Arthouse Movie Posters

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Movie culture is pretty much dead now, isn’t it? Sure, it’s possible to whip up some decent arguments to the contrary. But for all intents and purposes movies are no longer significant drivers of culture. Frankly, when a young person talks about movies, I’m often not even sure what he or she is referring to. The series of mostly animated 3D commercials that constitutes the modern summer blockbuster? Homemade iPhone porn? Grainy, recursive gifs of people putting things in their assholes?  Serialized dramas streamed by the Netflix gremlins straight to your TV? All of these might qualify as movies. And yet in a sense they’re not movies, which for me is a term redolent of a whole art-and-entertainment ecosystem — one that’s gone and vanished, like the rhino in Mozambique.

Younger folks reading this — flatter me while I pretend we have a few readers under the age of 30 — might not even realize that movies used to be sophisticated, adult pursuits, a bit like Russian novels or sex. People were serious about ’em. Of course, some folks took that seriousness to embarrassing extremes — the Fellini-fellating intellectual in “Annie Hall” is a good parody of the type. But even that guy now seems like an expurgated rhino; he’s been replaced by newer, scroungier founts of pomposity, like the angry anonymouses who hang out in internet discussion forums looking to pick fights over perceived insults to Christopher Nolan. (By the way — screw those guys.)

Hey, that reminds me: I wrote about grindhouse movies back here. Doesn’t it seem like exploitation is the one corner of old-fashioned movie culture that young people have some connection to? Maybe the tradition of extreme, wild-ass movies has managed to maintain a toehold within the cultural mythosphere. If so, how great is that? And what to attribute it to? In any event, grindhouse is practically a brand.

But what about its high falutin’ mirror image, the arthouse? For a long time, especially in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the arthouse scene was a vital part of movie culture: it’s where audiences experienced older movies and work from foreign countries. Perhaps more importantly, it’s where many people learned to take movies seriously, as part of a broader life experience, one that touched on a whole bunch of stuff that was only tangentially related to entertainment. The gods of the scene were Bergman and Fellini. Though the reputations of both filmmakers have deflated since their heyday in the ’60s, it seems to me that the actual quality of their work was always somewhat secondary. What mattered were its trappings, its postures, its associations. For a Bergman film was more than just a two-hour black-and-white slog; it was a foray into Euro-style seriousness, sex, philosophy, high art — one that you might even be able to parlay into some meaningful alone time with a girl who wears berets and quotes Sartre. Movies as a forum for intellectual-amorous adventurism, eh? Hard to believe they were that, at least for a time.

I don’t have any data on arthouse theaters, and I’m too young to have much direct experience of ’em, but my rough sense is that most decent-sized cities and college towns had one, and that they were hubs for curious and adventurous culture lovers. The movie critic Pauline Kael famously got her start writing program notes for The Berkeley Cinema Guild; she later managed the theater, too. According to biographer Brian Kellow, “Locals grew accustomed to seeing her up on a ladder changing the Guild’s marquee, a hip flask filled with Wild Turkey dangling from a belt loop.” How’s that for a great image out of the movie past? Sadly, the Cinema Guild closed in 1967; the building it was housed in was ravaged by a fire in 2011.

These days the arthouse mindset is kept alive by the Criterion Collection, an upscale home video outfit that specializes in deluxe editions of non-English classics. An outgrowth of the Voyager Company, an early CD-ROM producer, the Criterion folks realized very early on that digital media was capable of providing movies with new layers of context. In the digital era film presenters aren’t limited to the written notes like those Kael provided for her screenings; they’re capable of exploring side avenues through the inclusion of ancillary films, interactive features, and pre-recorded commentaries. In some ways the deluxe Criterion DVD can be understood as an attempt to evoke the heady, chat-heavy atmosphere of the arthouse scene — only now the consumer is forced to experience it in isolation, digital technology having thus far failed to replicate beret-wearing girls who quote Sartre. Criterion has recently extended its digital reach by partnering with Hulu to create a channel largely devoted to arthouse offerings. Yet the company’s arthouse roots extend into the pre-digital past: it got into the foreign classics biz through a partnership with Janus Films, a distribution outfit created out of the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Brattle is one of the few old-school arthouses still in operation.

Anyway, all of this is a lead-in to the gallery at the bottom of this post, which shows off some of the arthouse movie posters I’ve managed to collect over the years. I call them “arthouse movie posters” because they’re mostly related to independent and non-U.S. features, and they share some interesting design quirks. Most notably, they tend to avoid the use of full color; many are printed in one or two tones, often with somewhat crude line art or publicity stills for graphics. And the bulk of them were not distributed by the National Screen Service, the outfit responsible for providing movie advertising to first-run theaters. I get the sense that many of these were designed and printed by independent distributors hoping to provide their business partners with some rudimentary advertising material.

Some of the posters are pretty straight-forward affairs, employing text pulled from positive reviews and somewhat reverent imagery. Others are much weirder. One of the posters for “The 400 Blows” tries to frame the movie as a youth-in-rebellion screecher along the lines of “Blackboard Jungle,” while the two posters for Bergman’s “Monika” pitch the movie as pure exploitation — as “the story of a bad girl.” A couple of my favorites concern American avant-garde films, “The Wedding Party” and “Putney Swope”; both feature photographic images notable for their chic sense of rebellion and art-scene edginess. The “Putney Swope” image, in particular, is a classic.

The DIY aspect of the old arthouse culture is also evident in the below mock-up for a flyer associated with a theater called The Unicorn, based in La Jolla, California. It was created by cutting out pieces of the pressbook for Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman,” then pasting them along with some text onto a larger sheet of paper. You’ll notice that the finished flyer also incorporates write-ups of Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and Renior’s “A Day in the Country.” It looks like The Unicorn is no longer around, but here’s director Gregory Nava talking about seeing his first Bergman at the theater. And here’s an informative piece about Harold Leigh, the man who ran the joint at the time this flyer was created. Critic Welton Jones describes The Unicorn as “the handmade Maserati of the art houses.” According to this piece, Landmark Theaters ran a number of arthouses in the San Diego area. I guess the locale was a real hotbed for cool, outside-the-mainstream moviegoing. Needless to say, I was pretty chuffed to receive this flyer along with a poster I bought on eBay a while back; made me feel like I was getting a peak into independent theater history.

Do you have any arthouse movie experiences to share? Perhaps a favorite independent or repertory theater? The one closest to me is probably the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. Great place, though its vibe is a little too PBS for my taste. No one walks around with a flask of Wild Turkey swinging from her hip, at any rate.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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11 Responses to Arthouse Movie Posters

  1. Great post, not to mention you have a killer poster collection.

    My prime movie-going years were about ’93 to ’00 or ’01. Friends and I went to the theater pretty much every week (on top of regular trips to Blockbuster and Tower Records’ video section). One of our main destinations was the Laemmle Sunset 5. It was located right at the base of the Hollywood Hills, where lots of celebrities live, so if you went there on a Friday or Saturday night, you were bound to run into someone famous. James Woods was in front of me in line one night. I was there to see “Everyone Says I Love You,” he bought a ticket for “Scream.” The Laemmles left that location a couple of years ago and Redford’s Sundance group took it over. All the way over on the west side is the Nuart, which is still one of L.A.’s premier arthouses. I trekked all the way over there to see “Romance.” I also saw “Gangster No. 1” there, which was a terrible film, but I got to see Malcolm McDowell do a Q&A afterwards. I remember the lights going up after the movie and there was Alex DeLarge standing right next to me, waiting to go on stage.

    The other main destination for us was Pasadena. Although now Pasadena is one of SoCal’s great cities/neighborhoods, back in the 70s and 80s it was a neglected and run-down piece of shit. Many of the old movie houses turned into porn theaters. But when the city experienced a renaissance, those porn theaters were converted into arthouses. The Colorado had a big auditorium with a leaky roof; I remember some of the seats being roped-off the night I saw “Shallow Grave.” Over at The State theater I saw “Casablanca” and “Henry Fool,” among others. Both those theaters closed, though, when the Laemmle Playhouse 7 opened a brand new multiplex just a few blocks away next to Vroman’s bookstore. (Side note: Vroman’s is the bookstore Elizabeth Banks works at in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.”) A few miles away down on Fair Oaks in South Pasadena is the Rialto, the theater where Tim Robbins kills Vincent D’Onofrio in “The Player.” I saw, er, “Memento,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “Amelie” there.

    I still have my ticket stubs to all these movies.

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  2. Fenster says:

    If you visit the currently dead downtown of Worcester Mass, you would scarcely guess that the place used to be infested with movie theaters in the 50s and 60s. The Capitol (Swiss Family Robinson seen there), the Warner (This Island Earth and The Land Unknown on a double feature for 25 cents), The Loew’s Poli (still open when Papillon came out), and the Plymouth (The Angry Red Planet). But it is amazing from a current day perspective that the city’s downtown also hosted a legitimate art house–the Fine Arts. That’s where my old crowd developed its pretensions, by watching Hour of the Wolf and such. The bleak Bergman landscapes nicely presaged the future of downtown Worcester.

    Some real old timers preferred the Fine Arts in an earlier incarnation, as the Olympia, a family theater when the price of admission was even lower, fifteen cents. That was ahem well before my time. Others preferred it when Worcester’s turn for the worse in the sixties forced it to drop the art house programming and offer pre-Deep Throat porn. It remained that kind of grindhouse until it closed in 2006. So it only had a decent run as an art house for maybe 10 or 15 years.

    I don’t mean to get all wistful or anything but there’s something gained and something lost in living every day, isn’t there? I mean, I miss the art house scene as well, but it is hard for me to tell how much of that is tied to my own short and personalized experience strutting across the stage of life when I did and how much is a function of actual decline. It seems to me a little like the cry that went up over the loss of the independent bookstore. Yeah, I Ioved them too (Worcester had one, where I picked up RD Laing’s The Politics of Experience for something like a quarter), and I wish we had a lot more of them today to wander through on a rainy day. But truth be told I would probably wander to get ideas for books that I would subsequently get either at the library or Amazon, where my selection would be essentially unlimited.

    So I guess my question is whether you think the decline in art house, while having a personal effect on you due to your specific experiences, has had any net positive or negative effects on the quality of films? To me it is hard to say.

    I came across a comment on the web about Worcester theaters in which a real old-timer (i.e, the generation before mine) despaired of the decline some of the Worcester theaters in a shift *toward* films. He preferred it when Artie Shaw toured there. Well, yeah, but things change.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Fab memories, thanks.

      I don’t have much personal experience with arthouse theaters. It’s mostly just a scene I’m aware of, like grindhouse theaters and drive-ins. (All before my time.) I’m not sure the demise of these forums has had much of an effect on the quality of movies. But I do think it’s all tied up with the demise of movie culture as a specific thing. Whether that demise is a good or a bad thing — I don’t know. It’s not something we can change, so it seems pointless to fret over. But why not take some time to recognize what was good and/or interesting about it?

      I might not trade my movie-watching habits of today — when I can get basically anything I want at the press of a button — for those of moviegoers of yesteryear. Still, I’m very aware of how lonely and disconnected movie watching is now. There’s little in the way of shared experience or real-world connectedness. And kids don’t seem to have an awareness of movies as their own distinct thing, with a history, tradition, etc. Movies are just another stream of digits whooshing through the Matrix.

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  3. Fenster says:

    It seems like it just one of life’s conundrums that you most desire what is hard to get and when it is ubiquitous you begin to get bored. David Hemmings throwing away the guitar in Blow-Up.

    The thrill of record stores, too, was all about scarcity and mystery. What are the things I don’t even know about that I can only find here? And how sad and tragic that even if I find them I can only afford to buy just a little, little bit. What about what I leave behind? I will never experience it.

    Compare and contrast with LegalSounds at 9 cents a track. So yeah, it is good to celebrate all the nuances and edges.

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  4. Callowman says:

    My prime art house period was the late 1970s and all of the 80s in Boston and San Francisco. One evening in 1986, a friend and I were supposed to go see Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild at the Orson Welles in Cambridge. I ended up at a dinner that went long and couldn’t make it. I remember feeling guilty about standing up my friend, because I couldn’t get hold of him. The next morning, I learned that the Orson Welles had burned to the ground during the showing we were supposed to go to.

    Wikipedia claims it happened at 2 p.m., so maybe it was a lunch that went long and we were going to a matinee. It also claims it was an electrical fire, but at the time it was reported that the popcorn maker had caught fire. They had one of those big, old-fashioned ones you used to see at amusement parks, basically a giant, glassed-in aquarium-style box with a hot, rotating bowl of oil in the middle that blasted out corn and smelled ever so enticing. Though I did walk past the smoking, sagging ruin the next day, I never confirmed the story about the popcorn-maker. It’s a far more poetic ending.

    While I’m glad I didn’t have to run for it, popcorn in hand, I’m sorry I missed the Orson Welles’ last gasp. My friend, who lived in Cambridge, skipped it too when I didn’t show. I still haven’t ever seen Dreamchild.

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  5. Fake Herzog says:

    Here in Chicago, I used to go to the Music Box a lot in the 90s. I saw a special celebration there of Siskel and Ebert’s 25th Anniversary (right before Gene got his brain tumor). Gene and Roger were there live and took audience questions. They answered my question — I asked them if they ever considered reviewing porno movies or taking them seriously.

    It is stil open and has one of the greatest old-fashioned big screens in the country:
    http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

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