Dir: Eileen Yaghoobian, US, 2008, 94 mins
Review by Dave Hall
This is a talking heads documentary about underground graphic artists, specifically those who produce the sort of gig posters that find their way onto telegraph posts, bus stops and other street furniture. The posters often feature provocative images spliced together from various cultural icons (Elvis in a gay sailor’s outfit, pink pistol in his fly; Paul Newman with an swirl of blonde hair), and the film is partly about the posters and partly a chance for their creators to emerge from the shadows – a number of leading underground artists are interviewed. There are some points of interest, but director Yaghoobian can’t disguise the fact that this is pretty thin stuff when stretched to feature length, and apart from students of graphic design, it’s difficult to see who is going to take anything much away from it.
The modem history of music handbills dates back to the psychedelic 60s, but a 70s sensibility informs most of the contributors here, and in fact, the documentary itself could easily date from that era. Punk is referred to more than once as a touchstone philosophy and fascinatingly posters are still produced by silk screen and even woodblock printing techniques. There’s even nostalgia for hairy 70s porn and the halcyon days before 9/11, when terrorism didn’t have such a bad name.
This elegiac tone works both for and against the claims of subversive intent (or “messin’ with the squares” as artist Brian Chippendale puts it). So do the production notes, where we learn that one of the artists has been exhibited in the Louvre, another designs award-winning album covers for the White Stripes, and a third produces T-shirts for Nike and Adidas. There’s a point to be made here about how mainstream and counterculture cross fertilise each other but this documentary isn’t about to make it.
In fact it doesn’t make much of a point about anything. There’s no authoritative voice to cast a light on the significance, artistic or otherwise, of what we’re seeing and no sense of the posters’ relevance or impact outside troglodyte-friendly studios beneath grey, anonymous streetscapes. One or two glimpses of a pleasantly skewed world view do emerge: Rob Jones has an oddball charm, though outwardly he seems to be channelling Mr Kidd from Diamonds are Forever, and Connie Collingsworth, when challenged on her assertion that men in posters are never sexy, replies without a beat that Clint Eastwood “is not really a man”. But most of the time the wit of the posters isn’t matched by their creators.
This is clearly a labour of love for Yaghoobian, but you wonder if things might have turned out better had she had consulted someone with a more objective eye. As it is, she acts as director, producer, editor and cinematographer and, like the artists in her film, she’s probably a little too close to the material to do it justice.