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Died Young, Stayed Pretty

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/14/09 12:00:00

"The permanent world of temporary art."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL. What, you didn’t know there was an underground indie-rock poster renaissance? Don’t worry - neither did the artists working smack dab in the middle of the thing.

Eileen Yaghoobian’s documentary “Died Young, Stayed Pretty” takes a look at the rise of modern visual street art and those who make it. It’s a curious world, without any real “community” - these kinds of artists don’t tend to socialize or compare notes, although there’s plenty of admiration, and a little cribbing of ideas, too. Yaghoobian mentions GigPosters.com as a sort of hub for the artists; the website offers a place to make permanent works whose very nature is temporary.

But the site isn’t the center of the film, and most of the artists interviewed here don’t mention it at all. In fact, there’s very little uniting these subjects socially, and most of them seem happy hiding out in their small corners of the world, enjoying anonymity as their strange visual inventions plaster the neighborhoods.

The concerts the posters are meant to advertise often rarely have anything to do with the final product. We learn that many artists have never heard of the bands they’ve been contracted to promote, resulting in images that will thrill the artist far more than clubgoers. Every now and then, the gig is meant to be hush-hush, allowing the poster artist to create an ad that’s almost completely illegible.

It’s a subversive response to the very nature of advertising - promoting something without promoting it, a visual commercial aiming not to entice the customer, but confuse, rattle, challenge. Many interviewees bemoan city ordinances banning their work; while city council might think sidewalks free of rock posters and posts with ads stapled atop ads atop ads helps clean up the town, the artists believe they bring a certain verve and sense of community personality to the landscape. They also miss the thought of your average stockbroker confronted by an explosion of eccentric, unexplainable, political, sometimes pornographic imagery.

And oh, how the artists love to toss in the sex. Sex is a common theme in rock posters, just as it is in rock itself. Some artists aim for the slyly rebellious, others for winking commentary on the idea, others still for immature giggles. It’s never uncommon to see a giant snake/eel/microphone/banana/whatever as penis proxy. Poster artists sure love their manjunk.

They also love co-opting someone else’s images. Retro advertising, pictures of celebrities old and new, clippings from here and there fill a good bulk of the work seen here. But instead of turning the film into a discussion of copyright and artist ownership, the designers offer a simpler, internal explanation: they’re allowed to do it because they don’t get paid. Indeed, earning a steady paycheck is viewed by most as selling out, one step closer to having to answer to The Man.

The movie is often as slapdash as the posters themselves. Perhaps spurred on by the temporary, in-the-now nature of poster art, “Died Young” has little need for a discussion the art form’s history; this isn’t a discussion of where the community has been or even where it’s going, but where it is right now. As such, Yaghoobian jumps around from interview to interview, linking conversation snippets by theme (trends of politics, religion, sex, etc.) but never providing a real history of the artists or their work. The only past we get to see is when the artists take Yaghoobian on a tour through their former glories, growing ever more excited about the chance to explain, in great detail, how their own personal obsessions found their way into their posters.

And yet that’s most of the fun, too. The fast moving, seemingly random approach gets us best into the heads of these artists, and we’re immediately intrigued by their passions. An artist convinced that the poster renaissance is headed for a fast crash? Another obsessed with Elvis Presley’s homosexuality? People thrilled to be hidden away in the corners of society, confounding the nine-to-five crowd with their beautifully strange compositions?

Yaghoobian’s film floats at its own speed, along without any solid destination, which frustrates, but it’s hard to see how adding structure would benefit the subjects, whose work is always meant for right now. Their art is meant to drift, and in “Died Young,” we drift along with them.

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