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’50 Shades of Grey’s Hard Sell

'50 Shades of Grey's Hard Sell

As much as we may like to believe that the pre-release movie trailer has transcended its status as advertisement into the realm of low art, the fact of the matter is that the trailer’s raison d’etre remains salesmanship. The most effective trailers create a false sense of ceremony in two minutes flat, positing the films they’re promoting as Zeitgeist-defining events that no self-respecting participant in the dominant pop-culture narrative can afford to miss. I have never seen a trailer achieve this with such ruthless, calculated specificity as the trailer for the upcoming screen adaptation of E.L. James’ novel “50 Shades of Grey.”

This trailer guns so hard for a sense of wide-spanning populist appeal that it directly bypasses the unearned sense of self-importance found in many trailers for blockbusters doomed to fall flat. In a sense, this film already seems quite literally too big to fail. Before frame one, the clip proudly brands itself a “global trailer.” The message here isn’t particularly ambiguous: the creators clearly believe that this one-hundred-fifty-second video will be watched the world over, as will the film. This is no mere movie; it’s a motherfucking cinematic event on a scale too colossal to be confined to America’s borders. Wide-eyed stay-at-home moms in Singapore will pore over this, the trailer suggests. 

Furthermore, the song selection also clues the viewer into the inflated sense of importance being carefully cultivated here. It begins as the sort of blandly thunderous scoring typically found in trailers, but around the 1:05 mark, when our protagonists first start making out in an elevator (a scene that will, sadly, supplant Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” as the essential filmic reference point for elevator-based eroticism), the quavering tones of Beyoncé hop out of an unseen limousine and tumble into the track. We realize that in actuality, the score is a cover of Knowles’ star-making single “Crazy In Love” — done by Knowles herself. Not only has Universal sprung to license one of the most popular songs in recent memory, but they’ve gotten arguably the most famous singer on the planet to drape a sheer membrane of languid lust over her own track. This is the film in microcosm: Assemble the broadest possible appeal, apply a thin finish of deviant sexuality, and watch the money roll in. 

The trailer has never been the proper place for a film to dig into its complex thematic concerns or to communicate a distinct visual style. In the course of two minutes, who could possibly expect it to be? Trailers have always worked best in broad strokes. This isn’t meant to be a negative criticism, either; the trailer for Ridley Scott’s thriller “Alien,” considered by many to be the exemplar of the trailer form, contents itself with basic bullet points. Sigourney Weaver. Space. Killer alien. Mix contents thoroughly, add bursting chests, and let sit. Similarly, the “50 Shades” trailer maps out its own characters with staggeringly basic methods. Dakota Johnson (TV’s “Ben and Kate,” “The Social Network”) plays our heroine Anastasia Steele, who is timid. When she first appears in the trailer, she is mildly spooked by the ding of the elevator. She’s a physical manifestation of the concept of submission. She willfully positions herself as the weaker party in all of her interactions. Listen to the way she meekly confirms that she’s arrived at the correct ultra-modern newspaper office (and, having been in a number of newspaper offices, allow me to just ask what kind of money is that newspaper making to afford such lavish quarters) for an interview with her impossibly suave romantic opposite, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan of TV’s “Once Upon A Time”). From their first interaction, their dynamic is almost insultingly obvious. He will dominate her, because this novel was about domination.

There’s no cliché to which the trailer isn’t willing to stoop. Steele actually says the words, “There’s really not much to know about me. I mean, look at me.” There’s no way to know for certain, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicious no actual human being has ever uttered these words without a trace of irony. Grey, fortunately, is willing to match her triteness for triteness — in his first appearance, he’s gazing pensively out of a high-rise window, a trope that I mistakenly believed had run out of heat and had already collapsed into itself like a dying star. Yes, the trailer is broad. The girl has arrived to be dominated and the man has come to claim her as his own. It’s no coincidence that Universal hired a pair of generically attractive but little-known TV actors. The film wants the performers bringing no baggage, no public persona to taint the proceedings unfolding on screen. It will take Johnson and Dornan and re-form them in a new image. 

See, the trailer is well aware of what people do and do not value in the “50 Shades” franchise. They have not come here for complex characterization; Dornan’s Grey seems to have all the charisma and personality of a fried fish filet. They have not come for barbed-wire dialogue — Grey: “I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele.” Steele: “That must be really boring.” Not only does that not sound “really boring”, but the subtext here barely qualifies as such. They have not come for breathtaking shots of baroque artistry — this whole thing looks like a generously-budgeted cologne commercial. We came here to watch pretty people fuck each other. 

Unsurprisingly, the trailer refrains from stimulating any cinematic erogenous zones until the 1:50 mark of a 2:30 video. There are hard-and-fast content restrictions as to what graphic content can be advertised in a green-band trailer, but the fact that this film didn’t choose to go the red-band route speaks volumes about its commitment to real eroticism. What film project could possibly be better suited to a format in which they can show the good and dirty stuff? But again, this film’s allegiances lie not with sexual realities, but with the veneer of sexuality. The trailer waits until it’s nearly played-out to enter Grey’s hilariously-named Red Room of Pain, because this clip isn’t playing in 70’s-era Times Square porno theaters; it’s going to precede romantic dramas in small-town America. There’s a wonderful interview with Detroit rapper Danny Brown where he sings the praises of soft-core pornography because it (and I’m paraphrasing liberally) leaves you more time to enjoy the process of excitation before you get down to the shit. I suppose it’s possible that the editors adhered to a similar slow-burn philosophy, but the fact that all of the content verging more on the explicit side is condensed into five rapidly cut seconds at the tail end of the trailer suggests otherwise. 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen a lot of movies that could be fairly classified as erotic, and I can already tell you that, based on this trailer, the “50 Shades” film will be an elaborately produced fib. Anyone who’s read the source material can confirm that this is an adolescent fantasy dressed up in the fetish-wear of a decidedly adult cat-and-mouse power struggle. The trailer abounds with the markers of glassy-eyed fan fiction: We see Anastasia treated to helicopter rides, trading in her frumpy wardrobe for haute couture, and the camera lingers on Dornan’s rippling abs like a horny mom. This is a child’s impression of a fun, grown-up world. The riding crops and blindfolds shoehorned into the 1:55 mark are largely perfunctory, the stuff of a tween who’s only just learned the word “fuck” and is eager to show it off to anyone who will listen.

Nobody likes being conned, and I’m going to be disappointed when the defining cultural artifact of the upcoming year in movies ends up being more of a semi-competent rom-dram instead of an all-out assault on good taste, or even a simply fascinating disaster (the prose in James’ original novel would seem to seal the film’s fate as a cult object). I wish this film would be something it transparently has no interest in being, but I’m still willing to acknowledge the previously stated point that this trailer, considered solely as a trailer and not a condensed version of the film it advertises, is a marvel of craft. The visuals and sonics pair cannily, those final five seconds tantalize even through the thick haze of bullshit, and the juxtaposition of the Valentine’s Day opening date with the dialogue snippet “I don’t do romance” is somewhat inspired. The thing does work in record time. It’s almost lovable, that the editors had the gargantuan brass cojones required to declare “THE WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON… COMES TO LIFE.” 

I’m not pleased with the things this trailer chooses to say, but I can’t help but love the way it says them.

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