Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: 24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters
Directed by Kevin Burke
Post No Joes Productions / Snowfort Films / FilmRise / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2017

Hopefully, this is past the Statue of Limitations: when I was in my late teens, I worked as an usher in a cinema palace in Brooklyn that has now been razed. It was one of the big ones with only one screen then, a balcony and two aisles that were split into three sections (smoking on the right side, only). My boss hated me, but that’s neither here nor there. In back of the ticket booth, there was a stack of previous film posters that the boss would not give out to us¸ saying its company property; however, when the stack got too high, he chucked them into the trash bin out back. So, I starting sifting them off the bottom, never taking enough to be obvious, only enough of them to have a nice stack after a year. Some include O! Lucky Man and American Graffiti. And yes, I still have them.

Film posters, back then, were exciting. It wasn’t merely photos of the stars dressed in costumes layered on top of each other with the film’s name underneath, they were luscious artwork that was full of imagination and talent. Horror and Sci-Fi were especially attractive. I still remember seeing the poster for The Masque of the Red Death in the theater as a very young kid and being impressed by it. While the film was pretty bad, the poster still stands as great art.

This documentary combines artists, collectors, directors and movie poster shop owners, and weaves a series of ideas about the history of the poster on many different aspects, from the very beginning of graphic art that was used in the silent era.

Broken into chapters, we learn that poster artists were not generally compensated well, nor were they allowed to sign their work until at least the 1970s or ‘80s. Despite that, the documentary correctly posits that the poster showed a possibility of what was in the film being shown. Even The Goonies, in its goofy way, posited a type of adventure. But over time, as actors’ agents and the players themselves became more powerful, the poster became dominated more by an image of the star than what the film was about. There’s a close-up of the face of Tom Cruise, or Will Smith, with no context to the actual story. With Photoshop and egos, the posters became, as I said before, a series of interchangeable pictures of the stars.

As a digression that I think is relevant, I recently went into a bookstore and saw three different magazines that had covers about the Avengers movie that just opened. Each of them had the exact same five photos of its stars in costume, but in a different order, obviously thrown together. I once argued that technology killed rock and roll for a while when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s, and then that happened with the poster world.

During an interview segment, artist David Byrd (who gives some of the best quotes here) states that the computer, while scary, is just a technological tool, much like the invention of the paint brush. He’s right, and perhaps one day film historians will look back and talk about how amazing the poster art of the 21 Century was compared to whenever they are doing their research. That being said, this film shows just how cut and paste – and unimaginative – modern posters are by showing a series of them side-by-side that are nearly identical in form, but tell nothing about the film it’s supposed to promote. They give a great example of a dozen or so Johnny Depp films where the posters are nearly duplicated.

To change gears for a sec, just so you know, I’m giving sort of a titles version of the film, not really disclosing much, because the interviews are the thing, and there is a lot of information throughout. For example, and I hadn’t thought of this before, the pictures of the cast needs to be large sometimes because with all the Internet streaming services, the posters are mostly thumbnails and the pic needs to be larger and simpler to make it out.

Marshall McLuhan once said that when a technology is replaced, it comes back as art. This is also true of art. Much as the Ramones arguably brought back rock’n’roll to the mainstream after Sgt. Peppers, a group of fans in Austin, TX, started a company called Mondo that started bringing back original art silk screened art movie posters to some popularity. Most of the collective, which includes some major artists, are shown and interviewed here, which of course, inflamed the opening of newer start-up poster companies. Fascinating stuff.

It’s also interesting that a large majority of the new wave of posters focuses on fantasy, horror, noir, sci-fi and cult films; I’m surprised there aren’t more musicals, because that is so open for splashes of bright colors and design, but it does makes sense for me for the genres that are popular to be so, as they are also based on imaginative machinations.

One of the “chapters” is dedicated to all the new artists that are coming up, and there are lots of interviews and examples of their work. And natch, there’s a second on the collectors and how they approach the direct market as opposed to the secondary market (e.g., eBay). A chapter I found really interesting, though, was about licensing, as artists and marketers discuss the positives and negatives of getting permission to use images from copyrighted films (the same arguments can be made for downloading films).

Another point brought up a couple of times, once in detail, is that the expectation now in mainstream films is that if the poster is artwork, the assumption is that it is an animated feature. What isn’t mentioned is that it is most likely (in my opinion) a result of the relatively recent rise of Pixar (and hence Disney) and the re-emergence of popularity of animated films. Every positive has a negative, and the modern movie poster – or the expectations of it – reflects that.

Considering this is Kevin Burke’s directorial debut, it’s an impressive output. He takes the talking head concept and keeps it interesting throughout, adding in some really nice animation around the posters that is fun to watch. While this is hardly the first documentary to use animation to liven up the imagery, he uses it effectively in a way that makes the viewer keep watching the screen, rather than just listening. But of course, movie poster art really is an art form, and deserves the attention on its own right. Burke punches it up to a nice level.

The way to look at this film is to equate it to comic books, as it is a symbiotic collecting field and buying/trading mode. In comparison, this film would be more about modern comics than the Golden and Silver Ages, or the Comix period.

That being said, as much as I enjoyed the film, I would like to see a second one that digs significantly deeper, perhaps how the earlier posters effected culture for example, or how the art was used to send a specific message to the audience on both a conscious and subconscious level, such World War II imagery to promote the war effort at that time. They’ve done well scratching the surface; now let’s talk about the bigger picture and go into the deep end of the poster pool.

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