Docs About Movies 3: “Pablo”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Episode three in my current series of writeups of documentaries-about-movies that I’ve enjoyed recently. Episode one concerned “Free Radicals“; episode two was about “Big Joy.” Today:



Doc about the superstar graphic designer Pablo Ferro, best-known for his title sequences for such movies as “Dr. Strangelove,” “Bullitt” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” and later for his work with Jonathan Demme.

Pablo was a poor kid from the Cuban countryside who came to NYC with his family in the late ’40s. He taught himself how to draw and design, and made a name for himself very young in advertising and TV, where his playful, quick-cutting, graphics-happy, Euro/Latino-flavored style was innovative and influential. Then, in 1964, Stanley Kubrick hired him to work on “Dr. Strangelove.” The movie, and Pablo’s work on it — he did the film’s infamous trailer, as well as the film’s title sequence — caused a sensation, and Pablo’s career really took off.

Pablo threw himself rock-star-style into the ’60s, hanging out with fellow wild-and-crazy creative people, enjoying booze ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ mistresses, maintaining a kind of Factory/bachelor-pad-like business/life establishment, and wrecking his own family. Then, under very mysterious circumstances, he was shot in the neck. Barely surviving, he scaled his life back a lot. He’s had his share of ups and downs since. He did titles for the movies of Hal Ashby (a close friend) through the 1970s, and Jonathan Demme has been a loyal fan. But these days, in his late 70s, Pablo is living in a garage behind his son’s L.A. house and scrounging for work.

The movie, narrated by Jeff Bridges, is very interesting, very frank and very informative. It does a good job of being honest about Pablo’s triumphs and mistakes, his ups and downs, the cost of his art and celebrity on his family, and it visits with a lot of fun, impressive and appreciative/perceptive people who offer observations and insights about Pablo and his art. I watched the film playing with one of my pet ideas: that avant-garde films and commercials and music videos are often basically up to the same things. I can’t see much real difference between Pablo Ferro’s work and the work of the avant-gardists in “Free Radicals,” for instance. Pablo may have been putting his talents to work helping clients sell things while the avant-gardists were following their muse and exploring formal issues in much purer ways, but aesthetically they wound up doing many similar things. FWIW, I’ve been a big fan of Pablo Ferro’s graphics for many decades.

It’s too bad that the film’s director, Richard Goldgewicht, and his team impose a lot of unneeded quirkiness on their own film. Are they trying to make their film in the spirit of Pablo? They tell their story in a way that gets very annoying, using “This is a …” dozens and dozens of times: “This is Pablo buying some weed.” “This is a movie trailer.” “This is Stanley Kubrick.” Once or twice and I’d have gotten the idea; dozens of times and I had to fight the urge to turn the doc off. And organizationally they’ve decided to wrap the film around Pablo’s present-day search for a suitable sauna. (Since being shot, Pablo has experienced a lot of pain, and he finds that spending time in the heat gives him some relief.) This organizing device introduces an element that feels arbitrary and cute, and (for me anyway) was less revealing than the filmmakers probably intended it to be.

All that said, the conceptual quirkiness doesn’t by any means ruin the movie; the cartoon “re-enactments” that the filmmakers use as stand-ins for archival footage work very well; and Pablo Ferro himself is a major talent as well as a fascinating guy who has lived an amazing life. The movie is a great way to immerse yourself for 90 minutes in his art, his personal story and a lot of cultural history.

How much does a movie about a creative figure need to partake of the spirit of its subject? Would a straightforward movie about avant-garde filmmakers, or a plodding one about an exuberant silly, or a non-graphics-obsessed one about a graphic artist, or an earthbound doc about a mystic and guru, be a failure because of that? I’m not sure it would be. On the other hand, I nearly always am grateful for some non-standard-issue A&E style.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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1 Response to Docs About Movies 3: “Pablo”

  1. Pingback: Docs About Movies 4: “Side By Side” | Uncouth Reflections

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