While waiting in line to see a special screening of Destiny Rides Again at Film Forum, I overheard a conversation about the Annie Hall poster in the light box on the side of the theater. Like a scene ripped right from the movie, a very loud and obnoxious individual behind me decided it was necessary to share his opinion on the poster and all Woody Allen movies in general: “I’m not interested!” he announced smugly, at an ear-splitting decibel, as he tapped on the frame that held the iconic poster in place.
For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit Film Forum, it’s a modest three screen, nonprofit theater tucked away on Houston Street. It’s really a fantastic spot, avoiding the big ticket movies to give a new generation the opportunity to see a wide rage of movies on the big screen. Needless to say, I have been taking full advantage of their selection and my unlimited free admissions. But I digress, back to the man behind me with the ear-splitting opinions. Shocked and in awe of someone so boldly denouncing one of New York’s greatest filmmakers in the line of one the of the city’s premiere film houses, I glanced behind me to see if anyone else shared his blasphemous views.
As the fellow rambled on about something to do with Freud, an older lady in front of me kept turning around only to sigh and shake her head and each time we made eye contact I would slump my shoulders paired with a “Whaddya gonna do” sort of smile. A slave to the queue, I continued to listen as he
gave his “definitive explanation” on why he disliked Annie Hall:
“Look at his posture…he’s clearly uncomfortable, uninterested in the audience or even the girl for that matter. He’s balding, has glasses, he just looks like a wiener, how am I suppose to relate to that? And her? You can barely see her face, and the way they’re standing makes the scene so uninviting. Where does this movie take place? I dunno. And what’s with the list of names, the font is almost bigger than he is. I mean, maybe it’s the best movie ever, Christopher Walken is pretty cool, but I’ve never seen it and I never will.”
Now… I don’t necessarily worship the ground Allen walks on; however, I will say Midnight in Paris was a joy and delight and I would suggest it to anyone. But I found it really hard to restrain myself from not turning around; completely astonished by this person’s ignorance (and voice volume) I began imagining how ironic and poetic it would be if Woody Allen himself walked by to confront this person.
Before you think I’m some sort of film-elitist who scoffs at stranger’s movie preferences – the reason I bring this up is to actually introduce a short discussion on movie posters, and the styles and motifs I’ve noticed in the extensive collection I am working with at the Museum of the Moving Image. By no means is the following an exhaustive list of anything, but merely a collection of my observations I’ve made while working with this unique collection of movie history. The idea that a movie poster can illicit such a strong emotional connection, or in his case an aversion, is really quite remarkable I think. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my current task (which seems to be expanding everyday) is working through 6000+ movie posters, advertisements, film stills, lobby cards, cardboard inserts, and press books dating from 1948 – 1989. Throughout the last few weeks I’ve noticed many reoccurring themes, not only in the types of movies released, but also the way they are exhibited; some images have stood out as pieces of impressive printed art, while others are noticeable for their advertising gimmicks.
I suppose it’s a valid question…
First and foremost, these documents are advertisements meant to sell a product to a mass audience. In most cases, the act of producing and distributing these advertisements is purely commercial, often unscrupulous, and almost always seen as an unattractive endeavor. However, in some instances certain movie posters seem to have broken through the barrier of conspicuous consumption and become iconic images of cinematic history and popular culture. Dare I say it – some movie posters can even be considered prime examples of modernest and commercial art. On an even deeper level, I think the argument can be made that the movie poster is a primary link between the cinematic experience and the audience. For most movie goers, having a poster on their wall is the closest physical connection they have to the film making process; something tangible and accessible.
It’s fascinating to unfold every item of this collection, and because part of my task is to write a visual description of each piece, a closer inspection has resulted in a lot of pondering. When filling in the copyright dates for each poster in the written and online collection’s database, I can’t help but think of each poster as a direct product of its time. In most history classes, the importance of context is drilled into your head with a jack-hammer, but it really is the pinnacle of interpreting the past.
Post-War Horror Flicks
As one of my previous posts may have hinted, I really like horror movies. I’m a sucker for a good slasher flick and can always go for some blood-gushing, monster-ragging, brain-eating-zombie action. So naturally, there is nothing more satisfying than unfolding a large spread, full-colour sheet, like the one above for the 1953 science fiction classic: It Came from Outer Space, which just happens to be playing at Film Forum on Friday in all it’s original 3D glory. These posters stand out not only for their ridiculous subject matter, i.e. aliens disguised as house plants that eat people and metropolis-destroying mutant ants; laughable when we see these films now, but in the context of their era, these films must have been terrifying. The posters stand out as being aesthetically similar with vibrant colours and gimmicky-warnings; anything to attract a younger, weekend audience away from their family’s newly acquired, black & white, 12-inch television screen.
It wasn’t only the tv that threatened theater revenues and horror movie makers. Following the Second World War, the concept of a monster had altered irrevocably – now there were more recognizable faces attached to evil. The horrors of the war put the genre into perspective, real mad scientists really did exist and Frankenstein had nothing on the Atom Bomb. With too many horror stories of their own to appreciate it on the big screen, the genre as a whole had to adapt to survive in the second half of the twentieth century. A new breed of monster evolved to fit the unnerving time that was the Cold War. The red scare and threats from within combined with the unpredictable faith of your nation’s existence resting in the hands of a chosen few. Oh, and we can’t forget aliens. In 1947, the first ‘official’ sighting of a flying saucer was recorded, followed a few months later by the Roswell Incident. The horror films of the 1950s focused on the pace of technological change, the uncertainties of modern science and the unseen threat; appropriate and reflective of the reality for the American, and often Canadian, public.
The 1950s is also the era when horror films got relegated to B-movie status, but thanks to clever marketing, teenagers flocked to drive-in movie theaters in hordes. Regardless of the little attention paid to character development, plot stability or production value, these movies still provide a cheap and entertaining thrill for today’s audience; while the posters continue to offer a crude, techni-colour, snapshot of the way America desperately didn’t want itself to be.
Iconic Symbolism & Saul Bass
I wanted to highlight Saul Bass even though there are only a few of his iconic pieces in the Liebowitz collection I’m working with, but I encourage you to check out saulbass.tv which has an amazing digital collection of his works. Brass started in Brooklyn in the 1940s, but moved to Hollywood where he worked at an entry-level position designing titles and text for producer/director Otto Preminger. Preminger was impressed by his graphic ambition and creativity and asked him to create the opening title sequence and poster for the 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm. Brass worked very closely with Preminger to create a strong and long-lasting image that didn’t stand alone from the film, but acted as a visual summary for the film’s subject matter, plot, and mood. Brass’ recognizable visual style is modern and minimalist in the sense that he strips images down to their elemental form. Saul Bass worked alongside Hitchcock, creating some of the most iconic movie posters, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Bass also designed titles for the notoriously outspoken producer/director Billy Wilder – all three, in fact, actively separated themselves from the major Hollywood style, and although they still made studio-backed, commercially viable films, they maintained a distinctly individual and alternative aesthetic, which makes no surprise all three filmmakers collaborated with Saul Bass.
As my project is winding down and I spend most of my time in front of a computer with IMDB double checking film credits, my mind likes to wander. Like any historian I try and put myself into the position of the people I’m studying, in this case, the average movie goer of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. What movie would I have seen? Would I be lured by the brightly coloured horrors of outer space or would I be more intrigued by the bold and symbolic collaborations of Saul Bass’ and Billy Wilder. Like it or not because of this project, ever single movie poster I see I immediately try putting the images into a social and historical context. I try and interpret exactly what the movie is about, or what the advertisers and graphic designers want me to think the movie is about. One perfect modern example I can offer is the teaser poster for the highly anticipated film written, directed, and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master. The film has been swirling with controversy since its script was leaked two years ago and people have been itching to get their hands on anything that hints at its production and plot. When the one-sheet poster was finally released earlier last month, the internet lit up with interpretations.
Is the bottle half-empty or half-full? I suppose we will have to wait until September, 2012.
I find it remarkable that while advancements in technology move us closer to a paperless society, the printed movie poster remains relevant and in demand. Hopefully, I have inspired fellow film-goers to take a closer look at the posters that line the walls of their favourite movie theaters. What is this poster trying to say and how are they saying it? I encourage you to peruse some really innovate movie poster images. Oh, and for giggles, you should sneak a peak at the hopeless cliches.There is no harm in questioning what you’re consuming, or placing it in the larger social-political context of its creation; besides what else do you have to think about while waiting in the impossibly long popcorn line? One word of advice though, Marshall McLuhan is always off limits as a movie theater line topic. You never know who may be listening…