In a World…Full of Violent Movie Previews

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Because the most likely movies to receive Oscar nominations are released in the last three months of the year—Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel are current exceptions—that’s the season to be jolly. January remains prime time, too, and especially now that the nomination list is out and movie-house viewing where the statuette-obsessed can catch up on anything missed is narrowed.

Oh, yes, it’s a fine flick-pursuing month—as long as the traditionally awful January releases are avoided—but there is one catch: previews of coming attractions.

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Red BandOften the trailers uncorked around January are for the supposed blockbusters either immediately imminent or due in the summer blockbuster season. Often as not, they’re the movies containing all sorts of gratuitous violence.

These are the flicks geared to males 18 to 34 so inured to video games that they shun movies entirely. With the result that movies aimed at them now look more and more like video games.

Since I’m not in the 18-to-34 category, and since I’m more likely to ratchet up my movie-going experience in October, November, December and January, I’ve been exposed to those blockbuster come-ons once again.

Unless a wise patron allows at least 15 minutes to elapse before entering the auditorium, the trailers are not only impossible to miss, they’re remarkably alike. In every one, actors with pistols, rifles, howitzers and/or AK assault weapons proliferate. Explosions send fiery vehicles and shards of who-knows-what hurtling towards the viewer. Aliens with mouths full of pointed teeth menace humans. And the lookalike irritants are screened at ear-aching decibel levels in Dolby Surround Sound.

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I’ll just give two examples. I wanted to see American Sniper, which of course has its abundant violence. I sat through several trailers of the above description. Only a single one looked as if it was anything more than standard blow-‘em-sky-high fare: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up, Chappie, which appears to involve a robot and is a metaphor for acceptance of the outsider.

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The irony is that American Sniper, with its outstanding (and now nominated) Bradley Cooper, is irrefutably about the effects of the violence on its willing or unwilling perpetrators. Ironically, the movies tubthumped in the previews adamantly ignore the psychological repercussions. The difference between the trailers and American Sniper is quite a lesson in Hollywood disconnect.

I also decided to see Inherent Vice for always-superb Joaquin Phoenix in the screen adaptation of the elusive Thomas Pynchon’s novel. I endured trailers intended not only to knock my socks off but also my feet, ankles, calves and knees.

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These previews were advertising Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator Genisys, Black Sea, Mad Max Fury Road, Will Smith’s (granted, less violent) Focus, Liam Neeson’s Run All Night (looking like a promo for a possible Taken 4) and Fifty Shades of Grey, based on E. L. James’s novel about sado-masochism.

Now for a different example. I trotted off to Big Eyes because I thought Amy Adams could cop a nom, which she didn’t. Nonetheless, it turns out that the previews before this feature film—one of them for Helen Mirren’s Woman in Gold—were different from those shown at the same multiplex where Inherent Vice was playing.

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Check that. There was one overlap: Fifty Shades of Grey, and for obvious reasons. Women at Big Eyes could very well be James readers, the marketers shrewdly reckoned, and are likely to respond to another tale of a subjugated woman. The more you think about it, the more the two properties have in common.

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I ought to say a third reason I went to see Inherent Vice was that having already seen Big Eyes and noticed the disparity between the trailers preceding it and the trailers preceding American Sniper, I wondered whether the previews preceding Inherent Vice would be more in line with the trailers before American Sniper.

They were.  I was right, if perhaps late on the uptake. The marketing strategy may have long since occurred to you, but now I know it, too.

The larger issue here is the continuing availability of movies in which violence is the—I suppose “norm” isn’t exactly the right word. What do these films tell us about the culture? At a time when freedom of expression is suddenly a hot topic, little persuasive argument can be made about legislating a stop to them.

On the other hand, why don’t filmmakers look elsewhere for commercial projects that don’t glamorize violence? How can these movies stop the rampant violence in today’s society—in today’s societies? Surely, no one will contend that the vicarious thrills they provide contribute to minimizing widespread acting out.

There are few answers to these abiding questions. If there were such answers, and if they eventually had an effect on the greenlighting of these movies, we’d see fewer of them heading our way. But look at their hefty revenues as compared with what most of the Oscar-nominated movies take in. Greed may be one of the seven deadly sins, but it’s also a motivation not likely to be dismissed any time soon.