Tuesday, June 4, 2013

‘State of the Art Cinema’ at the Getty Images Gallery, 3rd June 2013

A swarm of peripheral imagery surrounds every movie: trailers, TV spots, production stills, costume shots and, most eye-catchingly, the movie poster.  In purely utilitarian terms a movie poster is simply an advert for the film.  To be successful a poster should quickly communicate the name of the film, who’s in it and something about the content of the film.  Yet there’s an indefinable quality about movie posters that can elevate them above mere advertising; a great poster creates its own iconography; think of Jaws, Scarface, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting or Ghostbusters and their posters instantly spring to mind.

I’ve had a special affection for them for a very long time. When I was growing up I used to visit the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd almost every week, and wound up making friends with the staff.  As a result, whenever a film left this one screen cinema they’d save the poster for me.  After a few years every single inch of the walls of my bedroom were covered in quad size posters of whatever had come through the silver screens of South Wales.  As a result I found myself probably the only 13 year-old in the world with a huge image of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies proudly displayed on his wall.

So when I was invited out to the private view of movie posters at the Getty Images Gallery in Eastcastle Street I was excited.  I was expecting a range of classics, perhaps some re-imagining of icons by modern graphic designers and maybe some conceptual work for some modern films.  Unfortunately what I got were some very expensively printed copies of the bog-standard posters for the blockbusters coming out this summer.  There’s an automatic tension between culture and commerce when you consider movie posters as art, on this occasion the weighting was firmly biased towards commerce.

That said, it’s an enjoyably surreal experience looking at the poster for Adam Sandlers’ Grown Ups 2 in the vague context of a private viewing at an art gallery.  On what possible level am I supposed to engage with this?  It’s poorly photoshopped and boringly laid out - an art-free and vacuous piece of ephemera for a film that (I assume) is going to be godawful.  Looking at it this proudly displayed on the wall of an art gallery induces a sensation of misery and horror that Francis Bacon could only hope to emulate.

Thankfully most of the work is merely mediocre.  There’s a few stock ‘character striding away with his back to an explosion’ images on the posters of Star Trek: Into Darkness and White House Down, topless guys yelling at stuff while a storm rages around them (Wolverine, Hammer of the Gods and 300: Rise of an Empire) and some very dull head shots for Kick-Ass 2, Summer in February and The Lone Ranger.  Even more disappointingly, despite someone having gone to vast expense to print these posters on the most expensive, gallery quality card available, many of the images provided by the studios are of low resolution.  In nearly all the images the credit block is pixellated to the point of unreadability and many images are disappointingly fuzzy.  

Perhaps the nadir of this comes in a small display case towards the centre of the room.  A sign above it reads:
“If our ‘culture’ is defined as the stories we tell about ourselves, films enhance our culture in myriad ways.  ‘The movies’ can influence fashions, music, advertising, publishing, even our language itself, and capture the zeitgeist. 
This cabinet contains a selection of imaginative merchandise, models and replicas - ‘live’ examples of how filmed stories and characters can enrich our lives, our entertainment and our development from an early age.”

Has your zeitgeist been captured?  Life feeling enriched?
Pretty lofty stuff huh?  This high-falutin’ atmosphere is punctured by a simple glance downwards, when you see it’s referring to a collection of plasticky branded rubbish like a Monsters University pencil sharpener, some Happy Meal Toys, an After Earth sweatband and an Iron Man key fob.  Needless to say, none of this future landfill is “enriching” anyone’s life, with the possible exception of some cigar puffing, besuited CEO.

All that said, there are some great posters here.  I love this poster for Man of Steel which neatly subverts what you’d expect from a poster for a Superman film.  The natural inclination for a designer would be to show Superman speeding through the air (and indeed many of the other posters for the film show that) but here he's hemmed in on sides.  The camera-phone blurriness and lens flare gives it an immediacy, impressing upon us its contemporary nature.  The composition is also smart, especially the way the ceiling of the building he’s in takes up so much of the poster, showing us a Superman unable to fly away.  The very fact that he’s being led away in handcuffs that everybody knows he can break at will raises interesting questions; why is he letting himself be captured? What is he being accused of?  Who is detaining him?  It’s a bold, well thought-out bit of design.

A similarly well-thought out approach to design can be seen in this poster for Wolverine:

It's economic and minimal, yet we instantly know that this a film about Wolverine, and he’s going to Japan.  It apes the style of Sumi-e, Japanese brush painting, in which the motion of the ink brush embodies the precision and strength of a Samurai’s blade.  The bold strokes we see here emphasise a fearless nature in combat, which is entirely appropriate for both character and setting.  Also it looks cool as hell.

It’s a shame there weren’t more pieces like these two, both of which have some clear thought put into them.  The only other truly striking images in the room were for two re-releases of classics, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Roman Holiday, both of which have infinite retro charm to them.  It’s also nice to see slightly less promoted films getting a look in here too, and I was pleased to see Haifaa Al-Mansour’s excellent Wadjda sharing wall space with the summer blockbusters.

So, art-wise it was a bit of a bust, which is shame as I’d love to visit a gallery of iconic poster designs.  But, as a PR event it just about succeeded.  Zane Lowe and Sue Perkins did a nice bit of hosting, the food looked nice and nobody’s wine glass was allowed to run dry.  But frankly you’d get much the same experience walking through the lobby of your local multiplex as you do visiting this exhibition.

‘State of the Art Cinema’ is on display from the 3rd-9th June at the Getty Images Gallery, 46 Eastcastle Street, W1W 8DX - Free entry

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