Bright Lights Film Journal

Trailer Trash: Dumpster Diving with Jenni Olson

High camp in three minutes or less

The idea that bigger is better may play better in the lexicon of size queens than in le cinema contemporaire. Hollywood’s insistence on the Big Long Movie has made filmgoing something of a chore: who can sit still for a three-hour war movie, or a 150-minute melodrama? Happily, movies have always had their own version of the chill pill in the form of the humble trailer. These tasty two- or three-minute samplers are like sex without foreplay, and who doesn’t love a quick orgasm?

In the mid-1990s, noted San Francisco-based curator Jenni Olson created a subgenre of shows devoted to these miniature movies that played at various repertory venues. Queers and African Americans were the subject of two of these sociological clip shows. Two of her most amusing efforts were “Trailer Camp” and “Bride of Trailer Camp,” which jump unapologetically into that homo sacred space Susan Sontag identified in her famous essay, “Notes on Camp.”

Some of the hilarity in the dozens of trailers Olson showcased comes from the tension between word and image. The trailer for the Crawford/Davis grimfest Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has a dignified voiceover proclaiming the film “a bold essay on the art of the macabre.” Viewers will be forgiven if they can’t quite synch words like “essay” and “art” with images of pancake-faced hag Davis Kicking the shit out of a trembling prone crippled Joan. (Not that we don’t love every minute of this Robert Aldrich masterpiece.)

There are other, stranger kinds of tensions evident too in a show like this. The notorious disco tribute Can’t Stop the Music presents the startling image of the Village People as quasi-heterosexuals. Of course, the producers may have edited out images of the boys having seizures and weeping after kissing a woman. On the other hand, the film has so little hetero credibility that it puts the VP’s leather daddy into a snappy white leather ensemble that might have come from Carol Channing’s closet.

Some of these trailers are practically featurettes, breaking the unspoken rule of the three-minute slam-bang tease. Lillian Roth, star of early sound movies and notorious best-selling drunken author in the 1950s, interminably praises I’ll Cry Tomorrow, her autobiography made into a Susan Hayward vehicle. Others are so cheap they apparently defy the idea of moving pictures. The obscure 1955 British feature Cross-Up (aka Tiger by the Tail) is summarized in just a pitiful string of still pictures.

Male divas abound in these trailers. Several are devoted to the oeuvre of John “Paul Baressi Did NOT Fuck Me” Travolta. Seeing three of his early romantic dramas in a row is conclusive proof of Travolta’s lack of chemistry with women, though coupling him with dykes like Lily Tomlin or butch straights like Jamie Lee Curtis might defeat even the most fervent hetero. One wonders if the producers were aware of this problem from the git-go. The Moment by Moment trailer consists of just a couple of separate still photos of Tomlin and Miss T. with a dirge-like jazz motif in the background.

Speaking of things queer, out gay director Randal Kleiser of Blue Lagoon fame appeared with the little-known Summer Lovers, starring a very young Peter Gallagher. Kleiser’s trademark worship of half-nekkid boyz in the sun — in this case Gallagher slipping in and out of speedos and getting more close-ups than costar Darryl Hannah — makes this one worth watching. Of related interest is the trailer for Reflections in a Golden Eye. Anyone not familiar with the Carson McCullers novel might have been puzzled indeed by the trailer’s coy approach to the queer theme. Brando gives it his gay all, shrieking “You disgust me!” at Elizabeth Taylor and then drooling, from ground level, over what seems to be the naked leg of the young soldier he’s hot for. “These are the stars who have never done what they do now!” shrieks the voice-over. Of course, queer viewers knew what that meant.

Brando is certainly major diva material, but fans of the more traditional variety will also find their reward. A decrepit, barely mobile Mae West glides (on a dolly, we understand) through the trailer for Sextette, playing “the only hope left” for civilization in what the voice-over too-optimistically calls an “immortal comedy,” making two mistakes in two words. Scraping the gauze off the camera lens must have taken several days away from production time for this legendary turkey. Less mummified divas are also on hand. Cher’s obscure vehicle Chastity shows her “living Freud’s wildest dreams!” as she runs up and down the highway with her mouth open, searching for “something.” Moving down the Trash-o-meter brings us to Tura Satana in Russ Meyer’s sexploitation classic Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! With its images of out-of-control, massively endowed go-go girls in teensy sportscars beating the hell out of anyone who crosses their path, this is one of those trailers that succeeds in whetting, rather than satisfying, the appetite. “Superwoman against man!” screams the overdub, which also wisely suggests we “beware, the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws!” Not that there’s anything noticeably sweet against the towering, terrifying Tura.

One of the highlights of the show was Bonjour Tristesse snippet, a bizarre transcontinental interview with Francoise Sagan by Drew Pearson. This fractured masterpiece has Pearson saying things like “I hope you ‘drive’ your life carefully,” while a seemingly disembodied Sagan, beamed in by satellite, stares and offers an insane laugh. Curator Olson cleverly leavened these shows — which would make a dandy backdrop for that Tupperware party or dungeon orgy you’ve been planning — with period commercials and public service announcements, including a sweet sequence with Rock Hudson, dizzyingly handsome and robust in his too-brief prime, touting the virtues of Christmas Seals.