Movie Art: On the Road

As the 2011 iteration of Cannes rages on (Boos for Malick! A standing O for The Beaver! von Trier calls himself a Nazi!), there's been a steady drip of hints, teases, and early reveals of films hotly anticipated and otherwise. The first footage from Tin Tin (as well as the initial poster art, which I might come back to talking about) bowed yesterday, for example, and today the first poster for Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road spread across the social networks. According to Collider, the poster originated from a LiveJournal user (these still exist in 2011?) who Twitpic'ed it from Cannes.

Now, as a rule, I tend not to get too enthusiastic about this kind of early art. Partly because it might be fake (the quality and set-up of the photo of the poster makes me suspicious of its legitimacy), partly because this will likely not reflect anything beyond an early "Hey, how you like this?" feeling out of the market.

I hope either of these are right in this case because this poster is boring and generic and disappointing. Is this an adaptation of Kerouac or Nicolas Sparks? The whole into-the-wide-blue-yonder approach to this poster is obvious and easy, and the title treatment — just about center, simplistic font — gives it a cheap paperback quality. Also bothersome is the desaturated, Hisptamatic palette. By this point, that aesthetic is so overused and devalued that to use it here screams slapdash and creatively empty.

So what should this first poster have been? Something abstract and off-kilter to connect this movie (which has many people uneasy about how it will interpret a classic piece of American literature) to its askew, Beat roots. Take a look at Kerouac's idea for what the cover of his book should've looked like. Everything is about propulsion and movement, from the angled title treatment to the way his name travels down the road/page as if it were being seen from a speeding car (not unlike the opening credits of Kiss Me Deadly). The Penguin Classics cover from a (relatively) recent edition of the book is also about propulsion, albeit in a more general (and boring) sense. Look again at the Cannes poster and everything feels static. There's a suggestion of dust being kicked up by the car on the lower right, but it looks more like a Hipstamatic-style artifact. No, nothing is moving — not the car, not the clouds. Even the road is straight, flattening everything out and further eliminating any sense of moving in space.

If it were me designing this poster (and thank God it's not — my design skills are terrible), I would strip this down to its barest essentials: the road, the title, and some hint of a release date. (I'm not sure why Walter Salles' name is on the Cannes poster; he's not exactly a household name with any kind of selling power.) I would start with an image not unlike Robert Frank's photo of a darkened road, which so caught Kerouac's attention, from his series The Americans. Then I'd place the title, etc., on the road itself, positioned a la the opening scroll of Star Wars to give it some kind of spatial existence while also giving the art itself a feeling of motion.

Like I said, I hope this first poster is just an early, tossed-off attempt to reiterate that this adaptation is really, actually, honestly happening (after decades of starts and stops). Because then that next poster will be the one that really gives us a sense of the tone and attitude of the film. But if this is actually the direction the filmmakers and producers are going, that would be a real shame.

Movie Art: The Adjustment Bureau

While we’re on the topic of Jekyll and Hyde ad campaigns, I present The Adjustment Bureau. Incredibly, the poster on the left is the one-sheet for this Philip K. Dick adaptation starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp (!), and Roger Sterling. It looks like a cool, fun movie, but not in this poster. This poster screams Photoshop. It screams thrown together. It screams run-away-from-this-as-quickly-as-possible-because-we-didn’t-think-enough-of-the-movie-to-put-more-than-five-minutes-into-the-poster-design. According to the IMP Awards, the poster was created by The Cimmaron Group, which is surprising since in the past they’ve come up with some knock-out one-sheets for the likes of Little FockersBig Mommas Like Father, Like Son (don’t even get me started on that title), Invictus,War of the Worlds, and Superman Returns. (Stray observation: There’s a lot of WB product on their IMP Awards page. Maybe they’re a preferred vendor…)

Meanwhile, the poster on the right is far more engaging because it’s more minimal and mysterious. You look at the image and wonder about the movie, you want to know more, whereas when you look at the one-sheet you wonder “What were they thinking?” and want to scrub the image from your brain as quickly as possible.

The only thing I can figure is that Cimarron was trying to tap into The Adjustment Bureau’s pulpy, noir-ish, B-movie spirit with the one-sheet. But how did it go so wrong? It looks like a rough draft, a template for some bigger idea that never materialized. Just look at Damon and Blunt. They look like they had their picture taken at some theme park novelty keepsake photo stand. Meanwhile, the shadows on the buildings are meant to feel ominous and instead come off like refugees from the bowdlerized Eyes Wide Shut orgy scene. (A few commenters on the IMP Awards page rightly commented that there is also a failure of perspective. Spot on.) The only thing that works — albeit not the way intended — is the tagline. If nothing else, Damon and Blunt look like their making a mad-dash escape from this Photoshop nightmare.

Contrast that with the poster on the right. It’s subtle and engaging, tapping into those same pulp/noir/B-movie impulses in a far more elegant way. The lighting is what makes this poster soar, though. The contrasts on the hat and face, creating an ominous tone accentuated by the tagline gives you that off-put feel that Dick’s stories tend to convey. But it’s not a great poster, either, because it’s too busy. The image and central text with the movie’s URL are strong enough to carry the weight. Yet there’s the title treatment, release date, and top-bill cast tucked into the top-right corner, almost like an afterthought. It’s distracting and feels tossed off, which compromises an otherwise decent poster.

But, really, how good is it? It’s OK at best — relative to the offensiveness of the one-sheet, this poster looks like a masterpiece. In the end, though, The Adjustment Bureau is a failure of marketing. I just hope that’s not a reflection of the quality of the film product.

Movie Art: Rabbit Hole

Earlier this week, the Internet Movie Poster Awards recognized the one-sheet for John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of Rabbit Hole as the Best Movie Poster of 2010. It’s the one on the left, and it’s hard to argue with the choice. It’s subtle and powerful, with a clean font, a decent tagline, and an array of images that could be dubbed the Stations of Grief — not quite the 12 Steps, but close enough. Particularly appealing is how, while the majority of the poster is given to Nicole Kidman (she’s the bigger star after all), Aaron Eckhart is given a fair amount of representation with them coming together in some state of happiness in the middle. It’s a beautiful visual representation of a film about parents coping with the loss of a child and the strains, breakdowns, acceptances, and rebirths that go with it.

But for as close to perfect the poster on the left is, the one on the right is that far from it. The poster on the right is an earlier attempt at a one-sheet for Rabbit Hole, and, boy, did they miss. It’s obvious and as subtle as a jackhammer to the face. The title treatment is boring and derivative. It’s a wasteful use of space, and the tire swing visual metaphor, while noble, is easy, laughable, embarrassing. And what about the tagline? “Love will get you through”? Oh! Because it’s Rabbit HOLE! Clever…

The first time I saw the poster on the right it came in a PR email for the film. Acquainted as I am with the Mitchell’s films (Hedwig and the Angry InchShortbus) and knowing how well executed the one-sheets were for them, I was taken aback by the shoddy work staring out from my inbox. Lionsgate was going to have a hard enough time pitching this movie, and that first attempt wasn’t going to do anyone any favors. Fortunately someone saw how big of a problem that earlier poster was and rethought the approach. I’m glad they did — not only did Mitchell and his film get the poster they deserved, but the world was given a great piece of poster art.

The company that designed both Rabbit Hole one-sheets is Ignition Print, which I see is also responsible for the excellent poster art for the remake of The Mechanic. Can they do something about that film’s tagline, though? “Someone has to fix the problems”? Groan. It would be interesting to learn the production history of the Rabbit Hole poster, though, if anyone from Ignition Print happens to stumble upon this post and would care to throw their two cents in…

 

Movie Art: Hot Lunch

I was going to make some pithy Thanksgiving quip here because I thought this was just some schlocky D movie. But it turns out that it’s really just a porno. (Who knew pornos had posters? I guess people who frequent porno video stores…) And, really, how can you not talk about the it’s-a-porno-so-obviously-it’s-overwrought symbolism here?

The flight attendant/military officer/cop/<insert generic occupation here> serving up herself on a platter is groan-inducing enough, but in case you don’t get it there’s a slice of pie in the foreground (a full 20 years before American Pie became a Porky’s-redux-on-steroids cottage industry). Yet the pie is on a plate, situated next to a knife, fork, and spoon. The pie is the obvious metaphor (“like warm apple pie…”), yet is the poster implying some sort of violence—and possibly cannibalism—by introducing these violent utensils used for stabbing, scooping, picking, stirring, and consuming? Then there’s the poster’s focal point. I suppose we’re meant to assume the steam/smell wafting up from the platter is this temptress’ way of luring us in with the promise of some irresistible main course. Yet we could just as easily read it the other way: She was tempting, until she pulled up that lid and we caught wind of those day-old leftovers (Thanksgiving quip!). Visual art history, especially comics and animation, is rife with stink lines and the like meant to convey how awful someone or something smells. This image is tapping into both the apple-pie-on-the-windowsill image of tasty foods and the we-know-that-smells-like-crap-because-of-the-stink-lines tradition of comic art.

At first I thought this poster was hilarious, but the more I thought about it the more I found it lazy and disturbing. On the basest level, it doesn’t really entice you to watch what it’s advertising. Maybe porno viewers in 1978 were good at deciphering poster art for what would be time-well-spent and what would be flaccid excuses for titillation, but this poster conveys neither, at least to these 21st century eyes. And, granted, not every porno viewer is a discerning cultural critic (anyone have numbers on this from 1978?), but look at this poster for more than a minute and you can’t help but be turned off not only by the allusions to violence and worse, but also by the revolting implication of what’s being touted as “finger lickin’ good.”

Movie Art: On the Bowery

They say there are 8 million stories in NYC. Watch On the Bowery. There are 8 million stories on every face that appears on the screen. A beautiful, perception-altering film.

A Brief Consideration of NYRB Classics on Forbes

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A couple weeks back, a long-gestating piece on the independent publisher New York Review Classics (NYRB Classics) finally saw the light of publication on Forbes.com's Booked Blog. The piece was originally slated to be part of a larger books package on Forbes.com, but when the package was killed the piece went to Booked. But I can't complain about the results -- 97 Facebook shares, 46 retweets through the Booked blog, it got picked up by a bunch of people on Twitter, and the New Yorker's Book Bench blog linked to it. Those who can't write for the New Yorker can only hope to be linked to by the New Yorker.

For anyone unfamiliar with NYRB Classics, it's the book equivalent of the Criterion Collection and you owe it to yourself to dig into their deep library of lost or forgotten classics and new-to-English or improved translations of important works of world literature. But be warned: you will become addicted. After entering the world of NYRB Classics through Novels in Three Lines a couple years ago, I find myself picking up books in the series that I only have tenuous interest in because I trust that NYRB Classics won't steer me wrong. And, for the most part, they've followed through.

Jean Renoir's Mod Anarchy

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One of the (many) revelations to come out of the month-long Jean Renoir retrospective at BAM was 1959's The Doctor's Horrible Experiment. Based on it's pedigree — a late-period made-for-TV feature loosely adapting endlessly-adaptable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with an exploitation-like, B-grade title — it's understandable to think you took this day off from immersing yourself in Renoir's work. But you short-changed yourself. While the film is a "minor" work (that is, not titled Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game), The Doctor's Horrible Experiment finds Renoir rising above his film's pulp roots and addressing the looming culture war between youth and traditionalism.

Besides being a lurid interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's warmed-over tale of duality — the doctor, the repressed psychiatrist Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault), develops a potion to release his raging and depraved id, in the form of Opale, which allows him to engage remorse-free in bondage, rough sex, lady-groping, child-molesting, baby-snatching, and murder — Renoir presents a society at a generational crossroads. When Cordelier transforms into Opale, he morphs from a cold, well-manicured silver fox war veteran in an immaculately tailored three-piece into a shaggy, hairy, mealy-mouthed livewire weirdo in a baggy, ill-fitting suit, who jerks, halts, and bops as he careens through the streets brandishing a walking stick. As the old, upstanding citizen, Cordelier is imprisoned by societal convention; becoming the drugged up mod Opale frees him to indulge hang-up free in literally every desire.

The Cordelier/Opale dichotomy is a microcosm of the generational changes happening throughout this town on the outskirts of Paris. At the beginning of the film, when Opale tries to knock out and kidnap a young schoolgirl, the lawyer Joly (Teddy Billis), another old war veteran in a three-piece suit (and friend of Cordelier) thinks nothing of taking off after Opale, despite Opale's menacing appearance, and keeps up the pursuit despite being tripped, whacked, and kicked.

This is contrasted later when two young lovers making out along a wall of ads, the girl in a proto-boho outfit of baggy coat and shawl and the guy in wannabe greaser get-up of a cheap leather jacket and attempted pompadour, react slowly and cowardly as Opale attacks a wheezing old man, murdering him in a flail of kicks and cracks of his walking stick. It's only after Opale takes off down the street and around a corner does the guy go after Opale. In the next scene, the police futilely interrogate the couple, who can offer no details about Opale, before being confronted by Joly who can give them everything they need.

Basic human decency says that Opale is repugnant — he sexually abuses a woman (off-screen) in the flophouse he uses as a den of depravity, as judged by the arsenal of whips the police discover in his room. And the young couple had a moral obligation to do more to save the old timer and apprehend Opale. But are they wrong? Are the old folks who scoff at uninhibited gratification and who throw themselves selflessly into the line of danger the bedrocks society should be built on?

Don't look to Renoir for answers. He lays out arguments for the prosecution and defense of both generational groups and leaves it to us to act as jury. Opale is a self-admitted monster, but Cordelier would never have unleashed him if society hadn't put him into a pleasure-less prison. The old folks are selfless, yet they cling to tradition regardless of its ill effects. The young people are servants; the old, masters. The old people are unbending; the young, perhaps too flexible.  You cheer on Joly as he chases after Opale when Opale is just a monster stalking the night. But later, you find yourself wanting to spend more time with the free-wheeling Opale, slimy as that might be, than those old fuddy-duddies at their dinner parties.

In engaging in this conversation with his audience, Renoir laid the groundwork for countless anti-hero counterculture films of the 1960s and '70s. Perhaps the most relevant is A Clockwork Orange. Opale is the grandfather to Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Alex DeLarge. Like Opale, Alex takes to the night with a cane that is instrumental in his ultra-violence (sticking it into a hobo before beating him with it; using it to incapacitate the hapless husband of a rape victim; hiding a knife) and his crimes, like Opale's, are random and repulsive. Alex is a little more graceful than the strung-out Opale, but both are charismatic predators who make older people look intolerably boring and fussy by comparison. Opale is mod via Beat; Alex is punk via mod. Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell owe Renoir and Jean-Louis Barrault a debt of gratitude.

The Doctor's Horrible Experiment might rank minor in Renoir's filmography, but it's well worth discovering (it's available in the Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector's Edition DVD box set). It's also one of the most enjoyable adaptations of Stevenson's over-adapted story as you're likely to find.