The Not-Quite Lost Art of the Movie Poster

by Chris Barsanti

6 April 2011

With his beautiful work on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, graphic novelist Chris Ware tries to reinvigorate the faded discipline of movie-poster art.

When a poster was about the sharpest arrow in a movie publicist’s quiver (next to the judicious leaking of juicy gossip about the stars), its design – which had to merge drama, commerce, and art; much like the films themselves, then and (sometimes) today – was critically important. Now, the poster is just one more cog in the marketing machine, another high-resolution jpg to be packed up in electronic press kits, next to the hyperbolic production notes and “intimate” behind-the-scenes shots of actors conferring with their directors, and zipped out to all and sundry in every conceivable size and variation.

In our post-World Wide Web era of marketing (which iteration are we at now, Web 5.4?), one simple image doesn’t have as much impact as it once did. In the era of the one-sheet, when posters for the hot new movie went up on vacant walls and in the lit frames of neighborhood cinemas, that was the first time most anybody had a glimpse of what it was all about. A great one could snap the by-passer’s mind into focus with Pavlovian certitude and leave them drained of all other thoughts, like Liz Lemon at an all-you-can-eat Quizno’s: “Ooooo … I want to see that.”

Consider the great poster for the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. It might be hokey in that grand 1950s tradition that doesn’t exactly require fidelity to the source material (squirming, disheveled woman), but nevertheless, it hooks you right in. “FROM OUT OF SPACE…. A WARNING AND AN ULTIMATUM” is pretty good copy for the genre, bereft of the heavy-breathing adjectives that normally plagued these things. Just the basics: frightened humans, giant robot, the sense that the survival of the species isn’t exactly a given anymore… Compare that to the pitifully generic posters for the Keanu Reeves remake and one will discover all that is necessary to know about the general devolution of the art form over the years.

Bringing some beauty and wonder back to the form is none other than Chris Ware, the Chicago graphic novelist whose exceptionally detailed and melancholic Acme Novelty Library series (among others) have made him one of the leading lights of the genre’s rebirth. So generally acknowledged is his genius at this point that it’s rarely necessary for his admirers to add any defensive modifiers like, “I know he’s just a comic-book guy, but…”

The poster that Ware created for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s moody, mournful film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is not only a typically poetic piece of minutely-etched specifities, it also tells the entire story of the film, albeit more subtly than a giant robot would. The central drawing of the shadowed face with burning red eyes is easily the most arresting image of the film, in which ghosts and (slightly) anthropomorphized animals walk nonchalantly among humans, who might be startled at first but soon come to accept their presence as a simple fact of life in the dense, dark forests of rural Thailand. Utilizing his standard technique of cinematically intercutting small details inside the larger piece, Ware also highlights all of the film’s five primary settings. With its vibrating pinks and rich blacks, the whole thing fairly reverberates with dark magic, wooing those viewers who might not have known what to think of this film with the long, curious title.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any other great poster designers out there, as there certainly are. But when pushing product, the great majority of studios – unlike indie Strand Releasing, which picked up Uncle Boonmee at Cannes, where it took home the Palme d’Or – tend to aim themselves square at the lowest common denominator. (Except, for some reason, when they’re teasing the film several months out, in which case one can see some excellent, more dramatically minimal work, such as the near-perfect teaser for Captain America.)

Thus, too rarely are moviegoers given the pleasure of seeing work of the caliber of somebody like Olly Moss, whose powerfully inventive designs (which are based strongly in the 1950s and 1960s school of Saul Bass-inspired stark, shadowy drama, and can be viewed here) are indeed commissioned by studios, but most often for the same kind of small-audience viral marketing that has itself diminished the power of the one-sheet.

For mass appeal, one is more likely to see a tight close-up or profile of one or more stars and some bold, blocky type that’s been slapped together by committee. Nothing is left to chance, of course, but nothing to the imagination, either.

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