It is a pity when exciting things happen and you have not enough time to stop and think about them. I realised that just now, when I logged into my blog after many months of hiatus to find nice comments and positive feedback on a few of my earlier posts.
The thing is, I have been swept away by (mostly personal) events so that the time I didn’t spend sorting everything out, I devoted to actual publishing. No note-taking, no musing, no ‘idle’ reading, no blogging, just hardcore writing-for-publishing. Among the articles I worked on is a piece that appeared in May’s special issue of Frames Cinema Journal dedicated to “Promotional Materials” and edited by Dr. Keith M. Johnston. The issue, which includes eight articles and six interviews with media advertisers, is incredibly illuminating and, let me add, a valuable resource for those who want to familiarise themselves with this ‘nascent’ (though that would be a disputed adjective) field of research. Giving an in-depth review of the issue would be difficult, the approaches and topics of analysis being many and heterogenous, but I’ll paste a few quotations to give an idea of its richness and scholarly potential, which can be further grasped by taking a look at the selected bibliography compiled by Johnston in his introduction.
Among the many issues that stand out from the collection of articles is the one of what promotional materials actually do. Quoting Jonathan Gray (who has published extensively on the topic), Johnston sets the argument for the debate, writing: “Promotional materials may give us (limited) access to ‘how producers or distributors would prefer us to interpret a text, [and] which audience demographics they feel they are addressing’ but that should not restrict us to seeing them as exemplars of divination, when the texts themselves are multifaceted and layered representations of industrial and cultural information that flow and stretch beyond what the 120-minute feature might offer.”
And what their study amounts to in disciplinary terms? ”Those of us working in this field might use different approaches, different terms and different methodologies, but given that the study of promotional materials is becoming increasingly central to a range of media scholars, what we really need is a decent name!” This is a particularly timely issue. Publications and scholarly interest in the analysis of promotional material have been mounting, as attested by the success of the Titles, Teasers and Trailers conference held at Edinburgh University on April 22nd and 23rd.
The first essay on Frames‘s list is by Fredrick Greene, who provides an intriguing historical mapping of the birth of the trailer in the 1910s. At that time and not unlike today, the trailer was employed as both a marketing tool for the still-emerging cinematographic industry and a propagandistic means to support American war efforts in Europe. On this latter aspect Greene contends: “What this awareness reveals is the ambivalent role of trailers within the arsenal of propagandistic speech. For while trailers—then as now–are eagerly anticipated, consumed and enjoyed, their formal and formulaic self-referentiality (seen in taglines and inter-titles, discontinuous editing and graphic design) effects a constant interruption of visual seduction: they denaturalize themselves with marketing meta-content, creating distance from and resistance in the viewer who is thereby reminded of their casual if interested relationship to mimetic representation. While trailers use visual means to produce somatic and haptic reactions in viewers … their manifest work is always already bracketed, received under stipulation and filtered through a skein of skepticism. No one has ever been in confusion about their status as persuasive speech.”
According to Leon Gurevitch, the relationship between filmmaking and advertising is much more complex and reciprocally beneficial than most scholars and critics believe. ”[I]n an era of high concept filmmaking we can see advertising, oddly, as a calling card to executives within Hollywood, not simply because the advertising industry might be a place where a director could “cut their teeth” but because their adverts might literally operate as a shorthand means of demonstrating their aesthetic, stylistic and even editorial vision for larger projects.” Advertising materials actively shape a certain discourse on auterism as a desirable feature and guarantee of pleasure for audiences, a concern that also animates Colleen Laird’s contribution (more below).
Daniel Hesford explores the aesthetics of promotional materials, focusing on the performative agency of trailers. By way of a comparison between the commercial and spoof trailers of Machete and other instances of trailer-making in the areas of publishing, videogaming and politics, he concludes that “the trailer has become a powerful and expressive tool, but its effectiveness is not restricted to feature film promotion. Indeed, the possibility of creating ‘cinematic performance’, by assuming the form of the trailer, is an opportunity for other texts to benefit from its affective potency and communicate with readers in the tense of desire.” I like that, in addressing performativity, Daniel expands on the temporal short circuit enacted by the trailer, where cinematic pleasure is not imagined to progress from ‘build up’ to actual excitement. He writes: “As performance, the trailer offers a new approach to Deleuze’s vision for cinema: a representation of time freed from the perceptive constraints of movement – and rendered as a process of ‘transformation or becoming’– from past, present and future. The spoof trailer exists entirely in the crystalline: exhibiting images from the past, during a performance in the present, towards a virtual future moment that will never come. It aestheticizes the virtual by promoting contemplation of the creation and future experience of a non-existent feature film.”
A concern with the temporality of filmic experience also inspires Ellen Wright‘s article “‘Glamorous Bait for an Amorous Killer!: How post-war audiences were Lured by Lucille and the working-class girl investigator”, this time to inform a study of the marketing techniques attached to Douglas Sirk’s Lured. A semiotic analysis of the materials contained in the pressbook shows that the film’s discoursive construction of the “working class girl investigator” absorbed and re-defined post-war representations of women in noir cinematography as either femmes fatales, or angels of the hearth. Wright notes that the marketing deliberately chooses to reject this opposition, employing glamour as “an acceptable marker to suggest female agency.” This discoursive analysis of female representations in Hollywood’s post-war advertising is an indirect and interesting commentary to Barbara Klinger’s classical study of melodramatic characters and gender constructions in Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk.
It is also in line with Colleen Laird‘s essay on Japanese female filmmakers which places emphasis on the way marketing products stereotype the directors as “auters.” Auter is here not a neutral category, but a profoundly gendered one even when, as in the case of Nishikawa Miwa, one of the two filmmakers Laird writes about, the woman goes a great length to distantiate herself from gender identification. Laird’s essay is interesting to me particularly because it focuses on the uses of “lifestyle marketing” to establish a gendered auteuristic persona that polices the boundaries of spectatorial pleasures while actively shaping and reshaping not only the audience’s preferences, but their way of life, habits and, apparently, desires.
Once again, Klinger’s work on advertising, which find space in her latest book Beyond the Multiplex, informs Jonathan Wroot’s closing article on DVD’s special features of Japanese films. As with other promotional materials explored in this issue, the special features seem to work on multiple levels and for multiple purposes. Wroot explains that the stage greetings appearing in the bonus material “demonstrate a type of special feature that indirectly promotes its subject matter. And that does not mean the film text alone – it can relate to cast and crew members, production companies, and other interrelated media … there are multiple promotional intentions.”
Finally, there is my own contribution “Aspirational paratexts: the case of ‘quality openers’ in TV promotion” which developed from one of the last posts before the hiatus, the one on Homeland. What I did was pointing to an expanding class of ambitious opening title sequences, of which Homeland‘s is just one example, to contend that the ever more marked differences separating ‘regular’ TV fare from ‘quality’ productions affect as much the series’ text ‘proper,’ as its promotional apparatus.