The Greatest Teaser Ever Told…

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Shortly after I wrote my piece on the recent teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond, I noticed that the film’s co-writer Simon Pegg let his own thoughts on the action-driven vignette be known.

It was very action-packed. I didn’t… Yeah. It was surprising. I find it to be kind of the marketing people saying, “Everybody come and see this film, it’s full of action and fun,” when there’s a lot more to it than that. I didn’t love it because I know there’s a lot more to the film. There’s a lot more story and a lot more character stuff, and a lot more what I would call Star Trek stuff. But you know, they’ve got to bring a big audience in. They’ve got to bang the drum. To the Star Trek fans, I’d say be patient.

(Note: if you haven’t read the Star Trek Beyond post already, scroll down the page and read through it before continuing).

Pegg’s final words asking Trek fandom for patience mirror my own advice, noting that this teaser trailer is not for you, but aimed at a different audience the studio is hoping to pull in from The Force Awakens. No harm in that. Star Trek Into Darkness was technically a success at the box office ($228m in the US on a $190m budget), but came nowhere close to the profit margin for Abrams’ Star Trek released three years earlier ($257m on a $140m budget). Ensuring the longevity of the franchise on the silver screen requires more than a competent and engaging finished product.

My call for caution regarding something as ultimately insignificant as a teaser trailer, though, reminded of how difficult such an argument can be with regards to a Star Trek movie. For most films (and film franchises, for that matter), the teaser itself is almost entirely forgotten once the next extended preview drops a few months later. It’s certainly forgotten once the movie is released, and can be judged on its own merits. Star Trek is a rare franchise for which a teaser trailer is inevitably considered to be of great worth. This is because – if you didn’t know already – one of (if not) the greatest teaser trailers ever made comes from a film in the Star Trek canon.

Behold, the teaser trailer for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, from the late spring or early summer of 1991:

Star Trek VI Teaser Trailer (be certain to watch before continuing!)

This, dear friends, is how you tease an audience for your upcoming motion picture. Not a single frame or musical cue from the actual finished product is to be found. The narrator, a gentle grandfatherly-sounding Christopher Plummer (who played the villianous General Chang in Star Trek VI) telling us of the journeys we as an audience have taken with the crew of the Enterprise. As we are invited to take one final trip with these characters, a montage of their past adventures scrolls across the screen. The camera pans out, and we come to realize that the images from episode and film are superimposed onto the body of the ship itself. An imagined starship made of literal dreams and memories of its creators and fans. The noise of the warp engines flares, and the trailer concludes with the screen shooting to black as if the Enterprise itself warps through its threshold. Text giving the release date of STA 12 R 13 D 91 ATE fills the screen, as the musical accompaniment concludes with a triumphant cadential fanfare.

Given how climactic the ending the trailer plays, one can forgive the fact that the eventual release date would turn out to be one week earlier on December 6.

What makes this piece so powerful lies in how every bit of the teaser is borrowed from the past. The superimposed scenes ranging from the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are only the tip of a warm and nostalgic iceberg. The sequence of the Enterprise going into warp was first created for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later recycled for The Wrath of Khan. The music comes from the late James Horner’s closing credit crawl for Khan, also used for the opening credits of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. We have seen and heard every bit of this trailer before, whether we realize it or not. This seems paradoxical for a format predicated on “teasing” a new movie to an audience. But the sequence works because whoever created it understood what the movie was, why it was made, and who it was made for.

It still gets to me, this teaser, almost twenty-five years and an entire lifetime later. Only a handful of films will ever make a similar impact on a person. A teaser trailer, though? Seems impossible to believe.

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Hateful Dead: The Emergent Neoclassicism of Quentin Tarantino

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It seemed fitting to see a 70mm roadshow screening of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, in the director’s hometown of Knoxville. So much of this movie is built upon a delicate homage to a vanished past. Not just in terms of the genre of the Western that once ruled Hollywood, but of the medium of image and sound that captured many of those epic tales. Filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 – a 70mm format with 2.76:1 aspect ratio last used in the 1966 Charlton Heston film Khartoum – using the same lenses that captured the famous chariot race from Ben-Hur. Musical score by Ennio Morricone, his first for a Western since My Name is Nobody in 1973. For the roadshow tour, the audience is treated to an overture, an intermission, and a glossy souvenir program featuring stills from the movie and sparse biographical details about the characters.

In the program, Tarantino delivers a telling quote about his intention behind a special roadshow release concurrent with the standard mainstream release of the film on Christmas Day:

The thing about the roadshows is that it made movies special. It wasn’t just a movie playing at your local theater…. If you’re going to shoot your movie and release it in 70mm, it’s really the way to go: twenty-four frames a second flickering through a projector, creating the illusion of movement.

The likelihood that Tarantino experienced one of these films while living in Knoxville is vanishingly small (his family moved to Torrance, CA before his fifth birthday in 1968). But its fun to think that a director who mines to nostalgic value of film history as intensely as anyone would have first experienced the grandeur of the classic silver screen during his short time here in East Tennessee.

And The Hateful Eight is, if nothing else, an exercise in stylized nostalgia. The Ultra Panavision 70 print captures the wind-swept desolation of Colorado’s Wilson Mesa, playing the role of the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory. But very little of the action takes place in this rural majesty that the format is most apropos to capture. Rather, most of the dialogue-driven run time feels as if this film were an adaptation of a stage play set in a claustrophobic cabin. Here manifests the crude humor, dime-store philosophy, and gory violence that we’ve come to expect from Tarantino films. If I was inclined to write a more formal review of the film, it would be something as follows: if you dig Tarantino’s shtick, you’ll like The Hateful Eight; if you don’t dig it, The Hateful Eight will do nothing to change your mind. Come for Samuel L. Jackson, stay for Walton Goggins, and leave wondering about the convoluted plot or Kurt Russell’s vocal cadences giving him a dark veneer of John Wayne.

David Sims at The Atlantic argues that the movie plays out as a “dark chamber piece” lacking deeper motivation or purpose. I’m inclined to agree to an extent, but also wonder if this analysis misses some of the film’s broader significance. If there’s any film genre for which the senseless, nihilistic violence of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is at home, it’s the Western. More than any other setting, Westerns have served as a device by which the dark edges of American masculinity could roam free away from the intimate communitarian ethos of Main Street. Tarantino, for all of his self-indulgence, adds nothing conceptually new to this status. John Ford beat him to the isolated personal despair and questionable frontier morality. Sam Peckinpah beat him to the excessive, visceral violence. Even an element like sexual violence, which most contemporary audiences would assume to be something gritty and new, has long been an element of Western storytelling.

The familiarity of the Western with excess makes the most surprising twist of The Hateful Eight what it represents in the broader resonance of Tarantino’s career. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction cemented him as a young filmmaker of repute, one who mined the seedy underbelly outside of the Hollywood system and brought the aesthetics of the exploitation film to mainstream audiences. Over the next decade, he became the most widely known filmmaker from a generation coming of age during the 1990s (David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan) that have pushed the aesthetic boundaries of Hollywood cinema. Part of this popularity has been his in the consistency of style and theme in his films, developing into the Tarantino ethos. When you see a Tarantino film, you’ll get exactly what you expect. Strangely enough, this gives him more in common with a director like Ron Howard than with any of his aforementioned contemporaries.

With The Hateful Eight and all of its formulaic allusions to the grandeur of Hollywood’s past, Tarantino has emerged with a status that would have seemed unthinkable even five years ago: as the preeminent neoclassicist filmmaker in American cinema. In using this term, I’m not referring to the broader strain of neoclassicism related to the revitalization of aesthetic properties from ancient Greece and Rome during the Enlightenment. Rather, I’m looking at the way the term has been used in conjunction with Western art music in the twentieth century, when composers like Sergei Prokofiev and Paul Hindemith took compositional inspiration from Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. They combined the forms and compositional pedagogy of the eighteenth century with the more florid harmonic language of modernism, giving a new coat of paint to an old and familiar building.

The use of musical neoclassicism to talk about Tarantino’s recent work invites a most interesting and unexpected comparison from the world of Western art music: Igor Stravinsky. In 1914, the Russian composer famously drove a Parisian audience to riot with the transgressive harmonic language of his ballet The Rite of Spring. Less than a decade later, his Octet for Strings signaled his interest in the structured contrapuntal textures of the Baroque. One can see a similar career arc for Tarantino as his excesses have become more ingrained into the heart of mainstream cinema. If Pulp Fiction was Tarantino’s Rite Of Spring, then The Hateful Eight is most definitely his Rake’s Progress.

Of course, Stravinsky had a third phase to his career in which he shed his neoclassical skin in favor of a more esoteric aesthetic voice. Should Tarantino make a similar transformation late in his career as a filmmaker, I’m very interested to see what his In Memoriam Dylan Thomas might be. With respect to the theme of Knoxville origins, I hope it involves James Agee (played by Goggins) and Hank Williams (played by Channing Tatum) teaming up to fight communist vampires at the Bijou Theatre.

 

Star Trek Beyond: Beyond Star Trek?

 

Without a great deal of fanfare or expectation, the official first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond was uploaded to YouTube yesterday. As expected, reaction to the ninety-second peek indended for the trailer roll in front of The Force Awakens has been decidely mixed. Given the troubled production history that saw changes in the director and writers, studio mandates on the tone and story elements, and an ultimate pushback on the release date, the fact that this movie even made post production constitutes a minor miracle.

I’ve never placed much stock in what teaser trailers tell the audience, especially for a franchise like Star Trek that carries the burden of deep lore guarded by a not-altogether rational fanbase. Modern teasers, I’ve found, serve two purposes. The first is to give a sense of the overall visual style, coupled with a few snippets of dialogue that seemingly tell the viewer only that there will actually be dialogue in the movie. The second is to draw the focused interest of a particular group or groups that studios wants to bring into the fold early, starting a word of mouth and social media buzz leading into the months before the premiere date.

Regarding the Star Trek Beyond trailer, the second purpose is far more essential to its construction than the first. You can make no better comparison than with the advertising for the movie that the Beyond teaser is attached to. While trailers for The Force Awakens relied heavily on nostalgic objects and situations to reassure a devoted fanbase alienated by the style of the Star Wars prequels, Star Trek Beyond‘s first trailer seemed more interested in playing up the intricate action for which Justin Lin-helmed movies have become known. The difference is critical for intent: one designed to draw the inside back into the fold, the other to entice the outside with reassurance that the inside won’t act as impenetrable gatekeepers.

But did I like watching the trailer, other elements aside? Make no mistake – I found it to be very engaging and well made. But did it feel like Star Trek, as opposed to just a generic sci-fi action adventure? That’s a more interesting question.

In all honesty, the trailer reminded me most of what I thought was the one sequence in the tepidly-received Star Trek Into Darkness that actually worked. That would be the opening sequence, where the crew of the Enterprise works to stop a volcano from destroying a pre-industrial civilization on an unnamed planet by casually tearing the Prime Directive to shreds. It was a fun, planetside adventure sequence reminiscent of the locales that made up the lion’s share of action in Original Series (TOS) episodes. Into Darkness then left this tone behind for its Khan/notKhan question and creaky Patriot Act allegory that made up the plot of the movie. Upon leaving the theater, the thought I found myself having was wholly unexpected: why couldn’t the rest of the movie have been more like that opening sequence?

This feeling lies behind the cautious optimism I have for Star Trek Beyond based on the first teaser. On one level, it addresses a fundamental problem that has plagued the Star Trek film franchise since the premiere of The Motion Picture in 1979. The allure of the big screen and an increased special effects budget shifted the action in these films almost entirely to space, whereas on television (especially for TOS) visiting the surfaces of strange new worlds played a more integral part to the storytelling. Indeed, the locales of the Star Trek movie universe have too often played second fiddle to the exciting space battles populating these films since The Wrath of Khan. They become, much like the multiple locales in James Bond films, mere backdrop to a sequence that moves the plot toward the climactic action – which almost always happens in space and involves things blowing up. The two exceptions to this in the Trek movie canon – The Voyage Home and TNG’s Insurrection – prove that action held entirely on one planet can create an engaging narrative and place characters in situations out of their comfort zone that would never manifest while on the Enterprise. It worked brilliantly in The Voyage Home, with our beloved characters as fish out of water in 1980s San Francisco. It didn’t work so well in Insurrection, but that failure lay more in the script and direction than with the concept.

Actually, Insurrection may be a good benchmark for the success of Star Trek Beyond, since the trailer hints at a number of similarities between the plots. If the concept is elevated from Berman/Frakes levels of apathy by the Lin/Pegg collaboration, this movie could very well be the fun, adventure throwback piece that I saw hints of in Abrams’ well received 2009 reboot.

To those that say things like Kirk riding a motorcycle represents an egregious violation of Trek’s philosophical and aesthetic principles, I’ll save addressing this in detail for a future post after the next trailer. Regarding said subject, here is an excerpt from a short essay I wrote after seeing the 2009 film that still seems apropos six years later:

TOS at its best relied very simply on character pieces and good ol’ fashioned space adventure. It’s this combination that has made this original crew so iconic in a way that the cast of no other Sci-Fi show has approached before or since. Week after week was fighting a role call of space amoebas (“The Immunity Syndrome”); omnipotent noncorporeal children (“The Squire of Gothos”); paper-mache rock gods (“The Apple”); vampire clouds (“Obsession”); Jack the Ripper (“Wolf in the Fold”); killer robots (“The Changeling”); giant black cats (“Catspaw”); giant green lizard captains (“Arena”); Ancient Rome….IN THE FUTURE!!! (“Bread and Circuses”); and my personal favorite, disembodied brains with gambling problems (“The Gamesters of Triskellion”).

And these are just a list of the antagonists, leaving out the notorious space hippies from “The Way to Eden” or the transporting-wives-for-miners plot in “Mudd’s Women” that was drawn straight out of a mid-century Western. These weird clichés of science fiction and popular culture are as much part of the Star Trek universe as the Roddenberry vision of a better future. And it has been long past due for a Trek movie featuring TOS characters to embrace this side of the Trek ethos. I’ll take a Harry Mudd-style grifter any day over another protracted battle in space.

So what’s my prediction for the next trailer? Look for a teaser with a more dialogue-heavy segment that constructs an ethos of witty banter to draw similarities to Guardians of the Galaxy. Then look for a full trailer closer to release designed for fans that the studio thinks will have been pushed away by the non-fan orientation of the first two.

Until then, take a deep breath Trek fandom. It’s going to be okay.