The Art of the Sell — The Ref teaser trailer

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

From the network’s nineteen-eighties heyday into the first few years of the nineteen-nineties, MTV made stars in a lot of different ways. It was understood that the cable outlet could propel acts up the charts less on the basis of the craft of their songs than the appeal of their image and the ingenuity of their filmmaking collaborators, a truism occasionally held up for ridicule in the very product the channel relied upon to fill the broadcast day. Less remembered was the small set of comedic performers who elbowed their way into the public consciousness, in part through showcase appearances in MTV’s throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks bumpers wedged into commercial breaks. There might have been bigger sensations that traipsed across the screen, but I can assure you that the consensus held that none in this batch of jokesters were cooler than Denis Leary.

Leary was an obscure standup comedian when MTV booked him for a few spots. Ted Demme, a producer in the promotional division of the network, directed the segments that comprised of Leary ranting his comic bits at a restless camera, the shaky camerawork and snappy editing keeping time with Leary’s adrenalized agitation. When I look at one of those bumpers now, I’m struck by how basic and even hacky it is, but I swear it felt subversive at the time. (Disingenuously peddling trash as subversion was increasingly MTV’s specialty in this era. Eventually, the air of rebellion part was scrapped, and we all had to reckon with a culture infested with Snookis and JWowws.) So when Demme directed a bigscreen starring vehicle for Leary, the duo knew exactly how to sell it.

Although The Ref, Demme’s sophomore feature, eventually got a more conventional trailer, its pending release was announced to moviegoers with one of Leary’s trademark rants. He rages against Santa Claus, addressing the injustice of unfulfilled wish lists from his youth and demanding a compensatory haul delivered to be delivered that Christmas. Included among the litany of items is a “GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.” The trailer provides no real information about the film it promotes. It accurate conveys that The Ref takes place at Christmastime and suggests the attitude the film carries, and that’s about it.

I worked at a movie theater when this trailer was released, and I was in charge of assembling our prints, a task that included picking which green-band pronouncements of coming attractions would be placed in front of each film. I put The Ref on everything I could, so pleased to have a trailer that was different than the usual procession of noisy clips from the movie. And the “Mysterious Ways” riff kicking in at the end made the season that much brighter.

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

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