Trailer jouissance

by Rob Horning

22 August 2005


At the movies, it’s fairly stunning that people quietly tolerate the commercials that are typically foisted upon them. Perhaps most Americans view commercials as a legitimate form of entertainment and nothing to be skeptical or resentful over. Maybe they see commercials as a plus, a benefit, a blessed relief from having to sit there making small talk with the person one came with. But wasn’t part of the attraction of the theater the freedom from such messages? Didn’t you pay your toll to enter a commercial-free space? I guess not. (By the way, this may be the future, I think: Freedom from exposure to commercials will be seen as a privilege worth paying for, and commercial-free zones will become new enclaves for the elite).

Coming-attractions trailers are more tolerable because custom justifies their presence to a degree, but what surprises me about them is how efficiently they make all movies seem equally repugnant—trailers flatten all films out to predictable moments of sitcom cleverness intersperced with splices of scenes of sex (if its a romance), explosions (if its action) or landscapes (if its an art film). If there’s a voice-over, it drips with condescending pretension, soaringly confident in the film’s ability to manipulate you as planned, blithely assuming it can predict your emotional reaction to every one of the film’s carefully choreographed moments. Who wants to consent to this kind of social engineering? Doesn’t everyone recoil from this? Obviously not, since these previews continue to be made.

What’s obvious is that for most people, being manipulated is entertaining, it’s the essence of why they go to see movies. The whole point of entertainment is to experience manipulation, not resist it. (This may be the whole point and benefit of belonging to society as well.) People want their emotions predictably exercised, the way you might work your abs and pecs at the gym. These trailers are likely carefully focus-group-tested (I imagine test audiences strapped in with electrocardiograms) to establish their efficiency as emotional stimuli, thus they are ideal occasions for moviegoers to calibrate their own responsiveness. If they don’t react as the preview seems to anticipate, they aren’t filled with superiority and disgust (as I, shameless elitist, am) but with a sense of foreboding, that they are culturally out of step, that their chance to remain easily entertained is fading. I’ve always felt (to my detriment) that it’s shameful to be easily entertained when it’s really a great accomplishment, a suspension of ego, a surrender to a collective norm, an assent given to one’s culture (like getting married), a vote cast with one’s deepest nature—one’s ability to feel pleasure. If one is capable of being stirred by previews and by ads and by all of culture’s various ruses and pitches, one might convert the drudgery of the status quo into a perpetual buzz of jouissance. Conformity isn’t weakness, nor is it easy, as cultural critics typically suggest in their fulminations. (I know I have.) It may be the supreme act of rationalized pleasure calculation, directing effort where it will be rewarded with the most happiness. And that makes it even scarier.

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