The Art Behind Art House Films


For film fanatics The Criterion Collection remains one of the few bastions for the preservation of essential films spanning the globe. Besides being the to go-to place for hard to find releases Criterion is also the premiere leader in film restoration, remarkably in-depth DVD audio commentaries, critical essays and countless other features that actually enhance the overall cinematic experience. Many believe that a trip to the library and a viewing devotion to Criterion’s growing collection makes going to film school seem futile.


While presenting each film at its absolute pinnacle edition is Criterion’s true raison d’être, the collection also serves as a haven for some of the most beautiful DVD packaging art around. From revivals of old and often rare film posters and prints to original layouts from up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, Criterion continues to beg its loyal following to judge the book by its cover.

An entire column could be devoted to praising the countless classics–everything from standards to forgotten gems and everything in between–being released annually through Criterion. For devout film aficionados Criterion is a proverbial name. The company’s token logo, ordered spine numbering system, and expensive price tags make the discs a collector’s Holy Grail–DVD fiends pine over particularly rare or out-of-print discs the way literary buffs seek out that pristine first edition to complete their library. From the filmmaking standpoint, a coveted release amidst the cinematic giants–Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Powell & Pressburger, to name a few–generally means an artistic career high.

Running at around $30 per disc, with special box sets running as high as $650 (for a 50 film/disc art house film retrospective collection), Criterion discs are pricy but the general rule of thumb is you pay for the quality, this includes packaging designed with love and care.

Unlike most DVDs, which provide poster art, film stills or the occasional inspired 
“Special Edition” cover for their packaging, Criterion generally goes a step further by designing carefully thought out images to pair up with the film’s content. Sometimes this means taking a preexisting piece of artwork from the film’s past and doctoring it up, other times it calls for a re-imagining of the film’s central themes or characters to be displayed front and center.

ImageTake for example the beautifully crafted cover of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of Criterion’s first releases (spine #4), which was reissued in a two-disc collector’s edition in 2006. A terribly gifted artist named Caitlin Kuhwald was commissioned to paint what eventually became a mini four-panel mural depicting four scenes from the film in a vibrant, jump off the canvas array of colors that is as much a wink and a nod to the golden age of Technicolor film processing, as it is visually stunning. The artwork is not only showcased on the cover but also spans into the DVD inserts. Kuhwald continues to return to Criterion most recently with their release of the beloved, magical children’s classic The Thief of Baghdad.

For Criterion’s massive DVD release of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the art direction team turned to none other than longtime Thompson collaborator and surreal ink blot illustrator Ralph Steadman. The grotesque drawing of Duke and Dr. Gonzo racing through the desert with looming bats overhead and a dark, art deco “Emerald City”esque fortress in the background is the perfect center piece for the film and story’s equally loony content. The company has also gone to great lengths to give Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil a proper release, with the latter’s box-set packaging also serving as the rare example of a literal “box” set.

ImageSometimes Criterion goes the minimalist route featuring a simple film still or photograph behind carefully chosen typeface. The packaging for the five-disc release of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander features nothing more than a series of slightly grainy photographs of the film’s protagonists. The images portray the children as young, innocent, and naïve to their true bourgeois surroundings, perfectly respecting Bergman’s cinematic intentions for the film and subsequent television mini-series.

The cleverly layout for Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, simply presents an orange haired, possibly inebriated David Bowie (the film’s alien star) in front of a pitch black background. The film’s title, placed over Bowie’s face, is in a typographical descent:
 

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Simple but effective, the packaging for Earth is as bleak and dark as the film itself.

ImageFinally Criterion continues to be the exclusive home of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging catalogue, with each release and re-release receiving the royal artistic treatment. From Throne of Blood’s black, white and red cartoon of Tohiro Mifune as a pseudo Macbeth, the simple splatter paint and Japanese character inspired cover for the equally vibrantly colored film Ran, the more modern, metropolis driven front for the Bad Sleep Well (the towering white, art deco office building with a single red X on one window is another clever tie into the film, which tells the tale of revenge set inside the corporate world), to the fabulously blurred shot of the central home in Rashomon, an allegory to the blurred reality of the story being told and retold in the film (think Usual Suspects), Criterion continues to pay its respects to this filmmaking legend.

A new Criterion release is an event all in itself. Discovering what buried treasure of a film they’ll take on next is always a delightful moment for film buffs. What they choose to display on the cover is also part of the fun. Not only does this method give up and coming artists and graphic designers a chance to showcase their talent but it opens up a new level of creativity to an old classic. Often times the art is the sole catalyst for checking out a new and unfamiliar title.

Up next for Criterion is the company’s first foray into the High Definition arena with four Blue-Ray releases, including Bottle Rocket, which completes its devotion to the films of Wes Anderson and yet another re-release of The Third Man, which features arguably one of the most beautifully dark, and menacing packaging art design in Criterion’s catalogue. Criterionco.com lists all of the company’s current titles as well as its back stock of Laserdiscs, which served as a starting point for the extras now common on DVDs. There are also a number of Criterion “completist” blogs of buff working their way through every disc in the collection, for example criterioncollection.blogspot.com and criterionconfessions.com.
 

The Best Films You’ll Never See


For every movie that makes it to the big screen there are hundreds of other projects or ideas that never reach production, let alone an actually release. Budget issues, lack of major star power, legal conundrums, constant script rewrites, political strife with major studios, whatever the reasons may be, there are countless cases of potentially major films that never see the light of day. 

Recently I read an article about Michel Gondry’s (one of the more interesting directors working today) proposed next project falling through. Set to direct an adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s novel, Master of Space and Time, a story that chronicles two mad scientists quest to control time, Gondry has supposedly moved on thus leaving the film’s future questionable.

The story is supposedly prime material for Gondry’s knack for surrealism and interests in bending the line between dreams and reality. Still the film, at least Gondry’s version, seems destined to join the long list of films you’ll never get to see. Below is a short-list of what I feel are some of the best examples. Some are projects that were simply too big or problematic to be completed. Some are alternate versions of pre-existing classics. All have gone down in history as some of the best films never made.

Kubrick’s Epics

Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that he was shocked that Stanley Kubrick passed away at 70 because he had expected the director to make his magnum opus well into his 80s, similar to Japanese great Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran. The truth is Kubrick had been toying with a number of potentially epic films throughout his career, most notably a grandiose and highly detailed biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte with Jack Nicholson set to star. The film was originally to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey, then later during the time between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but somehow never developed. Many speculate that the film’s scope and more importantly its budget was just too big. Some believe the coinciding release of the epic film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the film Waterloo played into the projects delay. Others believe the major studio system shot the idea down. 

What little is known about the project comes from Kubrick’s estate, which featured countless articles, books and roughly 25,000 note cards chronicling day-to-day happenings of France’s notorious tyrant. Rumor has it Kubrick even had ties with the Romanian army, which was going to lend the ambitious filmmaker roughly ten thousands soldiers for extensive battle sequences. 

It’s possible that Kubrick spent much of his life dwelling on this one project. Add this to Kubrick’s original vision of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (another project he supposedly worked on for much of his life) and a proposed Holocaust film calledThe Aryan Papers that was scrapped around the same time as Schindler’s List and you have a director who still had some tricks up his sleeve before his untimely departure. 

Tackling Cervantes

One of the most fascinating film projects that failed to launch on a number of occasions was the adaptation of the Spanish literary giant Don Quixote. Following Citizen Kane Orson Welles was attached to the project and actually shot a great deal of footage but the project eventually fell through due to Welles’ reliance on independent filmmaking and the death of the film’s star. Welles continued editing the film throughout his lifetime and was supposedly set to complete the film before his death in 1985. Unfortunately much of the footage was eventually lost and what little was left was released in the early 90s as an incomplete version of the film directed by smut filmmaker Jesus Franco. (It should be noted that Welles was notorious for having countless other projects under way during his career. Another notable example was a proposed adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was later loosely adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now)

In 2000 director Terry Gilliam took on the Quixote tale and added his own modern twist. The project entitled, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, eventually crashed and burned due to countless obstacles during the production, including, yet again, a serious injury inflicted on the film’s star. At the time the film boasted to have one of the largest budgets of any film shot in entirely in Europe (roughly $40 million) and Gilliam had admitted that it would be his most ambitious project to date. In 2002 a fascinating documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was released chronicling the film’s rise and fall.

More Terry Gilliam
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is just one of many films that Gilliam failed to complete. His most recent effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was put on hiatus after the unexpected death of its star, Heath Ledger but is not back on board. Gilliam once tackled another literary opus, The Tale of Two Cities, originally with Mel Gibson (he dropped out to direct Braveheart) and then Liam Nesson (not a big enough star according to the studio) on board to star. Ultimately the film fell apart due to conflicts with the studio financing the project (money has never seemed to agree with Gilliam’s creativity). During the early 90s he twice attempted to get Alan Moore’s monumental graphic novel Watchmen made into a film and was J.K. Rowling’s first pick to helm the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Fans of Gilliam might also be interested to know that he’s long had a script for a Time Bandits sequel floating around, another possible classic destined to go to his grave

From Star Wars to Dune to Blade Runner

Often times films shuffle around the creative players with projects often going through multiple scripts and different visionaries. George Lucas had always expressed his admiration for surrealist David Lynch, particularly his film Eraserhead, and at one point tried to woo him towards the director’s chair of Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi). Lynch instead ended up taking the helm of another sci-fi epic, the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

Dune itself went through many different incarnations. In the 1970s epic filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and Alejandro Jodorowsky were both set to take on the novel. Jodorowsky was very close to making a version starring Mr. Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and, get this, Salvador Dalí as the emperor. If Jodorowsky’s version would have gone through it is said Pink Floyd would have provided music for the soundtrack. Later in the 80s before Lynch finally took the reins Ridley Scott was attached to direct (he would go on to later direct Blade Runner and Alien shortly after).

ImageThe Best of the Rest 
Dalí Disney Project: 
Around the same time painter Salvador Dalí was collaborating with fellow surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchock he began storyboarding an animated short film for Walt Disney entitled Destino. The film remained as just that–a vision and a collection of drawings and test animation footage–until 2003 when it was finally completed by a group of animators with the blessings of Roy Disney for use in the never finalized Fantasia 2006. NOTE: The film was eventually released for film festivals and briefly played before the filmCalendar Girls during its theatrical release. The original Dalí incarnation will never truly be imagined on screen though. 

Stalingrad: Italian Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone was hard at work at the end of the 1980s on a film chronicling the siege at Stalingrad during World War II. With a supposed large budget of over $100 million, half funded by Americans, half by Russians with Robert De Niro in line to star, this project might have been Leone’s final epic masterpiece.

Kaleidoscope: Hitchcock’s Darkest Film: After Alfred Hitchcock hit a low point in the mid 60s after his film Marnie failed to capture the same suspense as previous endeavors he began work on a radically different script about a violent killer who dabbled in necrophilia. Much to the dismay of studio execs Hitchcock wanted the film to be shot from the POV of the killer, he was keen on utilizing more experimental or “European” filmmaking techniques, and also planned for an elaborate death sequence involving an acid bath. The 60s title was originally Kaleidoscope, however, after the film failed to get a go-ahead from any studio, despite Hitchcock’s plan to film with a miniscule budget, aspects of the story were eventually fleshed out a decade later on screen in 1976s Frenzy

Beauty and the Gray


For most people conceptual or “modern” art is either hit or miss. Some find the subtleties and minimalism of this style to be fascinating; others see it as simply uninspired or lacking true art aesthetics. Whatever your feelings may be there are certain figures in the contemporary art arena whose work and unique style and technique stands strong with the best. 

The Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, is currently hostingGray, a major exhibition chronicling the work of American multi-faceted artist, Jasper Johns from some of his selected periods. Focusing solely on the artist’s work with gray tones, the exposition is an extremely comprehensive overview of John’s fascination with the simplicities of the neutral color over five decades of his career.

Johns has been labeled many things–abstract expressionist, pop artist, and neo-Dadaist–none of which truly define his work. His fascination with the range and tonality of color (and with his gray work, the definition and neutrality of color) has always been present. Similar to pop artists of past and present, Johns has always utilized familiar images and themes (his two most famous pieces, Map and Flag, both focus on visual everyday emblems that we are familiar with thus forcing the viewer to look past the subject). Finally he sees his canvases and works as objects, often utilizing sensations such as texture as well as three-dimensional found objects (usually everyday items such as balls or clothes hangers). 

This exhibit is divided into the different themes and epochs of his gray pieces, beginning with early abstract oil paintings circa the 1950s, which focus on the shades between the monochromatic polars, black and white. The final room is devoted to Johns’ most recent pieces, theCatenary series (1997-2003), which marked a return to his gray form and focused on line and plane utilizing string and other fully dimensional objects that jump off the canvases. While these early and coda works are important to the exhibit’s overall theme and evolution, the work during the middle years, particularly his gray drafts and re-workings of some of his most famous pieces, truly make the strongest lasting impression. 

In the same vein as Map and Flag, both of which have whole series and studies devoted to gray, Johns fascination with numbers and letters are some of the exhibits finest specimens.  Focusing again on everyday iconography (the letters A-Z; numbers 0-9), Johns takes something the eye is familiar with and strips it down to a raw form. 

The bulk middle years, including the MapFlagLettersNumbers and Target series, also illustrate Johns fascination with multiple mediums for the canvas, everything from drawings and sketches, oil paintings, printmaking and stenciling, to the most fascinating; the encaustic paintings and collages. The encaustic technique, which Johns used throughout his career and brought to the forefront of modern art, involves the blending of color pigments with hot wax, which, when layered, creates a one of the kind texture to the canvases. In regards to his use of the canvas as an object and entity of the work Johns has said, “The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas.” 

Also featured heavily throughout the exhibit are Johns ink on plastic works, which pair up perfectly with his gray themes and create a one of a kind effect, particularly his re-workings of his Target series (large scale bulls-eye forms) in this unique medium. Similar to the encaustic technique, the ink on plastic pieces create a finish and an allusion to texture that jumps off the white walls, which they are hung. 

The most curious and bizarre part of the exhibit (also the easiest to miss) is the tucked away room containing some of John’s early ventures into sculpture. The handful of gray painted bronze busts also focus on common icons such as household objects like light bulbs, which, despite their minimalism, are fascinating illustrations of his talents outside the canvas. His bronze sculpture, The Critic Sees, a scathing critique of scathing art critics (Johns had his share of negative reviews) is one of the more underappreciated highlights of the exhibition that should not be missed. 

Featuring roughly 130 different works covering a range of different mediums Gray may seem a bit daunting at first but as you flow through the various rooms and watch the evolution of the artist’s work unfold, it’s difficult not to find a certain level of beauty beneath such a stale, achromatic color. For spectators not familiar with the work of Jasper Johns, Gray may appear as a bit of a specific introduction since much of his work is vibrant with color. That said, Gray encompasses themes of Johns work that he has explored all throughout his career and since the exhibit spans five different decades it’s a perfect way to witness an artist’s transformation and maturation. 

Jasper Johns: Gray will be at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Regenstein Hall until January 6, 2008 and will run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 5 to May 4, 2008. For more information visit www.artic.edu.

Art Rock


Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is currently hosting Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, a comprehensive and at times fascinating look at the meshing of visual art and rock and roll over the years. The exhibit, which runs until January 6, chronicles the relationship between artists and rock music across the globe while also tapping into a number of subgenres. 

Named after the Rolling Stones hit single offBeggar’s Banquet, a curious choice since the Stones are featured sparingly, the exhibition is broken up into several different wings, each paying homage to a different significant rock and roll hub. From New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London and Manchester in the U.K., Cologne, Germany, the multi platform art displayed represents certain elements from the cities and their unique sounds. Album cover art, promotional poster sheets, music videos and video art, rock and roll photography, traditional 2D paintings and drawings, and even sonic art soaked in via headphones, surround sound loudspeaker rooms and even a makeshift sound recording booth that can be reserved by anyone out to make a demo tape. 

While true art snobs may find the exhibit to be underwhelming, rock purists may be unforgiving for the lack of attention given to certain genres and equally important music scenes, and casual rock listeners may become jaded after the first couple rooms, the exposition is affective at examining how art was once a major influence on the music world and vise versa. The one troubling aspect of the exhibit is how little there is about the use of art in recent rock and hip-hop movements.

Sure the exposition covers obvious art-house favorites such as avant-garde guitar shoe gazers Sonic Youth (band member Kim Gordon is featured heavily throughout the exhibit) but little more is covered post the early 90s alt rock and punk epoch. While this lack of attention given to my generation left me a bit baffled I began to realize that in many ways art is no longer as significant to rock music as it once was. 

I remember as a kid discovering my parent’s massive record collection and immediately being drawn to the dazzling visuals that were featured on the LP covers. From the famous Andy Warhol crotch zipper on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the mysterious naked children figures perched on the sea of rocks on Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy LP, the washed out distorted faces of Talking Heads on Remain in Light, the Dalí inspired surrealism of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to the Beatles, an art conscious band that released some of the most noteworthy cover art in history. The use of art in rock albums was at one point as big a focus as the fine-tuning of sound, the poetry of the lyrics and appearance/persona of the band or musician. Lately though I think it’s safe to say that the link between rock music and the art world is growing thin. 

It could be said that the death of vinyl and the slow but steady demise of CDs are to blame for a downfall of album art, with more attention spent on the marketing and methods of selling and distributing music there is less attention or care given to the art (I mean iTunes packages albums with “digital booklets,” but I can’t help but think it is a noble but poor replacement for liner notes). 

This argument goes well beyond merely cover art, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best place to look for a band’s visual art influences. One of the most fascinating parts of the MCA exhibit dealt with underground punk bands of the 80s and their use of cheaply made and distributed promotional posters, many of which were artistically and politically creative. While the “do it yourself” underground music mentality is still alive today we rarely see promotional poster art, the kind that made you stop on a street corner, since we now have Myspace pages and websites (don’t get me wrong, one could make a strong argument for the advantages of the internet and the many artistically designed sites out there.)

Then there are music videos, which during the 80s and 90s became a controversial yet extremely popular way of mixing art with music. Some people argued that spoon feeding listeners images to go along with the lyrics of a song was a poor replacement for your imagination, however, there were many conceptual artists who used these shorts in creative and fascinating ways. 

Most people know about the handful of unique film directors working today who got their starts in music videos and commercials. There were certain videos that we as music lovers actually looked forward to watching, videos that took our favorite songs in extremely unique directions. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” song premiere after The Simpsons (corny I know) as a young lad, waiting in my friends basement for Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Box” video to come on, crossing my fingers for the VJ to play Beastie Boys’ hilarious “Sabotage” video or yearning for that next Beck video to come out, a musician who overlooked/visualized the majority of his highly stylized and brilliant videos.

Today it’s hard for me to remember the last truly great video I saw (Mark Romanek’s ultra bizarre but extremely wicked modern art museum inspired video for the Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” song may take the cake). Sure artists like Radiohead, Bjork, Muse, Missy Elliott, Beck, Franz Ferdinand or Jay-Z still put out fairly unique, eye opening videos and certain artists still take great album cover art seriously (I may be the only one who dug Pearl Jam’s minimalist avocado cover on their last album), but for the most part music these days seems more concerned with the “to steal or not to steal” debate than extending their creativity past simply the music. 

What struck me as interesting about the MCA exhibit was how important the use of art once was. To have your photograph taken by someone like Robert Mapplethorpe (he did Patti Smith’s Horses album) or be sponsored by a visionary like Andy Warhol (who himself was idolized by musicians and artists) was something to aspire to. Bands like New Order (there is a fascinating look at the design of Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies floral still-life album cover on display at the MCA), Funkadelic, 70s era Miles Davis Frank Zappa, or the slew of progressive rockers from the 70s (ELO, Yes, Asia, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, almost all these groups relied heavily on visual art often using up and coming surrealist portrait artists like Roger Dean or ahead of their time graphic designers like Storm Storgerson) had a passion for art that went beyond the notes they played. Today though it seems like the biggest aspirations a musician can have is to work with a hotshot producer (uh hum, Glen Ballard) or have there song featured on whatever ridiculous “Laguna Whore” reality show is the fad that week (note that this statement does not cover every musician working today because there are some keeping the marriage of sound and vision alive. Just the majority).

Walking around the MCA I was curious as to what a similar exhibit might look like 20 years from now. How will future generations view the current state of music we’re in? Sure there have been advents in technology and I fully support the internet’s role in distributing music but I can’t help but think that we’re losing something with this change. There was something aesthetically pleasing about walking around the Sympathy exhibition. Seeing the full size carefully drawn posters, seeing how certain album covers were designed or walking over the room of vinyl records (you’ll see). The MCA exhibit is worth checking out (Tuesday is a free day so how can you not!) for anyone interested in learning about a fascinating piece of rock and roll history.