(Note: A version of this was originally published at The South Wing on February 28, 2009. The site is no longer active and is being reprinted her for archival purposes.)
Stop into the multiplex, shell out $11 to see this year’s Oscar-nominated pap, indulge in some butter-drenched popcorn, and take a glance at the posters for upcoming films: A close-up of an overweight mall cop; thescratched-up goalie mask of the iconic slasher from the Friday the 13th franchise; an airbrushed, plastic Renee Zellweger sitting atop a Louis Vuitton suitcase.
Such is the current, sorry state of poster art in America. Even the fatuous comedian and dude’s dude Dane Cook openly eviscerated the poster for his movie My Best Friend’s Girl, a truly awful piece of work . The poster, that is. Though the same could probably be said for the film itself.
In his book Art of the Modern Movie Poster: International Postwar Style and Design, New York Times writer Daver Kehr writes that “The emphasis now is not on execution, but on concept and communication.” Yet Kehr is only half right: the emphasis is, now, completely on communication. Today’s posters give you the barest of information–the stars, the release date, some pithy tagline. Execution and concept no longer matter when it comes to selling a movie. The poster for Slumdog Millionaire, that new darling of the Academy, is a good example. It’s a sloppy mishmash of elements: a close-up of one actor’s face behind a shot of another character running, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? answer grid, inconsistent font types. It’s hard to decipher what the movie’s about, and it’s even harder to believe it’ll be any good. After all, if the poster is incomprehensible, what’s that say about the quality of the movie itself?
This wasn’t always the case. As Kehr so vividly shows, posters from the 1950’s, ’60s, and ’70s could ooze quality–the hypnotic white spiral on blinding orange that became the indelible art for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; the steely cold close up of two killers’ eyes that stare out from the In Cold Blood poster; the satirical Mad Magazine-inspired art promoting Robert Altman’s hip take on detective Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. But even those posters were far cries from the artistry of posters from the early days of the cinema.
In the 1920s, 800 features were released every year. (To put that in context, though the population has nearly tripled since then, there are only about 500 movies released in America annually today.) Studios and independent theaters promoted those films with posters that were hand-painted. Some theaters displayed original posters, while others hung prints.
With so many posters being created each year, not every one could be a winner. A poster for The Donovan Affair in 1929, for example, is embarrassingly bland, designed with nothing more than white and yellow text and a giant red question mark on a black background. The poster for the 1924 Dante’s Inferno is similarly banal: a copy of the Inferno with creatures from the book coming out of it makes up the bulk of the poster.
The best posters from this time, however, were elegantly simple, mysterious, vivacious , epic, and scintillating. Most of all, they appealed directly to audiences at the visceral level. Take the poster for Does It Pay? from 1923. It has mystery (Why does the seemingly normal-looking woman have giant reptilian wings and an impish demon whispering in her ear?), greed (the man in the poster, apparently being seduced by the woman, is handcuffed with bags labeled “GOLD”), and sex (handcuffs and seduction encouraged by demonic forces!). How could anyone look at the poster and not want to plunk down a dime to satisfy his burning curiosity?
The hand-painted poster is a product of a bygone era of cinema. Like the early movies, these posters were treated as disposable commodities that were trashed if they took up too much space. In 2005, Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, estimated that about 20 percent of silent features have survived. The ratio of poster survival is likely far lower; after all, it was simply an ad, not the product being sold.
That is why the Museum of Modern Art’s “Batiste Madalena: Hand-Painted Film Posters for the Eastman Theatre, 1924-1928″ exhibition, which runs through April 6, is such a blessing for cinephiles. The artist, Batiste Madalena, created more than 1,400 posters for George Eastman’s Eastman Theatre, located in Rochester, N.Y., over a four-year period for films starring Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson, Emil Jannings, and other luminaries of the silent cinema. Today, 250 of those posters survive, saved by Madalena himself from the trash heap in 1928.
One of the most beautiful pieces of the 53 on view at MoMA is a poster for the 1928 Greta Garbo film The Mysterious Lady. Like so many posters from this era, it’s simply a recreation of a studio still of Garbo looking seductively over her shoulder. For any artist, that’s enough to work with. But Madalana is able to take this black-and-white image and make it pop in what can best be described as Art Deco Technicolor. He uses vibrant purples, blues, greens, and reeds to accentuate her hair, eyes, lips, and other facial features. And knowing that anyone who looks at the poster will immediately be drawn to Garbo’s face, he utilizes sharp lines of green and blue polka dots that begin from her upturned shoulder near the top of the frame and plummet down diagonally to the bottom of the poster to guide our eye to Garbo’s name and (in conspicuously smaller lettering) the title of the movie. Indeed, the “important” stuff on the poster (credit and title) is almost an afterthought–as if it doesn’t matter what movie you’re seeing, as long as it has that face in it.
Another stunning poster is for the 1924 Wanderer of the Wasteland . The film was an early Technicolor western–”Entirely In Natural Colors,” the poster boasts. But like in the Garbo poster, this promotional statement, in barely perceptible Deco lettering, is almost an afterthought. It’s not that Madalena rejects the idea of luring customers in with color; he’d just rather show instead of tell.
On black poster board, Madalena recreates an image from the film: two men, silhouetted, moving earth against a brilliant orange and yellow sky. The title of the film and its claim of natural colors are set off from the black in light aqua blues and greens. The result is breathtaking and it stops you dead in your tracks–it’s epic, ominous, gorgeous, mysterious, and enticing. In other words: the perfect movie poster.
But this perfection is ultimately bittersweet. Wanderer of the Wasteland is one of 14 movies with posters in the exhibit that are considered lost. As you view these works and realize just how many are for movies that no longer exist, the tenor of the show swings from celebratory to elegiac. These posters–beautiful, vibrant, immediate–are all that’s left of some of the products they were meant to promote.
The titles of the lost films probably won’t mean anything to casual moviegoers; today they’re just whispers across the divide of cinematic history. But walking through the exhibit, you’d be hard-pressed not to want to know just what some of these are: The Way of All Flesh (1927), Fashions for Women (1927), Classmates (1924),Clothes Make the Pirate (1926). MoMA’s Madalena exhibition is a window into a moment in cinema that can never be reclaimed. Not only are the films gone, but the approach to poster making is, too.
But, really, what’s the point in pining for a more elegant cinematic age? The mediocrity of actor Paul Blart’s exquisitely Photoshopped mug and the amateurishly airbrushed Renee Zellweger is probably the best we American audiences deserve nowadays.