The world of rock concert poster art has its own definitive language, silent and spoken, written and unwritten, overt and implied. Like with many other microcultures, knowing this community’s unusual codes, insider terminology and culturally specific social etiquette is the difference between surface appreciation and full understanding. The masters of poster art twist pop culture imagery, repurpose age-old Americana icons and ink out slick illustrations in the name of ephemeral, music-related events. Using techniques and equipment that in the age of computers is all-but antiquated, they construct limited edition, handmade artifacts that not only mark a single day in history, but are reflective of the cultural surroundings at large. The community that produces these vibrant runs of ink on paper is insular and eccentric, full of brilliant, quirky, often introverted personalities, whose bombastic mode of expression is balanced by the under-the-radar status of their craft.
After years of existing away from the scrutiny and examination of outsiders, not one, but two filmmakers crafted documentaries about this underground coalition of ink on paper; Eileen Yaghoobian, with her punk-rock pastiche, Died Young, Stayed Pretty, and Merle Becker with her historical examination of the artform, American Artifact. Each filmmaker’s choice of location, interview subjects, tone and editing are deliberate attempts to impart this new language of poster art to an audience that hasn’t been exposed—for a lifetime, a decade, or even the few years it took to weave together each of these films—to the nuances and iconography of this cloistered culture. Both directors furnish the viewer with tools to process this foreign dialect, and the questions their films answer directly parallel the inquiries innate to the understanding and acquisition of a second language. What is the terminology people use here? How is it applied? What are the cultural references necessary to establish real connections with the material? What words and concepts don’t translate to the language I already know?
In a total immersion method of foreign language instruction, a student receives all of his/her instruction in the target language, without explanation or bridges to a first, native language for guidance. In order to learn French, for example, one would be placed in an environment in which everything heard and spoken was only in French.
This is the same principle by which Died Young, Stayed Pretty exposes the viewer to the world of underground poster art. Yaghoobian’s gritty homage plunges its audience into the solitary, culture of imagery/imagery of culture world inhabited by modern poster artists. The film is shot, produced, directed and edited by the first-time filmmaker from Vancouver, who discovered rock posters through the modern archival website and forum, Gigposters.com. A photographer with her MFA, Yaghoobian found herself impacted by the artwork on a visceral level, and approached the filmmaking process with a keen eye and a fine-artists’ appreciation for the mechanics of the movement. She documents how posters of the punk rock era are reflected in the posters of today, focusing her attention more on the current expression of the culture and its visual expression than its historical roots.
“It’s about the dialogue that happens in the posters and the community that exists,” she says.
As far as location and process, Yaghoobian had a distinct vision going in. She didn’t want to shoot artists, as she says, “pimping their artwork.” She wanted to capture them in their natural environs. Her filming process involved staying with her subjects for weeks, sleeping on couches and always keeping the camera rolling. She captures the routines that reveal a person’s character, catching her artists in off-guard moments that show the true nature/color of their personalities. Interview subjects are chosen for their conversational fluency and hometown environmental intrigue, not their individual impact on the scene.
Yaghoobian encourages extended musing from her subjects. She wrenches politically incorrect admissions from them. Most of the men (there is only one female poster maker in the whole film—a pretty accurate representation on gender breakdown in the field) on the scene are huge culture, science and history geeks, and Yaghoobian lets them ramble, exposing their roots. Like Rob Jones, expert illustrator of the perverse, who recounts the paranoid legend of the death of Elvis’ secret twin on-screen for a full five minutes. The story he tells has nothing to do with posters, really. It doesn’t even have a lot to do with rock music. But it does give the audience majestic insight into the workings of a mind that spews out hilarious, warped images of famous figures, like Mick Jagger wielding an eel stemming from his crotch; or Teddy Roosevelt, fang-bearing and vampiric; or a homoerotic, gun-slinging Elvis (of course), pinching his own nipple.
It is these deliberate tangential indulgences of character through conversation that create the immersive experience. In a movie about a microculture, Yaghoobian understands that to know a foreign place, you must be allowed to converse with its people about the things they love.
Yaghoobian’s portrait of the modern community is further fleshed out by the frenetic paces of her cuts from poster imagery to interview tidbits from artists who are identified only for flashes of a second. She arranges her interviews in a non-linear fashion overlapping patches of related musings, so they feel almost wheatpasted together. Yaghoobian’s film is intentionally plotless and dizzying.
“Punk is anti-narrative,” she says. “Of course I’m going to a make a film that’s anti-narrative, because I’m going to serve the form.
Yaghoobian also illuminates subjects that are actually of issue if you participate in the community. She juxtaposes footage of designers and illustrators expressing their fervent opinions on design—contradicting each other in ways that mimic the activity on poster message boards and in chat rooms. One minute you see a design-centric artist is claiming he’d be bored to pieces illustrating posters, and the next minute the screen flashes to an illustrator complaining about the lack of imagination in recycling found imagery. The values and perspectives of artists are both represented and respected, but never fully explained. The audience is left with the feeling that it is impossible to label an opinion in this universe as right or wrong, but that all is permissible when expressing opinions about music or pop culture or aesthetics or politics through your artwork. As the frantic conversational wave crashes down, the lesson is imparted. Creativity is god. Art is the only truth.
Died Young, Stayed Pretty requires fortitude; and likely you have to be a native speaker to understand what Yaghoobain is saying. Even with thousands of hours of trolling Gigposters.com under my belt and a flat file of collected screenprints under my bed I understood Died Young, Stayed Pretty better after my second viewing.
But as Yaghoobian says, “It’s punk rock. It’s messy.” That first viewing still awoke something visceral within me—something tied to the excitement of secrecy and rebellion. The film forces you to commit or perhaps more accurately, submit to powerful sensory provocation. Like a non-Spanish speaker feeling inspired enough by the Cathedral of Seville to utter her first “muy gracias,” one simply has to let the immersion work its wonder.
Yaghoobian says, “When you’re making a movie about community, the individual dissipates.” And in the case of Died Young, Stayed Pretty, this principle includes the audience/viewer as an absorbed individual, too.
Immersion is a proven effective method of language learning, but it certainly isn’t the only way to impart a language unknown. The Language As Subject (LAS) system of language learning, for example, is a traditional way of teaching language in which it is treated as the object of instruction. In LAS, the teacher is responsible for explanation, and deciding what will be learned and how to exchange that knowledge. In her film American Artifact, Merle Becker aims to translate the language of the poster underground into relatable terms for her audience, ordering an examination of poster art from its rock and roll and psychedelic roots through the present. Becker introduces the audience to the scene’s key players through the ages. She uses clear points of organization, the innate visual appeal of the scene’s artwork, and a literal approach to context and setting to engage and anchor the viewers. The film even kicks off with Becker as the narrator, a device used intermittently throughout the film, making Becker, quite literally, our guide.
“I definitely wanted people to walk away from the film feeling like they learned something, and feeling like it was an enlightening hour and a half,” she says.
Becker serves up her content in linear, easily digestible chunks, and American Artifact has a clear beginning, middle and end. The film kicks off with a review of posters of the 50’s and 60’s, taking us on a quick tour the art’s birth in boxing poster form. We move on to the 60’s where the major signposts are hit. Bill Graham at The Fillmore? Check. Stanley Mouse, whose Grateful Dead posters eventually spawned the most recognizable band logo on the planet? Check. It is clear from the outset, that this is intended to be a historical journey through the art form.
Becker’s artistic choices are a reflection of the intended audience. Where Yaghoobian samples current artists for their commitment to obscurity, Becker focuses heavily on the “Big Five” (Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, and Alton Kelley), and then moves on to sample an array of keystone artists from the 60’s and beyond. She uses two books—1949’s The Art of Rock, and 2003’s updated, The Art of Modern Rock—two 25-pound tomes—as her bibles, selecting the most pivotal and popular figures for probing and extolling. She takes us through time, and the country, to record what she—and some others in the film—seems to believe is a vanishing industry.
Becker hails from the world of mass media, working for MTV in the former “corporate gig” she refers to in much of the film’s narration. More specifically, she worked for TRL, MTV’s gooey, pop sales vehicle, and her experience in making trends approachable for the masses clearly informs her storytelling approach.
She squeezes more recognizable personalities into her film, executing their identification with clear labeling, giving prime screen time to people like Frank Kozik, known by many to be the godfather of modern poster art. Becker lets Kozik tell his story, the tale of how screenprinting was revived; of how in a time when the black and white flier was the default, he strived to make prints so large and so complex they would make people think, “How can that exist?”
These are the pillars of the community. The figures worthy of flashcards. One by one, Becker isolates these personas that have defined the scene over time, asking you to commit them to memory.
Like Art Chantry, often known as the design yin to Kozik’s illustrative yang, who has the most compelling lines in the film. (Chantry is a major voice in DYSP as well.) Proving his worth as modern day poster art’s Confucius, he unintentionally synthesizes the intent of the entire film, while telling the story of his own work saying, “If you document, you create history.”
While synthesizing the chain of events that brought poster art to its modern state, Becker makes use of archival footage (an old Bill Graham interview, for example), and places her new interview subjects in environments that are directly connected to their occupations, achievements and/or topic of conversation. Music writers talk in front of their libraries. Artists are interviewed in their studios. Her context is literal. The soundtrack is comprised of bands whose music has been represented in posters for decades. She provides her audience with the building blocks of understanding by presenting exactly what she wants you to absorb.
Becker is also unafraid to explore the more commercial side of the poster world, a reality that Died Young, Stayed Pretty for the most part, leaves untouched. In the years since the golden age of poster art, the functionality of a five-color screenprinted poster has changed. For bands that are no longer making money off record sales, limited edition screenprints are expensive to produce, and not especially effective as a means of promotion now that shows are advertised on the internet.
As Chantry brings up, maybe now more than ever, posters are artifacts. It’s important to Becker to give context for how poster art fits in the modern world. She knows in an audience of music lovers, people want to know where and how posters are used. She anticipates that in a crowd of rent and mortgage payers, people will be wondering, “How do these folks make a living?” Her inclination towards didacticism serves the audience’s curiosities regarding the practicality of a seemingly impractical artistic existence. The film is information-stuffed, thoughtfully organized, and imbued with the vibrant spirit of the scene it magnifies.
After viewing American Artifact, you know the historical figures of importance. The generals of war. You have sampled the souvenirs and you can list the key facts. You could pass a test on the vocabulary and phrases. In Died Young, Stayed Pretty, you acquire your native accent. You may not have fully understood the dialogue, but you’re left with the feeling of having spent months in a far away place. You don’t remember the name of the wine you drank while you were there, but you remember what it tasted like.
Some people want to live abroad. Others like the guided tour. How filmgoers respond to each film will ultimately depend on what kind of learners they are, and how they like to travel through worlds unknown.