Everything old is new again, and again
One good sting deserves another. There has been a fair amount of discussion recently about “The Artist”’s score. Guy addressed the “controversy” surrounding the film in his piece on that full page Variety ad that Kim Novak took out accusing Michel Hazanavicius of “rape” (referring to the director's use of Bernard Herrmann's love theme from “Vertigo”). But a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about the art of the modern movie trailer reminded me of just how common, and in many cases effective, re-purposing is.
The reporter points to the use of a particular section of the score from the (not so widely seen) 2003 drama “The Life of David Gale” in trailers for “The Iron Lady,” “Munich,” “Milk” and, interestingly enough, “The Artist.”
“It works every time," John Long, co-founder of Buddha Jones, an LA-based trailer production house said in the interview. "Sometimes in the back of your mind you know, 'I'm not going to use that cue. That cue's been used to death,'" Lee Harry, Long's partner added. "But I want to evoke a feeling. And this piece does it perfectly."
I recall when the first “Super 8” trailer was released. I was watching it in a room full of people and when it was over said, “I don’t think this is going to be a ‘Cloverfield’ monster, that music feels like a benevolent alien.” Right, because the music was from “Cocoon.” Was that an invasion of my subconscious memory of the earlier film, or a successful campaign?
A marketing team has a responsibility to quickly, and powerfully, provide a film with a sense of import; to convince a viewing audience that is inundated with stimulus and entertainment options that their offering will provide an intellectual and/or emotional response worthy of our 10-15 hard-earned dollars. As someone who used to make her living in entertainment advertising, I know that it is possible, and often times necessary, to make a poorly conceived project read as compelling. The NPR segment does a solid job of breaking down the basic elements of trailer creation and giving the listener a sense of the tactics that the teams responsible take. So, is advertising manipulative? Of course, inherently so.
At the same time, as the basics of Eisensteinian/Soviet montage theory attest, cinema itself is, in some respects, intrinsically manipulative. Or at the very least, there is no such thing as a “pure” cinematic experience sans any sort of point of view or intended result.
As film evolved, so did storytelling standards, beginning of course with the basic three act structure. Over the years there have been many approaches to dealing or playing with the perceived pitfalls and limitations of the traditional narrative: direct cinema, cinéma vérité, post-modernist story restructuring, re-modernist re-restructuring and so on. Of course hard-nosed purists would argue that once you decide to include one subject in a frame and disclude another, you have made a judgment.
Just as one shot and edit in a movie builds upon, informs and is informed by the last, films inform one another, as do movements, time periods, genres and auteurs. Very early on in cinema’s history films began referencing the ones that had come before them. Today, the words pastiche and homage are used in a continuous dance to describe the methods storytellers are employing to tell a present day tale via the lens of the past.
This awards season alone there are several contenders that are quite notably referential: “Rango,” “Hugo,” “The Artist” “The Adventures of Tintin” and in a far more direct manner, “My Week with Marilyn.” One could also include “War Horse” in that mix, which uses a visual palette that many have noted speaks of another era (particularly the “Gone with the Wind” shot at the film's conclusion). Once we open the door it becomes clear that there are either intentional or subconscious allusions to previous films in the large majority of current releases.
So, where is the line between manipulative and evocative, referential and derivative, tributary and outright plagiaristic? The division is at times quite clear and at others open to debate. Most make the assessment based on their subjective response: Do I feel manipulated or do I feel that I was taken on a journey that I was pleased to be a part of?
Quentin Tarantino for some is the master of cinematic remixing, playing the role of adept DJ shifting through eras, graphics, scores and visual cues with remarkable dexterity. In 2010 we saw that Daft Punk’s “TRON: Legacy” score had a markedly similar tone to that of Hans Zimmer's recent work. Indeed, one sting in particular felt like a mirror of the "Inception" score (though to be fair, it was a fairly standard sting). But the similarity did not decrease the popularity of what Daft Punk created. For many it felt in line with their musical aesthetic and was, as such, appropriate.
As to the use of the “Vertigo” score in “The Artist,” while many found it to be contrived, anachronistic and cheap, others (clearly a large portion of the awards circuit included) were charmed by the film's loose but seemingly loving portrait of the evolution of cinema. The truth is that the more savvy we become, the less likely we are to “buy into” well-trod techniques, and as we become desensitized, fresh methods emerge.
As the NPR report points out, the trailer of today is a far different animal than the trailer of 1946. We happen to be in a moment where nostalgia plays a definitive role in our cinematic landscape, be it “high-brow” pastiche, or incessant comic-book, cartoon and board game reboots. Yet a master craftsman can hit the ball out of the park utilizing the standard tools and markers of the day, as much as he can by toying with and/or defying them.
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