Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Art... and Commerce

Anybody who knows me knows my love for movie poster art. Let me rephrase that. Anyone who knows me knows not only my love for movie poster art, but knows and probably agrees that the old one-sheet, she ain't what she used to be.

Growing up a short walk away from the one-screen theater in my small Massachusetts town, seeing a Saturday matinee was often the highlight of the week for my grade school friends and I. We'd line up for almost anything that was playing in our 1970's and 80's early youths. Herbie Goes Bananas, Tootsie, T.A.P.S., Lady and the Tramp, Twilight Zone: The Movie... It just didn't matter what was on the screen that week. If was was "rated PG" or below, we'd be there. And waiting in line, often one wrapping around the front of the building way back when that happened on a regular basis, we'd study the "now playing" and "coming soon" movie posters hanging on the walls of that theater, inside and out.

I still recall being amazed by the Close Encounters one, and scared by the one for The Shining, and wowed by the now-classic Star Wars ones. But we always looked on these posters as simple advertising. It hadn't hit our young minds that these prints with cool looking imagery along the top two-thirds and all these strange names at the bottom could actually be hung on your wall at home and admired as art. Not until VCRs took over and every Video Hut in the area would hang up posters on their front windows, later taking them down and tossing them in trash tins with hastily-labeled "$5.00 each" signs taped to the front.

That was where it started for me. The Terminator was my first one. Many, many more followed. I started working at a movie theater when I was 17 and began to grab as many as I could get my hands on... and would sometimes make the journey from my small town world to the Big City (Boston) to the old Pix Posters shop in Cambridge where I picked up what was then the pride of my movie poster collection, the original one-sheet for Back to the Future, by the great Drew Struzan... the last real artist in the movie poster business.

Posters nowadays, though... They've not continued in the footsteps of their forerunners, sadly. Streamline-centric advertising agencies operating during the home video boom started to change things. Suddenly, advertising art wasn't all that important, they seemed to feel, and thus began the now-common practice of utilizing nothing more than simple photos of a film's star players (often half-obscured by darkness to give the viewer a sort of a feeling of menace) to take up most of the art-space.

Take, for example, the 2002 teaser poster for Reese Witherspoon's pseudo-comedy, Sweet Home Alabama. It's her face. That's it. Just a big, huge close-up. What is this image telling us about the film? Nothing. Is she a single girl in a turtle neck, making her way in the world today? A sassy housewife and mother? A maniac Stepford Wife preparing to wipe out every non-comformist in the deep south? Who knows? Who cares? Never saw it, never will. My college pals and I looked upon this abomination at a local mall and realized that as far as some are concerned, art is no longer necessary in film advertising. Dumb It Down was taking over. And by that rationale... why even bother with clever or catchy titles? With a poster like that, why not just call the film something like Reese Witherspoon #7 and save the ad people all kinds of cocaine time and money?

But all's not lost just yet. Greats like Drew Struzan are still around (although it was reported that he's given up illustration to concentrate on his also-great painted works). And filmmakers are getting more hip to the cause. Steven Spielberg even went on-record to say that if Struzan didn't create the poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he wouldn't make the film. A mixed blessing as it turned out; the poster was arguably more well-realized than the film. But whatever keeps Struzan's paintbrushes in action is good enough for me.

And as recent posters have proven now and again, even simple photography can work with elegance and style. Here are a few recent ones that caught my eye. What movie posters have you seen lately that caught yours?

Duncan Jones's Moon

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse

Zack Snyder's Watchmen (Comedian Teaser Version)

Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

Armando Iannucci's In the Loop

And now, a buncha quick reviews. It's been a busy couple of months... :)

Pulp Fiction (1994) ***1/2
Whatever Works ***1/2
Moon ***1/2
Terminator: Salvation ***
Observe and Report ***
Wolverine ***
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen **1/2
The Limits of Control **1/2

DVD/Home Video
The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Criterion Collection ****
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) ****
Escape From New York (1984) ****
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) ****
This Is Spinal Tap (1983) ****
The Conversation (1972) ****
Mean Streets (1972) ****
Goodfellas (1990) ****
Oldboy (Korean) ****
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974 ) ***1/2
Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1968) ***1/2
Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic ***1/2
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) ***1/2
Ashes of Time: Redux (Hong Kong) ***1/2
White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) ***1/2
Rent: The Theatrical Experience ***1/2
Over New England (PBS, 1990) ***1/2
IMAX: Fires of Kuwait (1992) ***1/2
Futurama: Bender's Game ***1/2
King of New York (1990) ***1/2
Solaris (2002) ***1/2
The Wrestler ***1/2
Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (HK) ***
Futurama: The Beast With A Billion Backs ***
Fantastic Four: Extended Director's Cut ***
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within ***
Homestar Runner: Sbemails Volume 6 ***
Kaiju Big Battel: More Better Fighto! ***
Spinal Tap: Back From The Dead ***
24: Redemption ***
Colors (1988) ***
Homestar Runner: The 50 Best Sbemails **1/2
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer **1/2
An Empress and the Warrior (HK) **1/2
Achilles and the Tortoise (Japan) **1/2
Driven To Kill (aka Ruslan) **1/2
Legendary Assassin (HK) **1/2
While She Was Out **1/2
LoveDeath (Japan) **1/2
Transporter 3 **1/2
Sniper (HK) **1/2
Melinda and Melinda (2004) **
Against The Dark **
Ong Bak 2 (Thai) **
The Grudge 3 **
Mirrors **
Chambara Beauty (Japan) *

Abbott and Costello
Keep 'Em Flying (1941) ***1/2
Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942) ***
Pardon My Sarong (1942) **1/2
Who Done It? (1942) ****

The Alan Parsons Project: Ammonia Avenue (remastered) ***1/2
Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (score by Kenji Kawai) ***1/2
Terminator: Salvation (score by Danny Elfman) ***
Spinal Tap: Back From The Dead ***

Wrong About Japan (Peter Carey, 2004) **1/2
Sayonara Bar (Susan Barker, 2005) **

Video Games
Ghostbusters: The Game (PS2) ***1/2
Yakuza 2 (PS2) ***1/2