The news of Don LaFontaine’s death triggers the same phenomenon that marked his strange career: the bulk of it, spent intoning over movie trailers, bypassed our conscious notice, and it is only with his passing that the man and his peculiar, familiar, theatrical magic swims into full presence. We had to lose him to appreciate him.
LaFontaine’s voiceovers typically began with the phrase “In a world …”
In a world … where criminals run the streets and cops have lost all hope —
In a world … of wealth, power, and seduction —
In a world … where major corporations are run by fluffy kittens —
(OK, I made that last one up.) The very definition of portentous, In a world‘s ritual followup was always some variant of But then … or But now … or Until one day …, signaling a disequilibrium that launches the plot. But with LaFontaine’s work, whatever movie the trailer pointed to was not really the point. The pleasure of previews is of a qualitatively different order; a brilliant shorthand or hieroglyph, an elegantly spun abstraction, the planting of anticipation without the need for actual payoff (how many movies do we actually watch, compared to the number of previews we’re exposed to?). LaFontaine’s gift was precisely that of jouissance, endlessly deferred desire. And his particular way of narrating that unfulfillable promise — almost comical in its gravitas and urgency, utterly sincere yet somehow tongue-in-cheek — was what made the man a genre unto himself.
This might be true of other voice artists — Mel Blanc, Maurice LaMarche, and Harry Shearer come to mind. What Roland Barthes called the grain of the voice acts, for these talents, as a unifying field of identity stretched across a dozen or a hundred bodies and faces, or in LaFontaine’s case, a thousand acts of promotional montage. If, as so many psychoanalytic theorizations of the medium suppose, moves are indeed like dreams, then LaFontaine was the voice that read us our bedtime story, easing us through those liminal minutes of prefatory errata before we surrendered completely to a collective hallucinatory slumber. He was there and not-there in much the same way as the invisible stylings of Classical Hollywood: continuity editing, “inaudible” sound. Yet periodically, we were jolted back into awareness of his existence, through parodies on Family Guy and cameos in Geico ads. These moments of delicious rupture also functioned as a kind of righteous suture, reuniting a voice and body that had been sundered, bringing the man out from behind the curtain to take a much-deserved bow. Self-mocking he might have been, but I always greeted LaFontaine’s appearance with the affectionate recognition of a long-lost uncle.
The IMDb page devoted to LaFontaine reflects his weirdly inside-out career, listing his gag appearances and TV gigs while omitting the massive archive of VO work that led to those other jobs. The much-consulted database’s taxonomic structure does not track movie trailers, and so an entire field of cinematic labor is allowed to vanish from our cybernetically-arrayed knowledge of the medium. The people who cut together and score previews, who write the boiled-down narration and engineer the vertiginous genre-pivots that mark the best of the bunch (I thought it was a Civil War melodrama — but it turns out to be a screwball comedy about vampires!), toil away at a level once removed from the credited army at the end of the major motion pictures they advertise, and twice removed from the big-name stars, producers, directors, and writers who precede the titles. A shame: what we might call the submedium of the movie preview is probably more integral to maintaining our generalized perceptions of cinema than any single instance of the feature film.
Trying to mount a project for the next Media in Transition conference, I’ve been thinking about modern ephemera: emergent categories of the forgotten in new media. It’s an environment whose database narratives, paratextual proliferation, and reliance on ever-expanding memory and storage media and constantly-evolving archive and retrieval tools promise an end to the kinds of historical losses that cripple our understanding of, say, the dawn of cinema. LaFontaine’s paradoxical legacy, both glorious and pitiable, reminds me that there are still many gaps in the network — many lacunae in our vision, and much to explore and remedy.