24X36: A Movie About Movie PostersReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/13/17 19:05:58
According to the documentary "24×36," movie posters have had three distinct eras, two of which overlap.First, the Golden Age, whose posters were often genuine, enduring works of art, though never viewed at the time as anything but marketing tools. This era lasted till about the 1990s, when painted or illustrated posters fell out of favor, replaced by photos manipulated by imaging programs; such posters are noteworthy for their poverty of imagination, and for years, if it was a horror film from Miramax or its sub-shingle Dimension, it had the notorious “floating heads” design. This ugly era, held in disdain by poster cultists, has more or less persisted in the mainstream, while over in fan culture for the last decade or so we’ve been seeing lavish posters for beloved genre films.
This sidebar fan-driven era is presented in 24×36 as a triumph, a journey out of the wilderness for what is, after all, a corporate art form. Hollywood has turned posters into soulless, same-same placards — more overtly advertising, in other words — while the fans who create and buy the fan posters curate and revive a lost art. This is a neat, upbeat narrative for a documentary. It’s also a crock. 24×36 sits down with a few veteran practitioners of the form — Roger Kastel, who designed the iconic Jaws poster; David Byrd, responsible for a good many ‘60s rock posters — but mostly talks to fans, or fan artists. Filmmakers are represented, in one of the movie’s few solid calls, by eternal fan-turned-creator Joe Dante.
There’s a great deal of nostalgia for work — not only movie posters but, say, old comic books and even old movies — that was made not out of any artistic urge but because bills needed to be paid. The majority of movie-poster artists were anonymous, though some of them managed to sneak their signatures into the design somewhere. The poster artist had to answer to the director, to studio executives, to a lot of cooks. The fan artists apparently just do it out of love, and are allowed to do (within reason) what they want. They still get paid, though, maybe more than the old-school artists ever did. The limited-edition Mondo posters, considered by many the epitome of the new fan-service art, routinely sell out within minutes, and sell for tidy sums.
What I dislike about the Mondo aesthetic, apart from the company’s snob-boutique appeal (you, too, can hit refresh on your browser a hundred times for the honor of spending hundreds of dollars on a print!), is that the designs are often way too busy. Often, as in the preternaturally unattractive work of fan favorite Tyler Stout, the goal seems to be cramming as many characters and as much ludicrous detail into a poster as possible. It reflects a non-artist’s assumption of what art should be, a ton of visible work, a spaghetti-splatter of lines and shapes; never mind that the eye literally doesn’t know where to look. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the minimalist posters, which seek to get the whole movie across in one stark, usually silhouetted image. But even these designs are almost ostentatiously simple; they beseech you to coo over their cleverness, but they look like entries in a paperback-cover-design contest.
24×36 never finds anything ironic or chilling in the notion of fans selling the past to each other. (I think of artists like the Mondo artists as fan artists even though they’re professionals, because their art proceeds from their fandom. By the same token, a director like Edgar Wright sometimes veers frighteningly close to being a fan artist.) Do these artists ever do anything that isn’t about paying homage to others’ art? At least the old poster guys did other kinds of things, and the near-abstract style of Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now) or the burnished photorealism of Richard Amsel (Raiders of the Lost Ark) are uniquely their own. (Tyler Stout’s stuff is unique, too, I suppose, inasmuch as one is grateful there isn’t much other stuff like it.) Posters can be art, but they’re accidental art. I imagine Saul Bass thought of his Vertigo or The Shining posters as just gigs, and gigs with a high level of influence by powerful directors at that. But they endure as masterpieces of the form.The culture that produced the masters, however, is gone, and in their place we have eager, sometimes exceptional students genuflecting mainly at fanboy franchises, comics, action, horror, etc. Where are the grown-ups?
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