Not long ago, a friend emailed me to say she had recently NetFlix’d a “little B movie.” She said she enjoyed it, but her tone suggested that she was reluctant to go too far with an endorsement of such a lowbrow film. Had I seen it, she asked?
The name of the movie was Exotica. Why did that blow my mind?
To me, Exotica was the culmination of a mopey Canadian director’s fairly distinctive career in the artsy dramas that I discovered on laserdisc in the local video emporium when I was living in Boulder. I thought they were interesting, but a little too remote for my own tastes. Despite my misgivings, I bought tickets to see Exotica when I learned that the oddly named Canuck (Atom Egoyan) had a new film in the 1994 New York Film Festival, where it premiered at a screening with the director and several actors in attendance. I ended up thinking it was something very close to a masterpiece. It knocked me out.
Now the New York Film Festival has a pretty highbrow pedigree. So I was baffled to see Exotica, this touchstone of my moviegoing experiences in the 1990s, described as “this little B movie.” But then it occured to me — Exotica was distributed in the U.S. by Miramax, and Miramax was, at the time, going to extraordinary lengths to tart up the content of even the most earnest, inoffensive arthouse fare. Studios often lie, a little, about the content of their films, but Miramax elevated that kind of manipulation to an art form. Exotica came out on VHS and laserdisc — and, later, DVD — in a supremely cheesy Cinemax After Dark package featuring a pair of sinister eyes and a stripper on her knees under a Photoshopped spotlight. (The woman on the cover of Exotica is not Mia Kirshner. I’m certain that she doesn’t appear in the movie and I’m also certain that, when your movie already features Mia Kirshner in a schoolgirl outfit, you don’t really need to sex it up further.) Here’s how Miramax describes the film in the blurb on the back of the box:
“Forbidden desires and dangerous intrigue generate sizzling heat in this erotic thriller! At a sexy strip club called Exotica, three strangers — an obsessive man, an erotic table dancer and the club’s mysterious D.J. — share much more than is apparent at first glance! As their secret passions grow, they become more deeply entangled in an inescapable web of jealousy, deceit and revenge! The powerfully seductive hit Exotica is gripping entertainment — you won’t be able to take your eyes off it!
Well, no wonder my friend saw it as a surprisingly well made B movie, rather than a gob-stopping arthouse masterpiece! I used to call this practice Miramarketing, for obvious reasons, and Exotica came out during kind of a golden age for it. The Kieslowski Three Colors trilogy got the same treatment: Blue was about “a young woman … reluctantly drawn into an ever-widening web of lies and passion”; White was “a story of dark, illicit passions — one of the year’s most provocative big-screen releases!”; and Red was “a seductive story of forbidden love … [starring] sexy Irène Jacob as a young model whose chance meeting with an unusual stranger leads her down a path of intrigue and secrecy.” Whew! I need a shower!
I used to enjoy thinking about the poor schmuck renting a copy of Exotica , popping open a Heineken and then sitting down in front of the television with his dick in his hand before experiencing, quite unexpectedly, one of the most poignant stories of loss and obsession in cinema history. But the truly pernicious side of this kind of dishonest marketing never really occurred to me — a festival premiere in New York City with cast and crew in attendance for a standing ovation from Manhattan film nerds is fine and good, but it’s that damned blurb, along with the stupid cover art, that will live with Exotica forever, or at least as long as packaged media exists. Lots of people are going to think of this as a cheesy B movie, and the folks who are the most interested in the movie the studio is pretending that this is are not the same folks who will get the most out of it. Fortunately, the Internet is gaining power as a countervailing influence, making it easier than ever to double-check the studio line on a given picture.
Anyway, all that thinking about the power of advertising to misrepresent the intent (and the experience) of a given movie made me start thinking about trailers, and their ability to very boldly shape the expectations an audience has for a given film months or even a year or more before the movie’s actual release. I sat down with a Criterion DVD and a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro to see if I could cut together a profoundly dishonest trailer for an arthouse favorite — and surfaced several weeks later with this mash-up of Kieslowski’s otherworldly The Double Life of Véronique with the come-on for a garden-variety thriller. Enjoy.
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