Posted by: zhiv | September 19, 2008

Revolutionary Road: Movie Trailer, Mad Men, and Other Thoughts

RevRo is a pure Yates blog, where the author has been extremely complimentary about some of my posts.  And now he’s put up the Revolutionary Road movie trailer, taken off of that “favorite of the literati,” Entertainment Tonight, so we get some extra narration from Mary Hart.  The whole thing is more than a little bizarre.

Seeing the trailer prompts me to make some comments on the movie, its marketing, and potential impact.  I’ve always thought that the movie would be a very good thing.  As I mentioned in some early posts, it was after I heard that Sam Mendes had directed it for Dreamworks that I read the book, and I was lucky enough to have read it without knowing about the Leo and Kate factor.  I also said, if I remember correctly, that I’m very happy with DiCaprio, who is a fantastic actor, and his abilities have been enhanced by working with some of the very best filmmakers around.  The whole thing with Mendes directing his wife is a little odd, but she’s an outstanding actor too.  So on the whole I’ve been very upbeat.  The prevailing attitude that I’ve seen in my fairly recent immersion in Yatesworld is that people are happy enough that the film will expand exponentially the number of readers of the book, and that has to be a good thing, right?

But I had a few moments of doubt after watching the trailer, and I’m going to try to work through them in a post.  I’ll start by saying that there are a number of stages in the planning, making, finishing, selling, and seeing a film, and it’s always a roller coaster ride.  There are just so many different factors, and it’s hard to tell where to start.  One of the very most important is expectations.  Expectations play a role in our experience of books, restaurants, relationships, and definitely movies.  Now let’s throw in the idea that the movie is an adaptation of a book.  And it’s not just any book.  We’re not talking about a blockbuster like Harry Potter, or any of the other big family titles like Golden Compass.  It’s not a highly regarded literary bestseller either, like Atonement.  Revolutionary Road is a book that extraordinary writer-readers like Richard Ford were very happy to keep a secret, and they felt that something was being lost as more people were reading it.

My own approach in this case is to be hopeful that the movie is well-made, and I don’t see how it could possibly be anything different.  I’d like to think that I really have no expectations, aside from it not being an outrageous misinterpretation of the basic issues and characters.  My goal is to maintain a careful vigilance that I don’t allow my expectations to get too high.  The book is always going to be there, it’s always going to be great, the same, unaffected.  Some people will just see the movie, and love it or hate or they won’t care.  Some will read the book before they go and see it, some will read it afterwards.  None of that matters so much.  It’s just a game.  Did they get it right?  Did they come close?  Does DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler from the movie bear any similarity to Frank Wheeler in the book?  In a way, it can’t.  They’re going to be different.  That’s just a fact. 

But here’s the problem.  All of this fond philosophizing went flying out the window as soon as the ET music started playing and Mary Hart walked out and started talking about the movie.  I won’t say that I was immediately outraged, but I will say that all of my critical faculties were engaged, and I was transformed into a swirling vortex of judgmentalism.  This may have been because of Mary Hart and the theme music, and the fact that I wasn’t sitting down to watch the actual movie.  I was responding in part to the marketing.  And the marketing was a little disturbing.

So let me cover that part first.  Working in the movie business, I’ve learned a lot about movie marketing over the years.  To a lot of casual viewers, or perhaps more importantly purists, film trailers can seem quite pernicious.  If you’re trying to make a commercial movie, the first thing that you want is a big movie star, somebody that people really want to come out and see (RR:  double check).  Then it gets tricky.  Even if you have a star, you have to sell the movie.  This is where the concept of the “wheelhouse movie” comes in.  So you want a movie star, number one, and to have that star appearing in the type of movie that the audience wants to see him/her in, number two.  The next thing is to try to convince the audience that the movie is what it is supposed to be:  if it’s a comedy, that it’s charming and funny; if it’s an action movie, that it’s exciting; if it’s a romantic drama, that it’s sexy, emotional and powerful.  Sometimes you have a movie that is trying to be all of these things, at least to a certain degree.  The “trailer paradox” (whatever that might be) is easiest to analyze in a big comedy.  When you’re making the trailer you want to make the movie seem as funny as possible, and the only way to do this is to use the best jokes and the funniest moments in the film.  We’ve all been frustrated by this, when we feel after watching a trailer like we just saw the movie.  Why go see it, when you’ve already laughed at the big jokes in the trailer?  But the marketing team sees it differently:  we have to use our best jokes and make the funniest trailer, or the audience isn’t going to want to see the movie.  There are nuances to all this, of course, but that’s the “trailer paradox.”  You get used to it after a while.  Nobody who makes trailers, or who makes movies, is going to leave out something that might make the trailer better and get more people to see the movie.  It’s just not going to happen. 

So that gets us back to the Revolutionary Road trailer.  Movie stars, check.  Reunited stars of the biggest movie ever, check.  And what kind of movie do we want to see them in?  Emotional romantic drama?  Check?  Young people from different worlds find thwarted love in the midst of famous disaster, with poignant sacrifice?  Um, no.  As we readers all know, there’s a big difference between young Leo slipping into the icy waters, and April Wheeler choosing a suicidal home abortion; a big difference between young Leo and young Kate steaming up the windows of an Edwardian motorcar below decks, and April having sex with Shep Campbell in the parking lot of the Log Cabin roadstop.  But the people making the trailer, just trying to do their jobs, and especially Mary Hart (doing her job), want you to think that this is a wheelhouse movie.  And so that’s how you get the trailer storyline for the movie:  they’re trapped in suburbia, they have to get out!  “People are alive there (Paris), not like here.”  “We’re just like every one else, we’ve bought into the delusion.”  “I work ten hours a day at a job I can’t stand!”  Mary Hart jumps in with:  “They may have lost their way, but have they lost their dreams?”  And the trailer shows us the tagline:  “How do you break free… without breaking apart.”  And then the all important conclusion:  “We’re gonna be okay.”  “I hope so.  I really hope so.”  Just a smidge of lingering doubt there in that restatement, making us wonder.

I guess it’s not so bad.  It’s got to be much better, and somewhat involving, on the big screen.  Like I said, Mary Hart is doing her job, and that job is to tell us that these are big movie stars and this is what they’re doing.  And this is the trailer, which has a specific purpose of trying to pique your interest and your desire to find out who these people are and what happens to them.  It shouldn’t be surprising, but the troubling element is the ambivalence, suggesting that Leo and Kate, as Frank and April, might be chasing that impossible romantic dream all over again, or maybe they aren’t.  Are they? 

Enough about trailer incidentals and esoterica.  I was also somewhat disturbed by the short glimpses of the look of the movie, the lighting, costumes, and production design.  And I know why. 

In my early Rev Road posts I think I mentioned how I had very much enjoyed the first season of Mad Men, and because I didn’t know about Leo and Kate, I had a vague idea of Ken Hamm/Don Draper as Frank, and January Jones/Betsy Draper as April.  As it turns out, DiCaprio seems more Frank-like to me, but I was intrigued at the time by the certainty that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, must have been one of those “early readers” of RevRoad–that is, one of the Happy Few who read it during the 40 year span from 63 to 03.  It seems to me that the show could have never been written without the book.  I was also thinking at the time that Mendes wouldn’t have made American Beauty if he hadn’t read RevRoad, but that’s a different issue.  Of course, there are lots of ad man, suburban ennui antecedents besides RevRoad, but the damaged, ambivalent war vet with a dessicated heart, who loves his family and his perfect wife (with her perfect flaws), while he’s getting smashed and getting laid in the city in a circumspect manner, is all very Yates.  And Mad Men is a magnificent adaptation of the concept and mileau into a TV show, standing very securely on its own legs–and it’s a great example of just how good TV can be these days.

But now it’s six months later.  And Mad Men is a very big hit, about to sweep the Emmys.  The game seems to have changed.  It’s important to remember that RevRoad and Mad Men were probably shot around the same time; if Mad Men was done first, it wasn’t on the RevRoad radar when they were designing the movie.  This is probably a good thing, as RevRoad has created its own version of the era.  But I have to say, it seemed kind of bright, saturated with light.  That’s not to say “sunny”; glaring seems to be a better word.  I don’t get it, but I’ll reserve judgement.  My own infant view of the end of the 50s and beginning of the 60s was pretty bright, but I grew up in Los Angeles, where the light is different–it is pretty sunny.  Movie versions in the past have been lots of black and white (The Apartment, Grey Flannel Suit), or Technicolor (no examples off the top of my head, but I’m thinking of Pajama Game and Doris Day, maybe), and there’s the Douglas Sirk movies and Far From Heaven, which was very autumnal.  RevRoad has seemed closer to that palette to me, autumnal.  But it’s worth remembering DiCaprio’s 60s Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can, which was Pan Am blue and sunny.  I’ll mention Breakfast at Tiffany’s too, and it’s also worth remembering the look of Mendes’ films.  American Beauty had a nicely muted look, very RevRoad in its contemporary way, and Winslet’s proto-April Wheeler film, Little Children, was very similar.  Road to Perdition was a bit of a mess and seemed graphic novel-phoney-dark- moody, and perhaps he wanted to stay away from that.  Just a few thoughts.  I expected it to look more like Mad Men.  It’s probably a good thing that, based on these short glimpses, it doesn’t look similar at all.

One more thing about Mad Men.  It’s a big enough phenomenon now that it might have an impact on the reception of the film.  That’s something to look out for.  One of the pleasures of Mad Men, for me at least, is that you get to see the ongoing story of a very similar set of characters every week.  As good as this is, it does also highlight the accomplishment of a great novel like Revolutionary Road.  There ain’t no sequel, there’s no next week.  The book is all there is.  Just have to keep remembering that.

How do you break free… without breaking apart.

We’re gonna be okay.

I hope so.  I really hope so.


  1. What an excellent post! Zhiv you are a star! I read all this with such interest and totally agree with your comment about the trailer looking a bit too ‘bright’; I had envisaged the interiors to have quite deep shadows and to be much less fresh and lively looking – quite literally to have less life in them.

    I agree with you too that we shouldn’t expect the film to ‘be’ the book; it will be a very different experience. However I am concerned, and I don’t know where I got this from, that part of the film was shot in Paris……what? Surely not? A dream sequence, maybe; a bit of wishful thinking but I really would be horrified if April and Frank actually make it to the Champs Elysee or the Left Bank. I do hope my information is wrong. It must be!

    Finally, I am interested by another paradox about film in the context of Yates which is that Yates spent his life writing to expose the pretensions of humans, and he often used filmic metaphors both as a way of foregrounding false performances and as a way of drawing attention to the undue influence he thought Hollywood had in the fifties and yet he also spent much of his working life seeking Hollywood’s approval (and money), hoping that the promised film of Rev Road would happen at any moment – a dream that collapsed and then kept reviving itself. At the same time his brilliant screenplay of Lie Down in Darkness got close to being made into a film with Natalie Wood as the young girl. Unfortunately, because of the incestuous element to the story, she withdrew and the project got buried. It strikes me as an interesting paradox that Yates needed and courted what he also despised and criticised so frequently. How ironic that his name is being proclaimed so loudly now because of Hollywood.

    I said ‘finally’ earlier – I didn’t mean it! Is it just me or does Kate look too smooth-skinned, too beautiful and unaffected by life’s troubles in the trailer. If you think about the beginning of the book, when Frank is watching her act, she is supposed to look ‘gaunt’ and ‘constricted’, to look as if she is suffering and I have never understood that to mean just on stage. To my mind both Frank and April should look slightly seedy, past their best – not old but as if life’s hard grind has taken its toll. Leo and Kate are very beautiful, very young (looking) and life has offered up peaches, or so it seems…..

    I better go and watch Mad Men. I have bought it but not sat down with it yet.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. KCJ–
    Great comment–keep ’em coming! I’m really curious to see your thoughts on the previous post, about Disturbing the Peace. I’m so psyched that you prompted me to read it, and it goes right to the heart of everything that you say here about Yates’s ambivalence about Hollywood and cinema. I could do a whole long rambling post just unpacking your excellent third paragraph here.

    I don’t know anything about the Paris stuff. I feel like I remember RevRoad very well, but I don’t think I remember anything in the narrative that would be a direct scene that you could put in the movie. Was Frank in Paris at the end of his war service (like Yates?) It still doesn’t seem like it would make sense in telling the story. But we’ll see. It makes me think I should try to get my hands on the script. Or just leave it all well enough alone.

    But you really have to watch Mad Men right away. It’s going to freak you out. The Yatesian influence is very clear throughout the first season. By now the show, in the second year, is running very firmly on its own momentum. So curious to hear your thoughts.

  3. A nice post from a comment link on RevRo:

    The interesting thing is that he mentions hearing that Weiner gave the cast and crew of Mad Men copies of RevRoad to “get them into the mood for the show.”

    Hmmm. Google, here I come.

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