Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bigger Than You Can Imagine (The Assassination of Jesse James)

By and large, trailers are afterthoughts. They give a quick glimpse of the stars involved in a movie, give away a couple of the more obvious aesthetic devices, and allow a momentary glimpse of the stylistic choices made by the director. From trailers of arty films - Garden State - to the teasers for action flicks - Miami Vice - the model is pretty standard. A few high-intensity action shots or closeups, one joke to give a vague suggestion of character, and an enigmatic or suspenseful closing cut so we want to go see whether the dude makes it out alive.

So when I see a gorgeous, well-developed trailer like The Assassination of Jesse James, it makes me feel like I just watched a good film for free.

It's so brief, but it's so beautiful... it goes so far beyond the normal "visual stimuli" paradigm, it's not even funny. The video is composed of three shots of the narrator and three shots of Jesse James, his object of fascination. Jesse James never speaks, and he hardly moves, and Robert Ford spends the whole trailer interacting with something just off-camera. In his first shot, he's watching it ominously, and in the other two shots, he's talking to it.

First, a simple formal consideration... overall, three shots of the voyeur, and three shots of his object. The first shot is Jesse James emerging from a bank of fog, distilling himself from the historical setting of the film. The last shot is him blowing out a candle, closing the curtain on his own story. Jesse James is the background, and he's the object of the gaze, as evidenced by his appearance in a photograph. He frames the flow of the trailer, and his ambient presence, set against the verbal and sensory presence of Robert Ford, is the backbone of the experience.

The confessional is a worthy model for this trailer. Jesse James, silent and pensive, is the priest. This sequence of shots, the confessional, is his domain, where he waits in the shadows to hear the testimonial of his assassin. Robert Ford is the sinner, shown behind glass in his first on-screen appearance... in his final one, he's bathed in the garish white light of interrogation. And because James is such an ambient presence, a lurking face that stares from a shadow without speaking, it's hard to tell whether Robert Ford is confessing to the audience, or to James himself.

The trailer drips with so much anticipation, I can't even hold still. After I saw it, I went and looked up the movie on IMDB, and looked up Jesse James on Wikipedia, and my newfound Wild West education only makes me want me to see the film even more.

That's how we do it, people. Good trailers make for good first weekends.

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