Hang 'em high

Nov 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

Alain Leroy lives in 1960s Paris, where garbage men drink a glass of white on their lunch breaks, women haunt the streets in high heels with hair bobbed beautifully, and kids are "hopeless — good-looking, well-fed, elegant ... like California oranges." Leroy is in detox for alcoholism at a medical clinic that looks more like a quaint chalet in the city. His New York bitch-of-a-wife, Dorothy, has left him. And so, of course, Erik Satie's sad piano is his soundtrack.

"Life flows too slowly for me, so I speed it up," Leroy says early in Le Feu Follet, Louis Malle's 1963 film is about a man who commits to his own kind of cure, suicide, and spends the day seeking out his friends to say goodbye.

Envision 20th Century Fox's marketing department promoting that one in a press kit. How would one of America's biggest film companies choose to summarize, in one shot, the subject of a man who's seriously displeased and ending his life? Probably pretty literally, with the sallow-looking lead walking the gutter.

Hans Hillmann was a prolific graphic designer working in West Germany when Malle's film was produced. In conjunction with the European release, he created a stunning promo poster for Le Feu Follet — a photo of Leroy's face, played by Maurice Ronet, covered in dead leaves.

The design is gray like a gravestone, except for the title, printed in alarming red. It's a psychological portrait of a man who cannot face life, can't put on a brave face or save face, any longer. Hillmann's autumnal imagery is a metaphor about inevitability, a flawed individual who's come to terms with death as if his fate is a force of nature. It's one artist's sympathetic view of stylish despair.

The poster lends new meaning to Le Feu. Seen through Hillmann's lens, the allegory of seasons is everywhere in Le Feu, such as when Leroy's old friend explains his bourgeoisie obsession with ancient Egypt, kingdom of the sun. For Leroy, Paris in the spring isn't looking so bright, especially since he's already weathered war and wrung out his liver. Unfortunately Hillmann's design was only used in West Germany; in other countries, Malle's intense drama was poorly represented, design-wise.

Hung at movie houses and on the streets, the film poster was more than just a pretty print promoting the moving picture. Beginning in the early 20th century, it represented a dynamic collaboration between illustrator and his collaborator, the filmmaker. A poster is a snapshot of the time and place where creativity meets commerce — and it says a lot about each culture. West German designers, for instance, expected their audience to do some work too; their interpretations of subject matter are intellectually rigorous. Polish posters are characterized by playfulness, because these artists had faith in the public's imagination. In Japan, text is a design motif, so film titles are more prominent. And Italian film posters work within a long tradition of drawing and painting, so many designers use gouache or ink to render works by hand.

A poster telescopes two hours of screen time into a flash of recognition, and it's this resourcefulness, on the part of the artist, that Otto Buj is in love with. At the Art Gallery of Windsor, Buj, who is its information coordinator, guest curates Representing Cinema and the Art of the Film Poster, 78 original film posters from 1924 through 1978, about three-quarters of those he's collected over the last 15 years. At the exhibition, the works are installed according to country of origin. The curator makes it clear that this show is colored by his taste. He's never been into East Indian or Mexican movie posters because he considers the former too traditional (picture, he says, the "floating heads" solution) and the latter too bombastic. Still, this exhibit is stunning. Accompanying the show is an impressive free brochure with essays by Buj and his brother Lorenzo, who teaches cultural studies at the University of Windsor, and two fellow AGW staffers, collections manager Cassandra Getty and curator of contemporary art James Patten.

With their help, Buj places the early cinema posters within the context of avant-garde art movements, including art deco, art nouveau, cubism, Italian futurism and Soviet constructivism. The signs are simple to search for. You can see the bold figurative markings of German expressionism or the organic lettering of art nouveau, and, in some of the best pieces, multiple influences jostle to great effect, such as in a German poster for the 1931 French film Ler Rosier de Mme. Husson, which incorporates art deco's angular appeal and art nouveau flourishes.

In Hollywood, of course, art has always taken a back seat to business; actors contract to star on the screen and on the posters. But history presents a few exceptions. In his essay, Buj points to Saul Bass, a graphic artist who became well-known in the 1960s, rendering posters for such films as No Way Out, The Man with the Golden Arm, Psycho and Vertigo. His career continued through the 1990s, when he created title sequences for Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Casino. Buj says Bass' "spare jagged aesthetic" in his work for The Man with the Golden Arm, from 1955, recalls the restlessness of 1950s jazz.

Now, rather than freelance illustrators, studios often pay in-house marketing teams to target as wide a demographic as possible. With few exceptions — Buj cites the 2000 teaser for Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which reads like an eye chart — major studios haven't been willing to risk discouraging ticket buyers with a subtle interpretation or obscure reference. The Europeans, however, have always known they can't win over the masses. Since the 1920s, they've chosen instead to appeal to a smaller yet committed group of artistically literate filmgoers. Still other factors could limit creative freedom. In the U.S.S.R., for instance, film poster design in the early 20th century was used as just another way to disseminate political propaganda for a utopian Soviet state.

Buj learned all of this while traveling around Europe and purchasing posters for next to nothing from dealers (back before the market got hot around 2000). In just a few minutes, he can recite a detailed account of film poster history, giving it cultural and artistic context. At 37, he's a self-taught poster collector, poster restorer, filmmaker and film festival programmer. Around Detroit and Windsor, he's known for his talent and expertise. But if you ask him, he'll cite others who share his passion, such as Detroiter James E. Wheeler, who owns an extensive collection of black cinema, featured in a 1998 exhibition, Seeing the Light, at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Buj may be as humble as a projectionist, says his friend, Detroit cinephile and fellow poster collector Tim Caldwell, but he's as compelling as actor-director John Cassavetes.

In his spare time, Buj programs the Windsor International Film Festival. He's also one of only a dozen poster restorers in North America. These projects are close to his heart, but not closest. He's ready right now to sell off his entire poster collection — worth around $100,000 — to finance his next film: "If I can't find another way, I gotta do it," he says. "It's a deadline I've set for myself by spring."

His interest in filmmaking can be traced to an obsessive interest in horror films, like many pimply preteen boys. While friends were raiding liquor cabinets, he was at home with pop and chips. One night he flipped the channel to find Fellini's Toby Dammit, "a kinky horror film sold as late-night television," he says, and he was hooked.

After dropping out of art school at the University of Windsor, Buj was a founder and programmer for the Kinotek Film Society in Windsor for seven years, from 1991 to 1998, where he screened 35mm and 16mm prints of rarely seen foreign and independent films. He says it developed a committed following among local fans of film; Detroiters such as Majestic booker Greg Baise and musician Matt Smith were regulars. After learning enough from the silver screen, he wasn't content to simply show off other people's images. He too had his own motives.

His first full-length film, The Eternal Present, from 2004, made the rounds at indie festivals in the United States and across Canada. Jurors at the 2005 Victoria Independent Film & Video Festival called it "A film that is sure to inspire repeated late-night viewings." It's a persistent vision of a perpetual stranger, a young man named Tim, played by Craig Gloster, an actor with a face, as Buj says, "like a translucent, diaphanous mask," who encounters uncanny situations as an obituary writer. Lest you think him grim, Buj is the first to say he wants his movies to be enjoyable. As an artist, he's got a peculiar yet playful sensibility. He's interested in people's changing perceptions about their surroundings, such as a vast beach one plays at as a child, which, upon returning later in life, looks disappointingly the size of a sandbox.

The influence of his home of Windsor, which he calls "the forsaken part of Canada," is apparent in his filmmaking, especially the isolation and ambiguity that sets the scene in The Eternal Present. But Buj says Detroit's landscape is also embedded in his character.

"I came here for years to see rock shows or go to films, to go on walks. There's the sense that if you live in Detroit you don't judge it. You become compassionate, but also calloused by it. The sense of time passing is so immediate here, it's in the broken roads, and it's with people walking down the street, their past lives so removed from their present, picking up trash or going to a business meeting. The options in life are so evident it's tragic."

It's easy enough to think up a number of French experimental films that could inspire such a sensibility, but Buj insists he's not much one for watching movies. His life as a filmmaker means he's too intimate now with the intricacies and nuances of the job. And for him, the posters are entry points to magical moments, not precious objects in and of themselves. He admires artists' ability to distill a whole story into one potent visual — each filmmaker should attempt as much with every single scene. But working as a restorer, dealing for several hours at a time with the imperfections of one frustrating piece of paper, diminishes some of that wonder.

Buj learned about reconstituting posters by experimenting on his own pieces; "It was too expensive for me to get it done professionally," he says. Most of the work he does is known as "stabilization." A typical job takes about five to eight hours of work, during which time he's hunched over a stainless steel tabletop tank in his studio in the basement of his home, soaking and mounting the backs of posters with rice paper, and occasionally also cotton canvas for greater durability. Restoration work takes concentration and is a last resort. Poster paper, whether it's printed on zinc plates or older-style limestone slabs, was never meant to last. Buj is dealing with decades of stains, pinholes, tears, fold marks, sun exposure, moisture damage. Picture him with gloves on and elbows hanging loose in the air, pinching a fine brush that's dipped in gouache, inking in lines as thin as a hair where a vibrant picture has been worn to feathery white flecks. This kind of dedication defines Buj. That, and his exquisite taste, makes the show worth seeing. And the artists' ingenuity make even the obscure films worth tracking down, to view them for the first time, or even again, with a fresh perspective.



Representing Cinema and the Art of the Film Poster runs through Jan. 7 at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor; 519-977-0013.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]