- Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers
In a world where the line between promotional discourse and narrative form is increasingly blurred, movie trailers stand out as one of the purest distillations of both. Trailers exploit cinematic techniques to create a mini-narrative, which entertains the audience while promoting a film. Perhaps because of their entertainment value, movie trailers manage to skirt the criticism reserved for more blatant forms of advertising. In fact, the popularity of trailers has, in some ways, eclipsed that of the films they are paired with. Many believe that Meet Joe Black, released on November 15, 1998, by Universal Pictures, did better-than-expected business on its opening weekend because the film was released with the trailer for the upcoming Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace: a true testament to the power of the movie trailer in modern media culture. It is common knowledge of cinema and cultural studies that trailers are designed to speak directly to audience desire, although the true identity of this "audience," or the film studios' perception of the "audience-as-consumer," has remained somewhat enigmatic throughout cinema's history. Lisa Kernan's new book, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers, sets out to unmask both the audience itself and the studios' methods for enticing them to return to the theaters again and again.
In Kernan's view, trailers are not merely advertisements for the films they promote but a cinematic genre in and of itself, with its own set of features and conventions. Though the author acknowledges trailers' similarity to other forms of advertising, she points out that the main purpose of a movie trailer is to sell the desire for a unique cinematic experience rather than a specific physical object. The first chapter of the book includes an analysis of some of the generic features of movie trailers, such as montage, voice-over narration, and graphics, which work together to create a narrative that is at once separate from and tied to the film in question. Particular attention is paid to the fragmentary nature of trailers, which creates "a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—[a] desire not [for] the real film but the film we want to see" (13). Kernan's exploration of audience expectations, and the studio's rhetorical appeals to these expectations, forms the basis of a compelling and convincing argument on the nature of American film advertising, and its evolution and transformation over the course of the last century.
Throughout the book, the author refers to the movie trailer genre as "a cinema of (coming) attractions" (2). Just as the concept of the "cinema of attractions" posits a view of a prenarrative, spectacle-driven cinema in which an implicit awareness of the act of viewing exists within the audience, trailers resist narrative temporality in order to create audience desire. Kernan often alludes to trailers' two distinct temporal modes, which operate by "withholding the fullness of the cinema event, even as they display a unique sense of heightened presence" (24), a feature she argues is unique to the film trailer genre. The notion of a pure cinematic form that is alluded to through promotional discourse, but never attained, may be of most interest to the archival community, as it closely parallels the desire to preserve a cinematic [End Page 128] experience that may be unattainable now. Kernan shows how the construction of the cinematic "event" through trailer rhetoric succeeds in promoting the film itself and the anticipation of the film, thus creating a commodified narrative while speaking to audience desire.
The vaudeville and circus traditions, which exerted a great influence on the birth of cinema in the United States, had a strong impact on the early development of movie trailer conventions as well, particularly in regard to audience address. The author relates vaudeville's "something for everyone" approach to movie trailers' attempts to appeal to "as broad an audience as possible...by emphasizing the range of different aspects that might appeal to audiences within [a] specific...