The Art of the Sell — Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

One of the most thrilling things about transformative works of art is that it’s desperately rare that anyone involved — creators, performers, observers — are aware that a revolution is about to take place. Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre’s “Revelations,” which made its debut in 1960, wasn’t touted with some gala opening or spotlight announcement. This was the advertisement for the day on which “Revelations” was first publicly performed:

ailey

It’s just there, one of three pieces offered. In the same issue of The New York Times where that ad ran, an image of Ailey was prominently featured in a dance column.

ailey pic

The article was almost entirely devoted to complaints about the state of the New York City Ballet. Ailey and his troupe were mentioned in passing, primarily because of some excitement around a different debut. Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre was about to offer their first performance of Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World.”

Now, “Revelations” is considered one of the unassailable pinnacles of American dance. On that date over fifty years ago, it was just another entry on a busy program.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

The Art of the Sell — Spike’s Joint

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

spike

At his very best, Spike Lee is a helluva filmmaker: daring, uncompromising, and astute. He’s precisely the sort of cinematic creator who deserves the lifetime honor recently bestowed upon him by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although he’s got a couple of flat-out triumphs in his filmography, it the accumulated authority of his work that elevates him among his peers.

When it comes to ingenious personal hucksterism, on the other hand, Lee has no rival. Way back when I was one half of the team that delivered a weekly movie reviews and news radio show on a little college station in the Midwest, one of the first interviews I produced for air was with one of Lee’s siblings, who had just taken over managerial duties on a freshly opened storefront in Brooklyn, well before the modern hipster Renaissance. Spike’s Joint, audaciously, was devoted to celebrating (and further profiting off of) the career of a filmmaker who had signed his name to a total of four features, none of which had the cultural penetration of the Nike commercials he directed and starred in at about the same time.

Lest it seem as though I’m dismissing this as cheap braggadocio on the part of Lee, I’ll make it plain that I thought the conceit was terrific. I owned and proudly wore a Spike’s Joint t-shirt for years. (In Baltimore, it once prompted an attractive woman to ask me if I was a filmmaker. Her visible disappointment in my answer in the negative and then prompt disinterest in me only made the experience more memorable.) If anything, it represented Lee’s most visionary accomplishment as a member of the creative community, neatly anticipating the time when celebrity was best leveraged as an opportunity for everlasting hustle.

Spike’s Joint has been closed for a decade, but its entrepreneurial soul was reincarnated online. As Lee well knows, the sell never stops.

The Art of the Sell — The Flintstones and Winstons

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Even as I roll my eyes and grit my teeth as transparent shilling for products infiltrates ever deeper into U.S. media offerings, I must admit to an abiding affection for the way the early days of television were filled with overt sponsor pitches, often baked right into the programs. There’s something charming about the way everything stopped so characters could expound on the virtues of soap flakes or breakfast cereals.

And then there were the incorporated spots that now look wonderfully absurd, such as a couple of modern Stone Age buddies enjoying a smoke together. Although The Flintstones have long since been relegated to the kid-friendly parts of the cable dial, when the program originally aired, in the nineteen-sixties, it wasn’t really viewed as family fare. It was just another sitcom, The Honeymooners reimagined with caveman jokes. So why wouldn’t Winston cigarettes sign up as a sponsor? And then meant a couple cartoon characters would got to sample the tobacco company’s wares on national television.

The Art of the Sell — “Goodfellas” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

In the summer of 1990, I worked in a video store. One the perks of such a gig — at least in the small, independently-owned the cut me a biweekly paycheck — was picking the tapes (only VHS tapes back then, friends) that would play on the store television. Ostensibly, it was promotional, but mostly it provided a chance for me to watch movies while patrons wandered aimlessly among the shelves, complaining that everything they’d hoped to rent was already checked out.

That summer, the tape I slipped into the VHS player more than any other was Hard to Kill, starring Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock. To be clear, I never watched the main feature contained within that plastic block. Instead, I repeatedly returned to that tape because I knew that the batch of advertisements preceding the action flick included a trailer for an upcoming release entitled Goodfellas.

Although my devotion to Martin Scorsese is by now exceedingly well documented, I can’t say his name prompted the same automatic response from me at the time. (The nineteen-eighties, with one highly notable exception, wasn’t the director’s strongest.) But something about the trailer grabbed me tight. I found it mesmerizing, its editing and use of music precisely perfect all the way through. It didn’t make me want to see the film so much as it inspired a strange sensation that I’d already watched something special, a self-contained piece of art.

The trailer isn’t novel or daring. It follows the normal cadences of the time, right down to the narration opening with the phrase “In a world….” Yet, the trailer somehow signaled to me that the film it touted was something truly special, a monumental achievement. And it did so without betraying some of the most memorable moments: the tracking shot through the back passages of the Copacabana, Joe Pesci’s “I’m funny, how?” scene, the storytelling ingenuity of narrator switches and other similar feats of creativity. The trailer makes small promises, and the film delivers a feast.

I’m so glad our video store always had a copy of Hard to Kill on hand.

The Art of the Sell — “The Howling” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

howling

Horror movies present different opportunities when it comes to their marketing, at least when it comes to the movie posters. There’s less necessity to convey elements of plot, milieu, or tone. Simply establish its a horror film, and most of that is understood. Similarly, heavily pushing the presence of familiar stars is less important. There is — and always has been — enough of an audience fully prepared to queue up for the experience of being scared alongside strangers in the dark that offering thunderous assurance that familiar faces will be on the screen felt a little less important. Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars in the world when he made The Shining, and yet the most prominent poster used to peddle the film barely acknowledged his presence.

A horror movie poster can get by with a single striking image, as long as it offers the promise that scares will be delivered. Few posters do this better than the one sheet for Joe Dante’s The Howling, released in 1981.

The tagline is unimpressive, but the image is riveting and forceful. Part of its power comes from the sense that the deadly carnage is happening on the other side of the poster itself, tearing through the paper. Razor-like nails. A woman screaming. And the person looking at the poster could be the next victim. It’s a meta touch that didn’t show up on posters very often back then. Hell, it doesn’t show up on posters very much now.

The design choice completely set the movie apart. I’ve seen The Howling, and I don’t remember a bit of it. But I’ll never forget that poster. All by itself, it’s scarier than most horror movies I’ve seen.

The Art of the Sell: “Color Me Bo”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back in college, I undertook a wildly ambitious project with a friend of mine. At a time when the information superhighway didn’t contain digital warehouses of movie posters and other cinematic history, we aimed to compile a reference book of movie ad lines. Given the outside guidance that any such tome would need to be comprehensive to be taken seriously by any respectable publisher, we individually spent hours in the university library, tirelessly scrolling through microfiche of the New York Times. Every last alteration of a promotional phrase — significant or subtle — was copied down.

Usually the tagline changes across a movie’s life cycle weren’t all that significant. Those films that had their run extend over a holiday might get an appropriate makeover: an American flag hoisted for the Fourth of July or a Santa hat plunked onto a character’s head for Christmas. Sometimes, though, a film’s promo plan went through a more significant transformation. Mommie Dearest, the 1981 drama that demolished Faye Dunaway’s career by casting her as a near-demonic Joan Crawford, went from aspirational intimations of greatness to a full-on embrace of the instant camp notoriety of the line “No more wire hangers…EVER!”

My favorite example of a promotional campaign that gave up all pretenses of respectability was for a film that, realistically, didn’t have that far to fall. The 1981 film Tarzan the Ape Man was positioned as the proper follow-up to Bo Derek’s star-making turn in 10, directed by Blake Edwards. (A Change of Seasons was in between the two films, but Derek was a mere supporting player, co-starring with — amazingly — Anthony Hopkins and Shirley MacLaine.) This was the cinematic effort that was going to truly exploit the fascination and celebrity around Derek. It was going to prove that she was a draw, all on her own.

Things didn’t exactly work out the way the eagerly optimistic expected. Tarzan the Ape Man was a box office dud. Worse than that, it was an embarrassment, absolutely reviled by critics and the masses weren’t exactly jumping to its defense, either. The ad campaign reflecting the dwindling prospects of the film, switching from a poster that was lascivious with a veneer or artfulness to ads layered with snark, such as an image of Jane and Tarzan walking hand in hand with simian sidekick Cheeta on the beach, adorned with the urging suggestion “TAKE SOMEONE YOU LOVE TO THE MOVIE TONIGHT….”

I think the campaign peaked (or bottomed out — your choice) with the advertisement that took the original poster and reconfigured it into a paint-by-numbers page, with the heading “COLOR ME BO.”

 

color me bo

 

 

For anyone wondering about the precise shade of Derek’s eyes, it is apparently “inland ocean blue.” I’m also now quite upset that “orangutan orange” never showed up in one of my Crayola collections.

Coloring in this ad might seem like the height of silliness, but I promise you that it’s a better use of time than actually watching the movie to which it’s connected.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

The Art of the Sell: “Fearless” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back when I was part of a crew that had an endless capacity for discussing all manner of film, one of the topics we circled back to on occasion was the effective use of pop songs in movies and trailers. This was in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, so we reserved special praise for those rare instances when some favorite song of college radio made an aural appearance. Just the presence of the song didn’t cut it, though. It needed to be used well.

In Peter Weir’s 1993 film, Fearless, the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Name” is coupled to a particularly strong scene, so it’s not surprising that it was also deployed in the film’s trailer. In my opinion, it’s used even better in this promotional setting. The song’s slow build is matched by the procession of visuals and information. As the racing pulse of the Edge’s guitar nears its peak, the trailers races through quietly dynamic moments from the film — Jeff Bridges pulls Rosie Perez up from a bench, Bridges presses his hand on a window, Bridges is pulled toward Isabella Rossellini for a kiss — masterfully edited together. I’ve seen this trailer countless times (when I was in charge of assigning trailers to films at the movie theater where I worked at the time, I attached this to everything), and it still gives me chills.

Fearless is a flawed film, but it deserves to be better remembered. And its trailer is itself a grand piece of filmmaking.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.