boyhood and the trailer form

Very occasionally, I will fixate on a particular trailer, and this past week has been one of those times: I’m sort of hypnotized by the Boyhood trailer. To be clear, in general my fascination is independent of how much I want to see the movie or think that it will be good. Instead, it has something to do with the way that movies are packaged and sold in the form of preview.

Trailers are a strange type of para-film that are designed to make us emote just barely the length of a song. They often succeed at this – I frequently feel as moved by trailers as I do by full movies. But unlike songs, the coming attractions don’t build from one to another as songs can over the course of an album. Trailers, by design, are modular. After the emotional wallop of a good preview, we just move on to another trailer with its own insistent presentation of a potentially cathartic movie. The emotion of a trailer is snuffed out about as quickly as it was evoked. Aesthetically, the entire medium is an odd cousin of the feature-length movies being sold; the trailer needs to convey the central conceit and the tone, leaving you with a feeling unsubstantiated by real story, where the whole film must unspool more slowly, seducing you and only gradually leading to the emotions it wants to inspire.

The trailers for Richard Linklater films are an especially strange bunch when taken together. Maybe more than any other well-known director I can think of, Linklater is hard to track – he’s done broad comedy in School of Rock, but also formless art movies like Slacker, as well as work that’s somewhere in between, like the trilogy he began with Before Sunrise. Some of these seem like easy sells in trailer form, but others, like Slacker, definitely do not.

Slacker is about the last film you’d want to summarize in a pitch to a skeptical audience; It’s a great movie if you have a tolerance for zero plot (I for one do) but does not lend itself at all to the quick sketch of a preview. The above attempt gets across the easiest part to sell – its kooky, nonsense-spewing characters. But what I like about Slacker doesn’t come across at all: Linklater seems to have a sincere interest in befuddling world views and offbeat theories, ranging from the pleasantly unconventional to the darker and more unnerving. To reduce his menagerie to a gallery of oddities to be mocked (as it appears this trailer does — if it does anything) is to lose the meaning of the movie, I’d say.

Then there’s the preview for Dazed and Confused:

For me, the relationship of this trailer to the real movie is even worse than that of Slacker’s trailer to the actual film. While the Slacker trailer fails to capture the essence of the movie, it doesn’t totally betray the movie so much as it produces a garbled mess, since it doesn’t explain the purpose of the film but doesn’t make the characters seem colorful enough, either.

But Dazed and Confused looks an awful lot like a combination of pot and sex comedy if you cut the trailer right, and the painful double-entendre tagline, “See it with a bud,” makes it clear what they’re trying to make the movie out to be. Dazed and Confused is in reality a lot closer to American Graffiti than a celebration of inanity; I see on the Wikipedia page “anthropological” is used a couple of times, and that strikes me as apt. To make it out to be a light-hearted farce is misleading, but more importantly, it just feels reductive and wrong.

Intriguingly, the trailer for Waking Life is the most satisfying of these. The movie was animated with rotoscoping, so even the casual consumer of cinema pabulum will be able to glean that this movie is something more than a collection of cheap shots at weirdos, even if Joe Schmoe doesn’t know what Linklater might be trying to accomplish. (The movie consists of a youngish dude wandering around in a dream having dreamy conversations and comes off like a sequel to Slacker.) More importantly, the trailer has Waking Life’s haunting score, which immediately signals the off-kilter, somewhat unsettled tone of the movie. The film was bound to be almost impossible to sell as anything other than its unique self, so the preview doesn’t try to, which means it’s a success.

So here we are at Boyhood, Linklater’s latest. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m intrigued just by how the trailer stands on its own. The root of my fascination is very similar to the odd interest I developed in the trailer for The Spectacular Now, which struck me as being quite difficult to parse. What was the central conflict? The trailer didn’t really tell me, and Boyhood’s doesn’t, either.

Which brings us back to trailers as a form. The function of trailers is to explain, in brief, what the film is about by showing bits of the film itself and suggesting – without giving away everything – what the main thrust of the plot is going to be over. It’s like a short précis of the film using only bits of the film itself. You take in a trailer with the full knowledge that its purpose is to summarize the film, and you look for the hints it will almost inevitably yield to tell you what the primary tension in the full movie will be. And so it is with most trailers, even for independent films.

Sure, you can find threads of discord and unease in the Boyhood trailer: the boy fighting with his sister; the young man being asked what he’s going to do with his life; Ethan Hawke’s warning to the boy protagonist that life doesn’t come with the bumpers you can get in bowling. But they don’t seem to add up to a conflict, just the grand sense of a human life passing. Is that what the film itself is? Is it another Linklater film without a story? I genuinely can’t tell, and that’s probably why the trailer has hooked me, even if I may never see the movie.

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