Trailers Objectified

I know I shouldn’t judge a film based on its trailer. I know this, and in fact, I usually make a point of avoiding trailers (and reviews) of films that I think I might end up liking. More often than not they spoil the actual film by revealing too much in advance, or worse, by subtly altering your expectations through selective editing. When you’re watching a trailer you’re being manipulated, at some level, by the part of the filmmaking process that wants you to part with your money above all else.

Now that we’ve established in advance that I’m wrong, the way is clear to say that there’s something that makes me ever so slightly unsettled about the trailer for Objectified, an upcoming documentary film about industrial design.

Quite simply, the blatant conspicuous consumption on display doesn’t seem to fit with the times. Unfortunately for Objectified, it may be coming out a couple of years too late. The economy has been sliding steadily for a while now, and suddenly the trailer looks like an early artifact of a decade defined by hyper-consumption and irresponsible levels of personal debt. I’m not one to talk, having paid above the odds for the occasional nice Apple and Muji product myself, but from what’s shown in the trailer it seems like the filmmakers are putting forth a narrow view of what design can be.

By focusing on attractive early 21st century product design, the film may be stuck with a field that has not changed its fundamental design aesthetic, has not revised its driving principles, at least since the introduction of the Powerbook G4. The overarching trend since has been ever towards refining the veneer, polishing the surface. Which is fine in itself, I suppose, but there’s something about that resistance to more fundamental change that doesn’t exactly fit with the mood of the day.

It’s a pity, because it may be a missed opportunity. Even in a company like Apple, infamous for attracting an almost fetishistic response to the objects that it creates, the really interesting work has arguably happened around service design. The smartest invention to come out of Cupertino in recent years is not the iPhone (the near-perfect but ultimately obvious execution of the same smartphone approach that has been around for years), but the iPod/iTunes symbiotic relationship. That’s a design that has now changed the face of the entertainment industry, altered how people interact with music, and elevated a computer company to a position of huge power in the media world. That shift to thinking about how people experience design, thinking about the design of service and not just form, stands for a more holistic and mature approach to design.

But apart from a single shot of a potato peeler, everything on show in the ninety second trailer is an extremely expensive luxury item. The insinuated equation of good design with high cost brands is what’s really troubling to me. I’m not saying these are not examples of great design; I’m saying that taken together they define design in narrow and exclusive terms, and now more than ever that’s a lazy way of thinking about design. Solving problems is design; just making things look nice is decoration. Making things that are a joy to behold is an important part of the design process, but is it enough to support a documentary? A film that compliments only the facade of objects is in danger of missing what truly innovative design is.

There seems to be a distinct lack of critical response to the trailer. Most online reactions that I saw were unbiased one-line linkups, devoid of any commentary or opinion; smooth-edged, disengaged, utilitarian, flat, compliant. Where’s the visceral reaction? Yes, this looks nice, but does it really do anything?

In any case, the director is probably being very honest in his approach. The title of the film makes no bones about what it pretends to be. I just hope its not too late to cut in a dash of critical perspective.

Again I feel the need to apologise for jumping the gun or being too dogmatic on this. I have only seen the trailer. Trailers are the objectification of films as fetishistic objects, where we are invited to make a critical judgement based only on the facade of appearance. They fail to convey anything about the real quality of cinema, but rather promote a surface-level overview, selling the promise of an experience just like shiny design does. Good trailers are often by definition dishonest, crafted to appeal to our magpie-like sensibilities.

So it’s not cool of me to say all this based on ninety seconds of footage and assume guilt. Oh, and I loved Helvetica, to which this is pretty much a sequel. In one sense it must be difficult for a filmmaker to see their art reduced to an advertisement, and it’s important to remember that a bad trailer does not necessarily mean a bad film. On the other hand, it may perfectly reflect the full film and make no apologies for that fact.

In tough times, many people are forced to reassess the difference between wants and needs. Objectified may look nice, it just may not be the film we need right now.

— 21 Jan 2009