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What Ever Happened to the Movie Poster?

A great movie poster is more than just a collector’s item or a splendid marketing tool.  Like a great album cover (by Roger Dean, say, or Hipgnosis), or a crisp and elegant movie review (by Roger Ebert, or Pauline Kael)—or a snappy and playful teaser trailer for a film—the ideal movie poster is a handsomely mounted and considered response to its subject—a rich and pleasing statement on its own that makes you want to experience the item it distills.  Hand-crafted for the most part, yes, but beautiful, and original.  A great movie poster sells the movie, and it sells itself.  You can love it on its own terms.

Am I suggesting that movie posters are, as a form and a trade, categorically dead in the water?  Of course not.  Search the net for what the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and the Andersons (Wes and P.T.) have inspired, at their employ and otherwise, and you will see what I mean.  Yet, in a great many cases, fan art, consciously retro and consciously pissed at the botching and slag-heaping some of the great repackaged and remastered movies of our cinematic wonder years have suffered in the home media market, trumps the original art these films had commissioned for them.  In sum total, the fan art in question represents a fed-up disavowal of Hollywood’s lazy approach to the form:  We are tired, these artists essentially say, of the cheap Photoshopping your marketing and graphic design hacks have slapped together, with little to no imagination or cleverness.  Stop using Trajan Pro with which to type everything out.  Stop, STOP!, churning out movies and movie-related product that only make us pine for the glories of cinema past!  Do something fresh.  Do something personal.  Stop being lame.  Stop gutting us with your glut of movies manufactured by marketing committee and think tank!  

Need I remind you, dear, constant reader, of what a lame modern movie poster looks like?  For kicks, let us compare and contrast (from inside the rec room of our retirement home for irritable movie snobs) the dull cut-and-paste job Paramount did on a recent DVD (pictured below on the left) with the poster from the year of the film’s original release (pictured below on the right).  Now, pardon the high-flown tone of the complaint here, but which poster best conveys the lurid, sinister, spell-like, and dream-like nature of the film?  Which one shows a greater command of color, a more evocative take on the film?  Which one has more panache?  Obviously, the DVD art lifts its lettering primarily from the original hand-drawn poster.  Obviously, Paramount was just going through the motions, tacking the design of its “Centennial Collection” version of the film in about as artless and stillborn a manner as the major Hollywood studios seem to make the bulk of their movies nowadays.

 

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Just as bad movies have always existed, so have bad movie posters.  As you scroll through the slideshow below of my favorite movie posters, you will see that all of them hail from the long-ago past.  All of them are bold and aesthetically pleasing—true to the films they represent and the sensibilities of the artists who made them—committed to exciting the viewer into seeing the films again, or for the first time.  These posters are distinctly of their time, too.  Even within the dated deco quality of the oldest posters I memorialize, there is an immediacy, a sense that the film’s financial fate rested very much on the power of the artwork.  No golden cinematic era truly exists, not really; and I make no claims as to the purported permanent death of movies/movie posters.  However, Hollywood used to care more.  Of that there can be no doubt.  Profit has always been its main driving concern; but there was once a pride, a real pride in the storytelling.  And the movie poster used to mean so much more to us, and that had a great deal to do with the role movies used to play in our culture and in our lives.  The modern movie poster is largely a perfect, microcosmic illustration of how casual and lazy the film business has gotten at making and selling its product.  Once upon a time, even the profiteers seemed to be swept up with the magic of the medium.  Am I biased?  Is my perspective helplessly limited by the likelihood that yesterday’s junk probably looked a lot crappier to yesterday’s cineaste?  I do not know I can assuredly answer that question, sans doubt, sans pretension.

I do know this, though:  Strictly in terms of the folks I know and surround myself with, none of us really goes to the movies anymore.

Note:  By no means is this lineup meant as a comprehensive compendium of personal favorites, nor is it meant as a primer for the choice artists that once plied their trade in service of the movie poster form.  

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diabolik-poster-bava

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FistfulDynamite_US1

honkers

enterdragonposter

exorcist_ver2

Cleopatra_Jones_Casino_Gold_(1975)

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the-gauntlet

spywholovedme

apocalypse_now_ver2

escape_from_alcatraz

empire_strikes_back_ver2

forbidden-world

big_trouble_in_little_china

cobra

louiebluie

 

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The Dictionary of Glam Rock

Alice Cooper: glam guignol

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Bowie: space glam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cockney Rebel: pub glam

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Jobriath: show-glam

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Kiss: arena glam

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Lou Reed: Warhol glam

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Mott the Hoople: Dylan glam

alltheyoungdudes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Dolls: subway glam

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Queen: glamesty

anightattheopera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roxy Music: Teutonic glam

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Slade: glam-ball

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Sparks: Jap-cabaret glam

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The Stooges: death glam

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Sweet: Hollywood glam

sweetfannyadams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T. Rex: Garden of Earthly Delights glam

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The Rolling Stones – Some Girls

Rolling Stones Some Girls LP

Inspired as much by Keith’s kicking H and his acquisition of an MXR delay pedal as it was by Mick’s slumming around New York, horny as hell, Some Girls is commonly seen as the Stones’ last great album—and it is, though Tattoo You is certainly no slouch.  The expanded lineup of the early- to mid-70s is gone.  In its place is the core quintet, holed up in a Paris studio, laying it all down the line.  Mick tosses off a few provocative poses and a few raunchy lyrics; but like everyone else here, his heart seems to be in the game.  And while his bitchy kiss-offs (“Lies”; “Respectable”) bite, his bitchy laments (“Far Away Eyes”; “Beast of Burden”) walk a tighter emotional tightrope and succeed admirably.  The album’s real heroes, though, are Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, one of the more stout, yet one of the more relaxed, rhythm sections to hail from Dartford.  Putting all this aside, Some Girls joins the ranks of the great Stones albums because it acts as a sort of two-way mirror:  At their best, the band could always out-swing the musical trends they mimicked.  This record is very much of its time (the punk and disco moves ensure that), but it reinforces the notion that the era could only ever hope to mirror a great Stones record.

Rating: A

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Jack: 2014

Tonight I offer my year-end lists.  Starting next month, I go into self-imposed exile (blogotistically speaking) due to some important things I have to take care of personally and professionally.  Favorites are marked in bold:

Albums

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A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (Sparks)
Alpha Centauri (Tangerine Dream)
Brain Capers (Mott the Hoople)
Even in the Quietest Moments… (Supertramp)
Outrageous (Kim Fowley)
Slow Dazzle (John Cale)
The Charm of the Highway Strip (The Magnetic Fields)
The Child Killer of Flies (Jean-Claude Vannier)
Tom Verlaine
Touch of Evil (Henry Mancini)

 

I streamed 116 albums, only three of which were released this year.  (I have the new U2 on iTunes but can’t be bothered to listen to it.)  So, yeah.  Most of these picks are old as f*ck.

Movies

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At Long Last Love
Boyhood
Castello Calvanti
Dawn of the Planet of Apes
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Milius
Passion (dir. Brian De Palma)
The Italian Job (1969) 
The Rocketeer
The Unknown (dir. Tod Browning)

 

Novels / Novellas

HHhH

Black Hole (Charles Burns)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Hannibal (Thomas Harris)
HHhH (Laurent Binet)
Ozma of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
Saga (Brian K. Vaughan)
The Events at Poroth Farm (T.E.D. Klein)
The Stand (Stephen King)
The White People (Arthur Machen)
The Willows (Algernon Blackwood)

 

I read 36 books (fiction, non-fiction, even screenplays).  Of the non-fiction I read, Fritz Lang in America (Peter Bogdanovich) and You Never Give Me Your Money (Peter Doggett) impressed me the most.

Short Stories

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“Black Canaan” (Robert E. Howard)
“Cool Air” (H.P. Lovecraft; also see the Creepy comic version by Bernie Wrightson)
“Pigeons From Hell” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Fires of Asshurbanipal” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Graveyard Rats” (Henry Kuttner)
“The Man Who Collected Poe” (Robert Bloch)
“The People of the Dark” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Trick” (Ramsey Campbell)
“Worms of the Earth” (Robert E. Howard)
The Pat Hobby Stories (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

 

Songs

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Angel Baby (John Lennon)
Far From Any Road (The Handsome Family)
Florida (STRFKR)
Green Manalishi (Fleetwood Mac)
Hot Smoke and Sassafras (Bubble Puppy)
Inspector Norse (Todd Terje)
My Sex (Ultravox)
Simple Sister (Procol Harum)
Sour Milk Sea (Jackie Lomax)
Tropic of Night Frost (Michael Bundt)

 

TV

twilight-zone-season-2-9-the-trouble-with-templeton

“Split Second” (Tales From the Crypt, season 3, episode 11, HBO)
“The Trouble With Templeton” (The Twilight Zone, season 2, episode 9, CBS)
Silicon Valley (season 1, HBO)
True Detective (season 1, HBO)

 

I don’t know that we are in the golden age of TV.  I just don’t watch that much of it.  While I made it through the second seasons of Hannibal and House of Cards, their over-the-top M.O. is beginning to grate on me.  HBO programming has greater riches:  Beside the first seasons of Silicon Valley and True Detective, I enjoyed the little I saw of Looking, and of Game of Thrones (I’m sure I will binge on it; I like that it’s waiting for me).  In 2014 I found myself drawn more to the episodic series format than the two-hour movie format.  I didn’t expect that to happen.

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Near Dark

neardarkNear Dark is a vampire Western.  The first hour shows a farmhand’s seduction by, and ‘nitiation into, a roving, nocturnal gang of sh*t-kickers who happen to be bloodsuckers.  In the movie’s last third he escapes from the group. Full of gore and fiery explosions, the movie succeeds as an atmospheric mash-up but leaves you feeling a bit cheated. 

Effective horror films plunge you into darkness and keep you there.  Just because they end satisfactorily does not necessarily mean the evil you see is contained.  Near Dark is modern.  It dispenses with almost all the old-fashioned trappings of vampire lore.  There aren’t any capes, castles, or coffins; no counts, countesses, crucifixes, or cloves of garlic.  No sex, either.  The romanticism is gone.  Here, vampirism as rich metaphor is de-fanged.  The monstrosity of the bloodsucker’s death-life is all you get.  Where Near Dark begins to stumble is in its treatment of the farmhand, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar).  We like him but his transformation into (and from being) a vampire doesn’t really change him.   

Caleb is much too sweet, and stays that way after he falls in with the pitiless, surrogate family of vamps (memorably played by Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, and Joshua Miller).  Once bitten, he remains averse to feeding off of innocent people and stays true to the girl who turned him.  (They couple when he sucks her wrist.)  Basically, he never lets himself become a vampire-by-definition (i.e., a creature of the night who dispassionately kills in order to survive), and gets off the hook easily (SPOILER: his dad gives him a blood transfusion, which is dumb because the blood would be food, not an antidote).  Throughout the movie, which de-romanticizes the vampire (as much as any film I’ve seen), Caleb is virtually incorruptible.  That is the film’s first big flaw.  

The second big fail is the last act.  (Skip this paragraph if you wish to ignore some SPOILERS.)  After Caleb saves the vampires in a shootout and finds his real family again, the vampires get back at him for…what?  Leaving them?  Knowing who they are?  Reunited with Caleb, his real family doesn’t care to sic the authorities on the vampires, much less hunt them down on their own.  Still, the movie plants a false motive for Caleb to have a showdown with the vampires when they kidnap his younger sister (one of the boy vamps wants her as his eternal companion) but spare Caleb and his dad.  From this plot point on, Near Dark undermines itself.  By baiting Caleb and being generally careless, the vampires cease to pose a serious threat.  They take chances that feel out of character for them.  As night-runners who’ve been night-running for YEARS, always careful to avoid sunlight and detection, they would not put themselves in jeopardy the way they do in the last act.  They just wouldn’t.  But Near Dark makes good triumph over evil, anyway.  It’s a convenient finish.      

If you have not seen Near Dark, you should.  Adam Greenberg’s cinematography and Stephen (son of Robert) Altman’s set designs create a stark Edward Hopper vibe.  You believe you’re in the wasteland of the American Midwest:  The wide open plains that dim into the horizon are sometimes bombed with light, and by night the squat roadside establishments and small main streets cluster with shadow.  The makeup is wonderful.  Even if it’s not particularly fun or thrilling, Tangerine Dream’s electronic score is appropriately moody.  The scene in the bar is a small masterpiece of tension, Kathryn Bigelow’s best bit of directing to date.  All of these elements make the movie something.  What that something is is…not a classic (the storytelling flags), but a cross-genre exercise that any scholar of horror should check out.

Rating: B+

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