May 24, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 4 (The '90s-today)

In this last entry, we're focusing on film posters from the 1990s, the 2000s and today. You'll notice a couple new features on these posters. Some of them include awards honors they've won; a lot of them are teaser posters, which, I believe, is a relatively recent addition to the medium (I don't recall many '80s posters having teaser and final versions but I could be wrong). The '90s gave us the rise and dominance of postmodernity in film, a feature that is strongly evident in the pastiche poster. So much of advertising relies on our innate knowledge of cultural referents and film posters are no exception. I hope I've selected some of your favorites and a few you may not have seen before. Let's get to it...

Film: Barton Fink (The Coen Bros., USA, 1991)
Designer: Concept Arts

This poster is so ballsy, I love it. It perfectly sums up the absurdity of the Coen brothers' film. First we have John Turturro's face, that deer in the headlights expression, comically accented (as if he needed any help) by his Harold Lloyd glasses and Brillo pad hair (Eraserhead, anyone?). Then we have the mosquito, a bizarre touch those unfamiliar with the film would be baffled by. What's the significance? It's intriguing. The tagline seeks to mediate the eccentricty: "There's only one thing stranger than what's going on in his head. What's going on outside." The focus on Turturro's face, his forehead (his brain) and the mosquito (sucking out what's inside) make some kind of sense now. The whole poster emphasizes the film's main theme of interiority, head space, and the madness that comes from living inside yourself.

Film: Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, USA, 1992)
Designer: Bill Gold, USA

I highly suggest you click the link for Bill Gold, above. The man is a legend. Besides designing posters for every Clint Eastwood film from Dirty Harry to Mystic River, he also designed Cool Hand Luke, A Clockwork Orange, Marathon Man, The Untouchables...the list goes on and on. This teaser poster for Unforgiven is perhaps his masterpiece. It's everything a teaser poster should be. The build-up around the film was tremendous: Clint is back in a Western, his first since 1985's Pale Rider. It was supposed to his last Western (it still is), the anti-violence Western, the elegiac Western, the final nail in the coffin. With his back to us, Eastwood embodies "The End." Unlike the poster for The Outlaw Josey Wales featured last time, Clint still has a big gun, but the whole mood is more subdued, more reserved, mournful. The power of his iconic Western silhouette is what sells the poster; the design hinges on our collective understanding of the man, his screen persona and body of work. Like John Wayne framed in the doorway at the end of John Ford's The Searchers, it's an homage to an indelible cultural image.

Film: Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1992)
Designer: Unknown

Although the most famous image from this film is the shot of the Dogs strutting down the street to "Little Green Bag" in their professional suits and black ties (parodied here), the second-string imagine in the film's campaign were these wavvy silhouettes with colored shadows and the red paw print. The red is obviously blood, employed here, as in the film, as the unspoken ninth member of the Reservoir Dog heist squad. This version of the poster is for fans of the film because if you haven't seen it, the colors aren't yet significant. The most popular poster is equally powerful but more traditional in its portrayal of violence. The violence in this more colorful version is implied and satisfying for those who know what the red paw print references.

Film: Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1994)

Is there a more iconic poster of the 1990s? The Pulp Fiction poster is a perfect pastiche of a trashy '40s-era dime novel, from the bent and torn edges to the femme fatale on the cover. The design, like the film, is playfully self-conscious and self-referential (Uma Thurman is reading a pulp novel on the cover of Pulp Fiction--cutesy). I also like that this image is never seen in the film and really has nothing to do with the plot or the characters, merely the film's generic referent. It's kind of the quintessential postmodern document, a thing that references a thing that references many other things for no consequential reason at all.

Film: Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, USA, 1996)
Designer: Unknown

Basquiat is the story of street artist turned art world sensation Jean-Michel Basquiat, his meteoric rise, fall and death of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven. The poster is a photograph of actor Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat which has been painted over in the style of Basquiat and contemporary Julian Schnabel (also the director). The typography as an unique, hand-painted intimacy and refers to Basquiat's beginning as a graffiti artist. My favorite touches are the visible brushstrokes which gives the whole piece a more painterly feeling.

Film: Mulan (Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook, USA, 1998)
Designer: John Alvin

Let's get down to defeat...the hunnnnnns. Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mulan. Designed by the legendary John Alvin (E.T., Newsies), this teaser for my favorite Disney animated film of the '90s, is absolutely stunning. The harsh, dark lines on this poster tell you immediately that Mulan is unlike any other previous Disney princess--she's come here to kick ass. And much to Disney's and Alvin's credit, Mulan is always pictured either on her horse or with a sword; she's never seen in her pre-warrior wardrobe, never feminized or Orientalized. Good job, everybody. I would love to have this teaser poster on my wall.

Film: The 40-Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, USA, 2005)

In a cheery design that's been copied numerous times, this poster launched a mini design revolution along with Steve Carell's career. But it really only works if the guy on the poster is a relative unknown like Carell was at the time and if the tagline and title are sufficiently goofy. The contrasting joy of Carell's expression coupled with the big, fat "Virgin" (accented by the "Better late than never" tag) is the crux of the humor in this poster. And it is funny. And if the poster makes you laugh, that bodes well for the movie. Although the poster does commit the cardinal movie poster sin of that insidious blue/orange color palette, it's an engaging enough design to forgive.

Film: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2007)
Designer: Concept Arts

A good example of how teaser posters are often more evocative and dynamic than their mainstream counterparts, this leather Bible design tells us a whole lot more than the more straightforward character poster. The typography is straight out of the Old Testament, with their elaborate, almost Gothic serifs. The god and red accents are Biblical, too, as anyone who spent a significant time at Sunday School as a child knows. Jesus speaks in red ink only and I can still feel those gold-tipped pages. The single vertical red line is of course, the blood that there will be, drip-drip-dripping from the promissory title. Whereas later advertising focused almost entirely on Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, this poster indicates the crux of the narrative: the clash between Day-Lewis' ambitious oilman and the young preacher who stands in his way.

Film: 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, USA, 2007)
Designer: Ignition Print, USA

Another good example of how an alternate design can trump the dominant one. The main poster for this film (and the one used on the DVD jacket) was this one: a stylish and well-constructed, if traditional design. It features the films' two leads, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and plots them on opposite sides of the frame. It's not a bad poster by any means, but it's got nothing on this beautiful sepia teaser. Look at the textures on this thing, the little design flourishes, the unusual composition of text. The title resembles kinetic typography in static form. In fact the whole poster has a strange sort of movement; the eye bounces around from actors' names to the central figure, to the producers credit to the release date to the title to the tagline. The central figure is, in classic Western outlaw pose, a character in the film but neither Crowe nor Bale. It's Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, a supporting character but his distinctive leather jacket and gunfighter stance featured prominently in the advertising for the film. The poster is distressed and dirty, a nice indication of the film's period and setting. I like this one a lot.

Film: Funny Games (Michael Haneke, USA et al., 2007)
Designer: Crew Creative Advertising, USA

If Pulp Fiction was the poster of the '90s, this one-sheet for Funny Games has my vote for best of the 2000s. I hated the film but the poster is so ingenious, so simple, so powerful, how can you not love it? What makes the poster all the more triumphant is that it's a simple character poster--the lead character's face and that's it. How many times have we seen that design? But instead of a full portrait, lazy acting and heinous Photoshop, we're treated to an incredibly moving expression from Naomi Watts, her hair disheveled, cheek stained with tears. The tagline ("You must admit, you brought this on yourself") makes the agony of the woman all the more chilling. Funny Games is haute couture horror and the poster conveys that perfectly.

Film: I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA & Germany, 2007)
Designer: Franki & Jonny

Another poster that refers to another famous cultural document.

That's all that needs to be said, really. Oh, and happy birthday, Bob.

Film: Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark et al., 2009)
Designer: Unknown

Now, this is how you do provocative. I mean, which element would you like to protest first? The title? The fact that the title that uses a symbol of Venus as an inverted T (the inverted cross also being a potent anti-religious symbol), potentially pissing off both Christians and feminists? Or how about that tree whose roots seem to be made of naked human beings, and this tree is probably the Tree of Good and Evil and those two rutting humans are most likely Adam and Eve metaphors?! Although if I was placing bets as to which element ruffled the most feathers, I'm sure it had to have been Willem Dafoe's asscrack. Won't somebody please think of the children! But let's get a little serious here. I think it's a nice touch that, to me at least, it looks like Antichrist was scrawled with red lipstick; a subtle reference to that whole women-are-the-devil thing. It's a poster full of potent symbols guaranteed to offend--and I love it. Great poster.

Film: Watchmen (Zack Synder, USA, 2009)
Designer: Mojo

I might be a bit biased here because I unashamedly love Watchmen both as a graphic novel and a film, but I honestly think this is a cool poster. First off, the bold and boldly yellow typeface is straight out of the comic and it works as a strong design element for the minimalist poster (the Kick-Ass posters blatantly ripped off this font & color combo, so you know it was a good choice). I like that the cityscape is subtly sci-fi, the bluish/green tint to the sky and rain bypassing noir imagery towards science fiction. The image of a steamy, neon New York is very Blade Runner and the single, dark figure in the central of it all recalls Taxi Driver. Those are some darn good influences and make a satisfying poster.

Film: Moon (Duncan Jones, UK, 2009)

I love this poster. The trippy pattern of the moon is like one of the pictures you're supposed to stare at to see hidden images. With Sam Rockwell in the center of it, drawing our focus, he becomes the fulcrum of hallucinogenic imagery. The tagline is lame but understandably bland given the film's plot, which I can't really give away without some major spoilers. However, it is nice to see that the typographic shadowing effect on Sam Rockwell's name is not an arbitrary design choice but a conscious reference to events in the narrative. Nice touch.

Film: Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, USA & UK, 2010)
Designer: Ignition Print, USA

This is one in only 31 (thirty-one!!) versions of posters for Kick-Ass which include five full sets of various character posters. This Hit-Girl poster is part of a retro, throw-back recruitment series which also features Kick-Ass in Uncle Sam's characteristic I WANT YOU pose. Hit-Girl's is of course a pastiche of Rosie the Riveter, and a pretty good one, too. Although it might have been better if Hit-Girl was toting a gun the size of some of the hardware she sported in the film (massive, crap-your-pants kind of stuff) or one of her samurai sword or those Filipino folding knives she had. But gripes aside, posters like this prove that there still is fun and creativity to be had in the current poster design landscape and it doesn't all have to be re-treads of floating heads and those ghastly blue-orange posters.

Well, that concludes '50 Great Movie Posters.' As a concluding note, I always hear about how the state of movie poster design is a lost art and everything nowadays is so ugly. That's partially true, of course, but it's a stylistic trend. In the '30s and '40s, everything was painted and usually featured either floating heads or cartoon versions of the leads. The taglines were hyberbolic hooey like 'Pulsating with White-Hot Thrills!' and junk like that. Not all posters were classics, but now because they're old we bathe in nostalgia.

The trend we're in now is the character-based (usually two--either the protagonist/antagonist or the lovers), with plenty of floating heads and tons of badly Photoshopped actors. But there are good designs to be had. Even a standard-looking poster can rise above its compatriots due to the strength of its design (I'm thinking about this Sweeney Todd poster especially). However, when you compare that poster (one of two teasers) to the main character posters, it blows them out of the water. When will companies learn less is more? Design is king and yeah, Johnny Depp's got a pretty face but did you see that pose in the barber's chair? So much more appealing.

But the moral here is not to lose your head and claim the sky is falling every time the new poster for a Michael Bay film comes out. It's not the end of cinema. Movie posters are as essential as ever; they're eternally appealing. Movie advertising is increasingly divergent and widespread--iPhone apps, Slurpee cups and viral marketing. But even with a massively successful viral marketing campaign like The Dark Knight relies on older forms of advertising, movie posters, to reward its followers. The coolest posters for that film were revealed as part of the rival marketing campaign as rewards for the diligent. The rest of us got the mainstream posters but the faithful got the goodies.

Here's hoping this nascent decade delivers some more great poster designs. Thanks for reading!

For further information on movie posters, I'd recommend these websites:
-Movie Poster Database
-IMP Awards
-Learn About Movie Posters
-Vintage Movie Posters
-Film Posters

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 3 (The '70s & '80s)

As nearly everyone knows, the mid-'70s brought about the rise of the modern-day blockbuster film. In the next five years, poster design for the giant tentpole film would be perfected by artists like Bob Peak (Superman: The Movie) and Roger Kastel (Jaws). The hand-drawn montage character posters (think Indiana Jones) were perfected by artist Drew Struzan in particular, who probably designed the cover of every VHS you owned as a kid (he also did the poster for the first Harry Potter film). Both the symbol-centered teaser poster and the staggered character poster templates are alive and well in recent blockbusters--see: The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Without further ado, enjoy these posters from the 1970s and 1980s.

Film: Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, USA, 1971)
Designer: Piero Ermanno Iaia, Italy

What better way to open the '70s than with this counterculture classic? I love this multilayered mosaic design. I don't know much about the film other than if you were cool back in the day, you thought Easy Rider was for posers and Billy Jack was where it's at. Taking a cue from Dennis Hopper, Tom Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack, an even grimier, lower budget road-and-revenge picture than Hopper's Easy Rider. Billy Jack is a part-Native American who's sick of injustice and decides to go rouge. The images splashed against his face look like war paint and the hat and profile recall Sitting Bull. The rather lame tagline is easily overshadowed by the overall badassery of this poster's design. Any self-respecting SDS member would be proud to hang this poster in their dorm.

Film: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunel, France/Italy/Spain, 1972)
Designer: Ferracci, France

Oh, Bunuel, you so crazy. Made during a late career resurgence, this film is among his most famous. This is in no small part due to the iconic surrealistic logo. The bowler hat is an obvious reference to the haughty anachronism of the titular class--it's 1972, who wears bowlers? The legs are from an even earlier century, belonging probably to a wig-wearing, fake mole-sporting dandy. And the lips are the charm, that sickening "kissy kissy" charm of those making nice for social niceties' sake. The absence of any other signifiers forces you to ally the title with the image and the complementary colors of the title and the oversized lips cement the connection.

Film: Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France & Italy, 1972)
Designer: Unknown, USA

The most simplistic design on this list, Last Tango in Paris succeeds solely due to the assumption that everyone in the audience knows who Marlon Brando is, how cool he is, what a great actor he is, coupled with how relaxed and satisfied he looks on the poster. There's not much more that needs to be said. The font type is classically '70s. It doesn't tell us much more. Less is certainly more with a film of this reputation. It's rated X and the only films that get an X rating were, of course, for sex. Brando's reclining repose plus an X rating plus the gossip and controversy the film garnered upon release equals curious filmgoers equals box office.

Film: Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA, 1974)
Designer: Jim Pearsall & Richard Amsel, Italy

This beautiful poster from the Italian release of Chinatown is somewhere between Arts Nouveau and Deco. Although not dark, it couldn't be more noir in its imagery--the face of a beautiful woman framed by silky cigarette smoke, overseeing/haunting the fedora'd male protagonist. My favorite touch is that the smoke curls around the bottom of the poster, indicating everything will come full circle at Nicholson's character, probably, if we know anything about film noir (or cigarette smoke, for that matter), for the worse. 

Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, USA, 1975)
Designer: Unknow, USA

This one is simple: the title "flies" over Nicholson, the "cuckoo." Literal, playful and a clean design aesthetic. The fence and the lock in the title connote imprisonment but Nicholson's cheerful demeanor and skyward glance indicate his body may be incarcerated by his mind will never be chained. The design does a good job of utilizing Nicholson's star power to sell the picture while still avoiding blandness (nowadays the photos of stars used to sell films rarely have anything to do with the films themselves; too many film posters are just pretty, airbrushed US Weekly covers).

Film: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1976)
Designer: Andrzej Klimowski, Poland

Klimowski is probably most well-known for the posters he's done for the films of director Jim Jarmusch, but I love his interpretation of Taxi Driver. Whereas the U.S. posters focus on Travis Bickle's isolation, this one gets to the heart of his twisted psychology. He's a man obviously divided and the conflict between his outer and inner self forms the basis for the film's tension. I also like that Travis' checkered shirt pattern is extended in the striated pattern between his two halves; the long tails on the T and Z of the title echo the same kind of cleavage. 

Film: The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, USA, 1976)
Designer: Bill Gold, USA

Bill Gold has done a ton of posters for Eastwood's films, including Unforgiven (which I'll get to in the next installment). But I really like Josey Wales because it's so viscerally satisfying. Let's read from the top down. Clint Eastwood: by 1976 you already have a badass image conjured; this is post-Leone, post-Dirty Harry and the reputation is well established. BAM! The image: Clint is mad as hell and he's got two ways to vent his anger, one in each hand. I mean, just look at that face. Nevermind that Josey in the film is actually a comparatively nice guy who has to avenge his family and is only labeled an outlaw by the Union soldiers who killed his wife and daughter in the first place. I mean, the guy can't catch a break. You'd be mad, too. But the execution of this design is so straightforward and so effective. It's a great example of a star persona-centered poster that really delivers on the promise of some satisfying genre brutality. Good times.

Film: Eraserhead (David Lynch, UK, 1976)
Designer: Ben Barenholtz, photographer

If ever there was a cult poster, it's Eraserhead, the classic example of dorm room wall art. A sample conversation:

Co-Ed #1: Dude, sweet poster. Have you seen the movie?
Co-Ed #2: Wait, what movie? Oh, Eraserhead? Nah.
Co-Ed #1: Cool poster, though.
Co-Ed #2: Right? Look at his hair!

The photo of actor Jack Nance was taken by Libra Films head honcho Ben Barenholtz. The entire production was cheap and dirty, financed for a mind-boggling $10,000 with Lynch's AFI grant. With a budget like that, it's critical you have an eye-catching advertising campaign, which Eraserhead certainly does. And a poster of a spaced-out looking guy with crazy hair never hurts with your cult credentials.

Film: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979)
Designer: Bob Peak, USA

This poster was sent by grocery clerks. Sorry, couldn't resist. But seriously, folks, how sweet is this poster? I can practically feel the sticky heat and hear the mosquitos. Nasty. There's some subtle "Land of the Rising Sun" imagery going on here, with the red sun in the center and the emanating rays. Obviously Vietnam isn't Japan, but there's a subliminal Pan-Asian feel to the design. It's also clever how we transition seamlessly from Brando's face, dripping with water, to river below so we can see the reflected lights. It gives a sense of place and bearing in what is really, impenetrable and undifferentiated darkness.

Film: Alien (Ridley Scott, USA & UK, 1979)
Designer: Steve Frankfurt & Philip Gips, USA

In space, no one can hear you scream. Did you get the chills? Ooh, everything about this poster is impeccable. From the eerily spaced letters in the film's title (a lot of space between letters makes sense to the creepy green mist and unsettling crisscross pattern across the bottom (are those bodies? gulp!), everything about the Alien poster is meant to put you ill at ease. And yet, like the film itself, there are no obvious attempts at scares. There's no blood, no screaming buxom blonde, no monsters. It evokes a psychological horror. The unknown--is that an egg? Is it...hatching?--is what terrifies. The Alien poster perfectly matches the deliberate, slow-burn intensity of the film.

Film: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, USA, 1980)
Designer: Roger Kastel, USA

Just to give you an example of how important Roger Kastel was to '70s poster design, in addition to Empire Strikes Back, he also drew the poster for Jaws. So, yeah, kinda influential. Jaws was thirty five years ago and still that shark is instantly recognizable; the poster is as iconic as John William's score. Kastel's poster for Empire was inspired by the classic art of Gone With the Wind, perhaps a strange antecedent for a sci-fi film but one that ads an unexpected and refreshing romanticism to the film. I also really love the color gradation on this poster. The cool whites and blues conjure up the ice planet Hoth while the purples convey a kind of extraterrestrial mysticism. I don't know why but I always imagine deep space having lots of purples (depressingly, it seems the universe is actually beige--lame).

Film: Manhunter (Michael Mann, USA, 1986)
Designer: Unknown, USA

I don't know why, but I've always really loved this poster. I think it's because it's cinematic. The top is a close-up, the diagonal line is the cut, the second triangle is the long shot and the final section is the title card. The tagline ("It's just you and me, sport...") is a line from the film and its placement indicates William Petersen's spoken dialogue. The color palette is dark with pink and orange accents, perfectly replicating Michael Mann's neo[n]-noir style. It's a simple poster but a very effective one. It's stylish and moody enough without screaming "Eighties!" and gets its point across with little effort and a lot of cool.

May 22, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 2 (The '50s & 60s)

Poster design really started to change in the '50s with the rise of graphic design in advertising and animated title sequences in film. It's the decade of Saul Bass, whose work I'll only feature once in this list (or else I'd run the risk of featuring everything he ever did to the exclusion of all other designers). The '60s were an interesting transitory period in film and film advertising. Towards the end of the decade you see a turn toward the giant, big concept poster designs which would dominate into the '70s and herald the dawn of the blockbuster. But the decade as a whole is a mixed bag of traditional Old Hollywood design, hand-drawn and star-powered, and nifty new counterculture-infused posters.

Film: Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)
Designer: Waldemar Swierzy, Poland

It's interesting we start with this poster, by Polish master Waldemar Swierzy because the entry also ends with a Swierzy poster. This poster captures the film perfectly. Anyone who's seen Sunset Blvd. knows it's all about Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. It's one of the greatest performances in film history and the lady is batshit crazy. Swierzy wisely renders Desmond as a modern Medusa, the one-time beauty who become the monster (Freud allied the mythic lady to castration and maternal sexuality)--a pretty good symbol for Norma Desmond. She has her gorgons out for Joe Gillis (William Holden) since the word go, and gets him, too (then guess what happens). Sunset Blvd. is straight out of Greek tragedy, updated to the 1950s via the landscape of slinky, sinister, femme fatale'd film noir. This poster is full of potent symbols and allusions that do Wilder's film proud.

Film: Murder in the Cathedral (George Hoellering, UK, 1951)

This poster is an example of flawless execution of a concept. Running with the primary form of artistic expression in a cathedral (stained glass), the poster manages to convey both the plot and setting of the film (the title helps with this) while tying the event (the murder of St. Thomas Becket) to its religious/artistic roots. It's a simple design but it works beautifully.

Film: On the Waterfront (Eliza Kazan, USA, 1954)
Designer: Anselmo Ballester, Italy

This Italian poster is a good example of Europeans kicking ass when it comes to poster design. The American theatrical poster for On the Waterfront looked more like On the Watercolor Front. And while Ballester's painting may not be factually accurate (Brando doesn't wield a gun), it captures an emotional honesty. The final confrontation between Brando's Terry and the mob is tense and dramatic. This poster also conveys Brando in a boxer's pose, confronting the ominous, unseen opponent. It's compelling work and so much more interesting than its stateside counterpart.

Film: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Designer: Saul Bass

Of course the one Saul Bass design I'd pick would be Vertigo. It has to be. Although every other poster he did for directors like Hitchcock or Otto Preminger could have been featured here (imagine the dancing figures of the West Side Story poster or the jagged symbol of drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm), Vertigo is his most iconic and enduring design. It's the perfect example of integrated design work within and without a film. Bass designed the poster as well as the film's title sequence and consulted with Hitchcock on the spiral vertigo sequences in the film. Characteristic of perfectionists like Hitch and Bass, every element is contained within a single unified piece. 

Film: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, USA, 1958)
Designer: Reynold Brown

Reynold Brown's poster for this film is kind of the classic '50s movie monster poster (he also designed the poster for Creature From the Black Lagoon and Tarantula). It's goofy, it's campy, it's titillating. It's anything but scary. It's also a classic case of the poster being more famous than the movie. You're much more likely to have seen this image than the film itself. Heck, I haven't even seen it. But look closer and there's real pop art genius going on here. The yellow background is offset nicely by blue and red cars, creating a strangely warm and familiar glow to this scene of science run amok. 

Film: Pickpocket (Luc Bresson, France, 1959)
Designer: Hans Hillmann, Germany

Hans Hillmann is kind of the man in German film poster design. This poster for Bresson's classic is more understated than his typical work. I like the vagueness of the surroundings; it's not entirely clear where the hand is coming from or where it will return. What kind of clothes are these? I do like the textural, tactile feeling of this poster with the wrinkled palm and thick (perhaps woolen) clothing juxtaposed. It's a classic imagine that's instantly intuitive. It's what you might imagine if you heard the title "Pickpocket."

Film: Zazie dans le metro (Louis Malle, France & Italy, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, France

Ladies and gentlemen, the enduring power of photography for capturing gap-toothed cuteness. I mean, c'mon. Adorable.

Film: Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, France, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, France

You gotta love the French New Wave. Their new instinctively how to advertise themselves. As critics, they understood design, symbology and marketability. The film's symbol of the piano player without piano and a target on his back looks like something the Criterion Collection would have cooked up 50 years after the fact, but it was there from the first. The literal treatment of the title always amuses me. You think, oh, maybe "shoot the piano player" is like a metaphor for something. But, no. It means shoot him. Shoot him a bunch of times (and steal his piano while you're at it). 

Film: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
Designer: Unknown, USA

Okay, I'm cheating a bit here. This isn't a film poster proper; it's a stand-up ad placed in movie theaters during Psycho's theatrical run. Hitchcock looks very stern indeed. Better not piss him off, he kills scores of people every week on television! The stories are legendary, of course, as this ad demonstrates. Managers really did turn people away from shows if they were late. I can't remember all the details, but one newspaper (or maybe magazine) hired a pregnant woman to show up late to see if the manager would still reject her--and he did! No mercy. Hitch's theatrical theatrics made Psycho the must-see movie event of 1960, a brilliant marketing strategy and a paean to the power of the celebrity auteur.

Film: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962)
Designer: Unknown, Italy

A disturbing poster for a disturbing movie, this Italian version eliminates the picture's stars Davis and Crawford that appeared in the American campaign and focuses instead on the film's symbol: a cracked baby doll. The American poster features a child's nursery rhyme as tagline: "Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?" So, it's a pretty tough call as to which version is creepier.

Film: 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, Italy & France, 1963)
Designer: Uknown, Italy

I like the mixed media feel of this poster, a fitting expression of Guido's (Marcello Mastroianni) fragmented and distracted mind. Guido is looking up as if imagining, conjuring all the women in his life affixed to the scaffolding he must climb to construct the narrative of his life. The poster imperceptibly conveys the entire plot of the film simply from the posturing of the characters. Neat trick.

Film: Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, UK, 1964)
Designer: Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer wrote and illustrated a book that was a cherished memory of my childhood. It's called Moon Man and until I was researching the designer of this poster, I had no idea the two were connected. Could my childhood love of Moon Man unconsciously influenced my love of Dr. Strangelove? It was an awesome epiphany moment. I don't know what I love more about this poster: the rotundness of it all or the fact that Peter Sellers is nowhere to be seen. If ever there was a movie where Peter Sellers should be on the poster, it's Dr. Strangelove. And yet, I don't miss him. I like the oblique symbolism in this poster. The planes (the Cold War, its importance) is literally flying over the politicians' heads. The cocktail glass is a nice touch. I don't know what a "suspense comedy" is but the poster does a good job of conveying the film is a comedy via cartoon characters but doesn't make it too cartoony by not showing us anyone's face (this isn't The Pink Panther, after all).

Film: Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, USA, 1969)
Designer: Steve Frankfurt

Very similar to Frankfurt's more famous poster for Rosemary's Baby, I quite prefer the understated and yet overwhelming whiteness to the other poster's green tint. Starting with a traditional photo of a lovers' kiss, as we move down the poster (as one might down a hill...hmm...), we come to realize the blank space isn't blank, but purposefully, blindingly white. It's snow. In relief, the lovers become mountains and the lone, tiny racer in the middle of it all. Even the title typography reflects the film's premise. The overall effect is subtle but powerful which I prefer to Rosemary's Baby's vaguely menacing green-ness (of course, it could be argued that 'satan knocked me up' is not a super predictable condition, so maybe vaguely menacing works better than an obvious satanic red and black color scheme).

Film: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, USA, 1969)
Designer: Waldemar Swierzy, Poland

Poland has a history of doing awesome revisions of classic New Hollywood films and Waldemar Swierzy's take on Midnight Cowboy is a gem in that regard. Of course the American ads shied away from implications of Joe Buck's real occupation--nothing unseemly or homosexual in these ads. In keeping with tradition, the American posters focus on Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, two loners hunched up against the cold, dwarfed in an unfriendly urban milieu. Nothing wrong with these posters but I think the Poles got more to the heart of the matter here. The face is in shadow, the black/blue color scheme a reference to the film's title. We see nothing but plump, gaudy lips. Gender: unknown. They look female, but it's cowboy not cowgirl. Now we're in the danger zone. We can't see anything...except those lips. Lookin' for a good time?


Tomorrow we'll visit the '70s and '80s and marvel at the creation of the symbol-based, blockbuster-hockin' big event movie posters we know and love today!

May 21, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 1 (silent era-'40s)

Somewhere on the margins of cinema proper, at the nexus of advertising and fine art, you'll find the wonderful realm of the movie poster. Taking its cues from poster ads of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, movie posters didn't come into their own until the dawn of the movie star. Makes sense when you consider that film exhibition didn't become standardized until about that time (the early to mid 1910s) when specific actors and actresses were becoming popular enough for the star moniker. In the early days of cinema, films were short and usually seen as part of a carnival or exhibition via Edison's Kinetoscope or similar device. Theaters and stars developed at about the same time, encouraging the symbiotic advertising relationship between the star, the film, and the theater. This model and the prevalence of movie posters (included under that umbrella are all in-theater ads--lobby cards, stand-up displays, even putting the star on a popcorn tub) continue till this day.

In a series of four entries, I'd like to present fifty noteworthy posters; some are personal favorites, some are historically interesting and some are just pretty. Enjoy!

Film: The Cinema Murder (George D. Baker, USA, 1919)
Designer: Unknown, USA

I've never seen this picture. I hadn't even heard of it until I found the poster. It is both typical of posters of the time in its pleasant, pastel watercolor, and yet the portrait of Marion Davies is uniquely captivating. This is a quintessential of star power as commercial draw. The design tells you nothing of the story--you're compelled solely by Davies' look, her youthful, angelic features counterbalancing the implied violence of the titular act.

Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

If you want my opinion, silent era movie posters were dominated by foreign artists. U.S. posters tended more towards the deification of the star in mild, middle-of-the-road aesthetics, while the Germans (and French and Soviets) dipped into their rich graphic arts heritage to create some classic pieces. You'd be hard-pressed to find a boring poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (take a look for yourself), but this design from Germany is my absolute favorite. Reminiscent of Picasso and indicative of Weimar culture, this poster is just downright beautiful. The film itself is most often praised for its jagged, surrealistic art design which is hinted at by the posters' geometric design. However, it is not incomprehensible because it focuses on the film's lead characters. It's a good example of fusing marketable, recognizable aspects (the actors) with design elements from the film.

Film: The General (Keaton & Bruckman, USA, 1926)
Designer: Unknown, USSR

This film has so many different versions of film posters, it's crazy. But this soviet design is my favorite. Throughout his career in the U.S., Buster Keaton was usually portrayed in cartoon caricature in heavy-lidded blue to emphasize his prominent eyes. Here, though, his portrait is more photo-realistic. And I don't know why Buster is on an old timey bicycle when he spends most of the movie on the the runaway train, The General (is there even a bike in the movie?). Regardless of the intent, the design is instantly eye-catching and intriguing.

Film: The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, USA, 1927)
Designer: Unknown, USA

If there's a more stunning graphic representation of racist performance, I haven't seen it. The Jazz Singer is actually a long, boring, very Jewish film--Jolson's blackface performances dominate the reception of the film but it's only incidental to the plot. Still, it's all we can seem to remember. And although regrettable, it does give us this poster, which is sort of instantly appealing and repulsive all at once.

Film: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

Again with those gorgeous Germans. Metropolis probably has the greatest poster art of any movie, ever. It's so so so beautiful. This is the most famous version of the original poster. The logo, typography and image of the female robot have been adopted and adapted so many times since the film's debut over eighty years ago, they now seem almost intuitive cultural images. The Art Deco composition of contrasting and complementing lines is instantly appealing, and aren't we always looking for beauty in urban architecture?

Film: M (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

All Fritz Lang, all the time! Possibly the most purely graphic poster I can imagine, but with a title like M, what else but a strong, single graphic symbol would suffice? M for mark, M for murder, M as a brand or tattoo, as these posters convey--the scarlet letter of the 20th century.

Film: The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, France, 1937)
Designer: Bernard Lancy, France

A powerful plea for peace and humanity, Bernard Lancy's poster for La Grande Illusion is the ultimate anti-war illustration. Starkly black and white, the soldier looks molded from steel, or like a chess piece unable to move under his own volition. The sole colors emanating from the soldier's chest--red, white, and blue.

Film: Gilda (Charles Vador, USA, 1946)
Designer: Manfredo Acerbo, Italy

The Italians really know how to draw women. Many Italian films from this period totally ignore the conventions of American posters (highlighting the romantic leads) and just feature the woman. From an advertising standpoint, this is a pretty smart movie and it made for some great posters, like this one for Gilda. A Gilda pinup poster makes more sense than, say, a Casablanca pinup poster (that actually did exist--thanks to Italy again!). Rita Hayworth's entire performance as Gilda is like one giant strip tease (it literally IS a strip tease at points). This poster highlights Gilda's introduction/epic hair flip ("Me?") while teasing any prospective viewer: the poster presents Hayworth in her trademark fiery locks in a way the black and white film can't. Also of interest on this poster: it lists King Vidor as the director instead of Charles Vidor. Oops!

Film: Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
Designer: Segogne, France

Another film that has a great gallery of divergent poster designs, including this French version. Typical to films of this time, the poster favors the romantic coupling of the leads. However, I love Notorious posters because they almost always feature the key motif prominently. If you've seen the film, you know the importance of keys are to the plot. I like this use of the key motif specifically because of the way it splits the poster in half, dividing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as the figure of Claude Rains looms ominously. Great storytelling in this poster design.

Tomorrow will feature a diverse batch of posters from the '50s and '60s. See you then!