Sunday, January 27, 2008

Image Is Everything

The Jungle Book may have been the first film that I was ever taken to see at the cinema, but it was Live And Let Die that made the most impact in my childhood and the years that followed. Trips to “the pictures” were infrequent before I hit my teens and, for a brief stretch of time, we were settled in one place.

Before that, and certainly before the years living deep in the countryside, our hometowns simply didn’t have a cinema. Closest was further along the coast, where there was The Savoy (the respectable one) and The Royale (known to pretty much everyone as “The Fleapit”). Of course, with only one screen apiece there weren’t always kiddie-friendly movies on offer every week.

In the years that followed The Jungle Book (which must have either been re-released or seriously taken its own sweet time to make it out to the sticks) came the kind of decidedly average films that spilled out in the early 1970s. During that time the most memorable experiences were seeing Where Eagles Dare, which I was taken back to see a second time, along with, during one summer presumably, seeing Disney’s Pinocchio on a Sunday afternoon and The Poseidon Adventure the very next day. Then came James Bond.

It wasn’t just the thrills and spills that did it for me. Maybe it was because we had arrived early, or, since it was a new release we had to wait in a queue to get in. Whatever the reason, the delay meant that standing outside I got to take in the glory of Robert E. McGinnis’s artwork.

That’s pretty something for an eight-year-old standing in a queue under overcast skies. Artwork like that introduces you to a whole other world of possibilities.

At that age I had no comprehension of release dates. New films were simply advertised in the local papers and would invariably turn up. That was all that mattered. If I remember rightly, they would even mention, in a smaller point size naturally, what would be coming the week after as well.

Back then, before the proliferation of media or media-obsessed outlets, the poster was pretty much the chief advertisement for every upcoming film. The cinema foyers would line up posters for the forthcoming attractions, each vying for the audience’s time and attention. The posters sold the films.

In the years that followed I’d be entranced by the work of John Alvin, Drew Struzan, Richard Amsel and Bob Peak. Later on I would discover the poster art of the great Saul Bass, even though I already knew the name from numerous film title sequences (another thing I was starting to pay attention to).

Nowadays posters aren’t as interesting. They’re pictures of the stars, or artless composites of photographs put together by some little spud with a working knowledge of Photoshop. We know what the films are already about, so what’s the point?

One thing does puzzle me though. Back in the 1980s, when compact discs began to replace vinyl, CDs kept the original record cover art but just made it smaller. Obviously, given the credits striped in, film posters would need some form of adaptation when reduced in size. That said, I still can’t figure why so many DVD covers are just so spectacularly fucking awful, particularly when it comes to the studios’ back catalogues.

These were the films that actually had good poster art when they were originally released thirty, forty or fifty years ago. A couple of years ago 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment came up with their Studio Classics range, while last year Paramount released a series called Paramount Originals, which used original poster artwork for the DVD cover. Both series were devoid of extras, which perhaps points towards the problem.

With so many DVD special editions and ultimate editions and collector’s editions coming out in succession, each release obviously needed new artwork, much like authors’ novels being reprinted with new releases. With original film artwork varying with different international poster campaigns, surely they could find something better than letting some talentless cock-knob lose at the computer.

One of the worst examples has to be the two-disc Star Wars trilogy DVDs comprising of the original theatrical version – new to shiny disc – and the special editions from the late 1990s. Maybe the earlier special editions’ boxset used the posters familiar for each film for their individual covers. That still doesn’t go towards excusing the utter fucking abominations used for the two-disc release.

What kind of brainless cunt decided that it would be a really good idea to take the famous poster illustrated by Tom William Chantrell to promote Star Wars’ international release and reproduce it – badly – as a photo collage? A couple of months back I stood in HMV considering buying the two-disc DVDs of both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but ultimately rejected getting them because the covers were so goddamn awful.

Of course in the end it’s really the film that matters, which meant I also didn’t pick them up because they’re pretty much childish nonsense that I’m way too old for. The same can’t be said for Chinatown.

A bona fide masterpiece, I hadn’t bought Chinatown on DVD simply because for so long the only disc available featured the film and fuck all else. Now however, a Special Collector’s Edition has been released by Paramount Home Entertainment (UK) that includes three documentaries, in total close to an hour in their running time, featuring contributions from Roman Polanski, Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans.

Unfortunately the earlier bog-standard disc had already used an adapted version of the original film poster. Which meant that something new had to be produced for the Special Collector’s Edition of Chinatown that would equal Jim Pearsall’s glorious original artwork. At least you’d think that’s what they would try to aim for given a film of such stature and wide regard.

So, how the merry hell did they end up with this?

Was the work assigned to a special needs class? It looks like someone ran a used tampon through the photocopier! If this was the best they could come up with, how utterly absymal were the other options?

More importantly, without any knowledge of the film in question, would that cover entice you to watch it?


At 9:15 am, Blogger evil twinz said...

A tampon through the photocopier??? What a delightful image.

I actually like it. It reminds me a little of the "Il Padrino" (The Godfather) poster that came out way back when for the Italian market. Had a copy in my media studies A level class. Happy days.

At 10:25 am, Blogger Jon Peacey said...

Took even longer for The Jungle Book to get to my town... by my reckoning another decade. Or maybe it was a re-issue. I don't know, I was kid.

That Chinatown cover really is an atrocity: I love the film but I may be forced into buying a copy of each version and swapping the art over. Then I save the 'tampon-photocopier-interface' edition to frighten small children with on Hallowe'en...

At 1:24 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Well, you saw what happened with the Lou Reed one we did a while back. I produced a perfectly good, restrained sleeve for the documentary, for it to be replaced by those “higher up the chain” with a mangling of the Transformer cover.

Fuck-nuts with a hooky copy of Photoshop and what they think are design skills, slapping together any old crap that might make the product look more “shiny shiny” than the next one. Particularly galling in the light of original artwork for gems like Chinatown and anything by Hitchcock.

I was amazed we managed to get away with the sleeves for Obsession and Dark Star in the end.

At 2:19 pm, Blogger Lucy said...

Hello boys.

Have you thought perhaps could be an age thing?

'Cos I don't actually mind the Chinatown cover and nor does the esteemed Evil who is 26. And you're all OLD remember. ; )

At 8:43 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

I’m not buying the age thing, I’m afraid. Even though I am deeply ancient and don’t have as pert a derriere as your good self, Lucy. ;-)

I think the new Chinatown sleeve would be vaguely tolerable if there hadn’t been the original, ditto Star Wars, etc.

In the light of there having been such good artwork in the first place, subsequent attempts can often look really bloody lazy (and usually amateur Photoshop hackery of the worst kind). I’m on the receiving end of this sort of thing a fair bit, having to design sleeves that are pleasing to the eye and fit the brief, then having them hacked around by people who obviously just want something shouty and cheap-looking.

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of those working in marketing and management have a useful input because they come at the process from a different angle and offer sometimes very valuable insights into overcoming design obstacles. However, if something gets changed just for the sheer hell of it, then why employ designers in the first place?

I’m with Jon Peacey: If I buy a new copy of Chinatown, I’ll probably re-cover it.

At 12:36 pm, Blogger Lucy said...

My pert derriere?? Oh v gd Ridders, I raise you--

If you have so much time that you worry about the COVER of your DVDs my friend so much you need to RECOVER THEM, then you clearly are not getting enough time with asses or indeed anything else rudey and nudey of interest! : P

At 8:44 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

What a bloody brilliant rant! It had me cheering and rattling my zimmer-frame! Thanks and you are so right!

Not defend those god-awful DVD packages, but I reckon many of these appalling marketing decisions are taken as a result of the current frenzy for everything to seem NEW and NOW and about a lack of true faith in films that already have the status of being - to use that endlessly abused and misused word - classics.

At 12:29 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Lucy, yes it is an age thing. We're now living in an age where quality and craft and skill are kicked into the corner for being so bloody bothersome.

I picked up three DVDs over the weekend and the covers just had the title logo and pictures of the stars. Because the oldest was only four or five years old, they were adaptations of the film posters.

The film title and star is all a poster needs now because the distributors have already used the media to bulldoze us with every bit of information we need to know about the film.

The poster has pretty much been reduced to a street name and number of an address the film companies want us to visit.

Back when the poster had to sell the film... the results were magical. Google John Alvin, Drew Struzan, Richard Amsel, Bob Peak and especially Saul Bass to see what they've done.

Brian, glad you liked it. I think for the target audience nowadays the covers are the visual equivalent of artificial colours and E numbers. After all, heaven forbid a film should be thought of as old and a classic.


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