Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Poster Personas

In "Movie Poster of the Week" at Mubi, Adrian Curry has a fascinating discussion of poster art for In a Lonely Place, the Nicholas Ray film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Curry discovers that none of these posters quite gets Grahame's facial features right. I agree; I would argue that in some of them her image recalls either Lauren Bacall or Joan Crawford rather than Grahame herself. (The former makes sense, since the distributors would have wanted to remind audiences in 1950 of Bogart's recent popular cycle of films with his wife; the latter less so, since Bogart and Crawford were never paired on film).

This got me thinking about examples of poster art in which a star is represented in ways that depart markedly from his or her actual appearance in the advertised film. There are, of course, examples of willful abstraction, such as the great tradition of Polish movie posters, which often take key iconographic elements and distill them into simple lines and forms. For example, Bogart again, in Casablanca, for a 2009 re-release:

Is this Bogie, or Don Draper? As if Bogart's face were that sharp! This sort of abstraction replaces the iconic features of the star with a key narrative object - in the case of Casablanca, Bogie's iconic cigarette. These posters sometimes even replace the human figure's presence entirely with these objects, as in this utterly bizarre 1970s Polish poster art for Terrence Malick's first film:

But like Curry, what I'm mostly interested in are attempts at more or less realistic representation that nevertheless diverge from the star's appearance in the advertised film. Katharine Hepburn's image in poster art in the 1930s and 1940s is an interesting case study. This poster for The Philadelphia Story (1940), for example, softens her angularity just a bit, which seems appropriate given the film's own narrative containment of the challenging and often subversive personality she created in her earlier 1930s films:

But even so, this is way too generic for Hepburn -- the blank expression of the figure in the poster is light years away from the sharp inner life she projects on film. By contrast, the earlier 1936 American poster for Quality Street (1936) captured the angularity...

...but it's still not quite right. That chin is a bit too much, and the fawning upward glance doesn't really capture the strength with which Hepburn's characters gazed at their objects of desire in these films.

The French came up with a better representation of the energy Hepburn brought to her madcap 30s comedies. This art for Bringing Up Baby (1938) captures the spirit of her character even as it channels the specificity of her features into caricature. What results is a whirlwind of screwball movement:

Sometimes, though, the posters offer weird contrasts. The photo of Grant and Hepburn in this RKO poster (below) for Bringing Up Baby is certainly great, but there is no steamy romance in the movie as depicted here. Clearly, it's just a staged production photo. The illustration in the bottom left corner does a better job of capturing the comic spirit of the movie, even as it abstracts the iconic features of its stars in cartoon fashion: 

Upon viewing her early 30s films, such as A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn's first critics often compared her to Garbo and Crawford. This is a strange comparison now, but one the poster art played up in an attempt to sell this unfamiliar woman in familiar ways. Hepburn was styled a little softer in these earlier movies, but the poster art for them actually makes her a little more gaunt than she actually was in the films. For all her sharpness, there is a real vulnerability to her character in Morning Glory, a quality this poster fails to capture:

This sharp-edged, Garbo-inflected Hepburn image lingered into the mid-1930s, even as the films themselves, such as Alice Adams (1935) departed from it. The image on the left of this American poster for Alice Adams looks like an outtake from A Bill of Divorcement or Christopher Strong (1933) and nothing like the mousy, uncertain woman Hepburn plays in the film adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel:

The idea that Hepburn could play a "mousy, uncertain" character seems odd if all you know of her is her later, retrospective status as a figure of independent womanhood. But it reminds us how varied her 1930s characters were - and that same variation is at play in all of these posters, even as the parallels between a given poster and the film it is supposed to represent don't always make sense. By the time Hepburn became something of an American institution in the 1950s, her well-established iconic features encouraged abstraction, as in this art for 1956's The Iron Petticoat, with Bob Hope (a counter-intuitive pairing, if there ever was one. "Hilariously together for the first time," the poster says; it would be the only time!):

But even before the iconic qualities of her on-screen persona began to take more or less permanent shape, the playful unpredictability of Hepburn's poster persona itself seems to give way to a conservative consistency. The poster for Woman of the Year (1942), for example, is just right for the film, but it lacks the strange playfulness of the earlier posters, a playfulness that echoed, in the 1930s, the remarkable variation of her on-screen presence from film-to-film. Which goes to show that trying to find a single poster image that might boil down your favorite movie star to her essential qualities is ultimately impossible, for all the forgotten, contingent variations are as interesting as the timeless iconic qualities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Killing Them Softly

There is a camera movement near the beginning of Killing Them Softly that tracks across the wide screen, from left-to-right, as two goons smash Ray Liotta through a window. Despite appearances, though, it is not a character-motivated camera movement. The camera moves in advance of the goons, arriving on the other side of the house before they emerge from it; and it centers the window in the frame before Liotta is smashed through it. Most Hollywood films shape their worlds around the movements and desires of their characters, but this one assumes a stylistic posture from which to observe its hapless gangsters and small-time criminals, as if they were dead insects pinned to a dartboard in a seedy urban bar. Or as if they are violent men in a dead-end economy - which they are. It's the antithesis of the long tracking shot following the same Liotta through the nightclub in Goodfellas (1990): the camera in the Scorsese film wants to share the energy of its wise guys. But Andrew Dominik, the smart stylist behind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the helmer of this new film, is all too aware that the gangster's violent energy ends only in economic and personal burnout, and so keeps his distance.

This elegant aesthetic distance is why the televisions and radios scattered throughout the movie, all playing snippets of speeches made by Obama, McCain, and Bush II during the 2008 campaign, feel like transmissions from another planet; Dominik's achievement is to make a recent moment in American history strange and unfamiliar, even though we are still living through its consequences. Killing Them Softly's losers are mere footnotes to the recent dismal history of the American economy none of them are fit to change, and which only one of them, a wearily philosophical hitman named Jackie, and played by Brad Pitt, comments upon. The movie is full of interesting moments and longueurs that suggest the glamor of the gangster as a genre figure is as exhausted as the economy which once fetishized him. How else to explain the wheezing, palpably unappealing presence of a disgusting character named Mickey, an alcoholic colleague of Jackie's played by an actor, James Gandolfini, who only ten years ago was this genre's undisputed icon of violent cool in The Sopranos?

Whatever the movie's genre revisionism, its star is still one of its central interests. Pitt has built - perhaps not quietly, but without the salient critical acclaim one might suspect he deserves - one of the most interesting filmographies of any beautiful male star in the history of Hollywood movies, and this audience-displeaser is a fascinating addition to his resume. He is lucky and smart enough to star in American films directed by filmmakers (Dominik, Fincher, Malick, Soderbergh) who demand more of his presence than mere presence, and that ask questions. Do gangsters steal because of tough economic times, or do tough economic times merely provide a new kind of excuse for lowlifes with guns? This is the question Killing Them Softly poses, without answering. I do not know the answer, either, but these times have provided an intriguing context in which to contemplate the lives of men who know the other only through the barrel of a gun.