The American Astronaut title sequence, albeit in spotlight and in shadow.
Naked Lunch trailer (David Cronenberg, 1991) – This is an interesting trailer because it sprinkles in a bit of cinéma vérité with black-and-white camera work on the streets of NYC, along with a narration by William Burroughs himself. Cory’s not shy about using the streets of NYC (and its bars) in all his films, and to great effect.
The excerpts above from Cory’s collection above have inspired me to think of trailers that influenced my life, and I know exactly where to start:
It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (Roger Corman, 1957). At a very young age my parents told me I could only watch a half-hour of television a day, which easily could have been frittered away on Gilligan’s Island episodes (and I won’t lie: sometimes it was). But when I saw trailers for these next two films, I knew I needed to save up my daily 30 minutes for the purpose of cashing them in on weekend creature-features. Thus began my appetite for films, as opposed to TV shows, as well as a life-long enjoyment of the horror genre. What started in the comfort of my living room soon pushed me out to the theater to see 3-D double-features of things like Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, not to mention anything with Ray Harryhausen’s fingerprints on it. This helped me fall in love not just with movies but also the theatrical experience.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John Hancock, 1971) and The Devil’s Rain (Robert Fuest, 1975). As a couple years went by and I was eight or nine-years-old, the next challenge was staying up late to watch the stuff that was in gory color and a bit more freaky (at least, as far as the adults were concerned). Seeing trailers for these two films on TV marked the beginning of my life as a night-owl and was a big milestone because it set an important precedent for me that let me stay up past midnight. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a complete gem that still holds up. The Devil’s Rain, not so much. But talk about star power! Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, etc. I’ll bet they had a killer cast party, with High Priest of the Church of Satan, Anton Lavey himself, around to maybe even put on a magic show or do card tricks.
Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978). Boy, did I love the seventies. But to reach the next benchmark of watching stuff that was unrated, I had to wait until I was a teenager in the early ’80′s. It was then while attending a campus film series screening, that I came across this trailer for Dawn of the Dead, which scared me silly. I still get claustrophobic in elevators thanks to this one trailer, and this one trailer also inspired me to seek out all the Romero zombie films. I remain loyal to his slow and lumbering undead, as opposed to their speedy and more recent brethren, and credit Romero with making me a self-conscious consumer – especially when I find myself in shopping malls.
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). Despite a list dominated by the horror genre, the most pivotal trailer in my life is this one. The reason? I was in high school when I saw it, and I distinctly remember the trailer showing a guy dressed up as Santa Claus peering ominously down into the camera as he said “Sam, what are we going to do with you?” A few weeks later, when I saw the film theatrically, that same shot with Santa Claus was nowhere to be seen. Brazil being a long and visually dense film, I thought maybe I missed it, so went back for repeat screenings. Each time I saw the film I found new things to love about it, but still no Santa Claus. It haunted me.
A couple years later when I was programming a campus film series, I came across an ad in Variety for a Jack Mathews book called The Battle of Brazil. Reading that book brought to my attention the fact that a European version of the film existed. I’d found Santa! But in order to actually see that longer version of Brazil I had to spend the better part of a year talking with studio execs, Gilliams’ agent, etc. Eventually, I was able to import the print for its U.S. debut. (That was back before Criterion made the longer version readily available on laser disc and then DVD.) It was an incredibly rewarding experience that also made me realize how dynamic film programming could be. It’s a job I still hold, it pays my bills, and – in a way – I owe it all to this trailer:
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