Died Young, Stayed Pretty
American Artifact: the Rise of American Rock Poster Art
Imagine you’re a filmmaker who’s spent months—or, more likely, years—trying to realize a project that seems utterly novel, and one day you discover, to your horror, that another filmmaker is working on exactly the same thing. There’s seldom enough room in the marketplace for two versions of the same idea, so the release of the two projects inevitably devolves into a cage match. A few years back, for instance, both Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Independent Pictures green-lighted biopics of Truman Capote that would focus on the reporting and writing of In Cold Blood. Sony’s Capote (2005) raked in $49 million worldwide and collected five Oscar nominations (star Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor); Warners waited more than seven months after the Oscars for the smoke to clear before it released Infamous (2006), starring Toby Jones, but the movie still flopped.
A similar contest has been unfolding, albeit on a smaller scale, between American video maker Merle Becker and Canadian video maker Eileen Yaghoobian, both of whom set out to document the world of rock poster artists. Back in 2004 Yaghoobian began a three-year shoot in which she lived with and interviewed various contemporary poster artists around the U.S.; her movie, Died Young, Stayed Pretty, premiered in Toronto in November 2008 and screened once at the Music Box last September (it returns to Chicago in March as part of the second Chicago International Movies and Music Festival). Around the same time Yaghoobian began, Becker decided to make a documentary on rock poster art, tracing its history from the 50s to the present, and in 2005 she launched a similar but more compact tour; her movie, American Artifact: The Rise of American Rock Poster Art, premiered in San Francisco last June. This weekend it begins a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Given the star ratings above, you’re probably wondering which documentary is more worthy of your time, and though I preferred American Artifact, the answer will probably have more to do with your age, your income, and your level of concern with the politics of indie cred. In an e-mail, Yaghoobian points out that she lived with each of her subjects for as long as 40 days, sleeping on their floors and following them around 24/7. (Can there be a more genuine DIY gesture than sleeping on the floor?) Becker positions herself as a tourist from the pop-culture establishment; in voice-over narration she explains that she quit a “cushy corporate TV job” (at MTV) to drive around the country in search of the rock-poster underground and returned to real life when she was done. And if working for MTV weren’t damning enough, her press notes reveal that American Artifact has been added to the permanent collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (UPDATE: Yaghoobian reports that her documentary will be added to the Hall of Fame’s collection later this year.)
Of the two, Becker has clearly taken greater stock of the subject’s commercial potential, and one can easily imagine American Artifact turning up on VH1. It’s slick and colorful, with a big dollop of 60s nostalgia, and Becker’s innocent, gee-whiz narration provides an easy entry point into the subject whether you’re too young to know about the Fillmore or too old to know about Kings of Leon. Her approach can be seriously irritating: “The rock poster revolution was officially on!” she chirps at one point, as if it were a three-legged race at a family picnic. And when all is said and done, Becker seems most impressed with the fact that rock posters have recently become a cottage industry, with vintage posters changing hands for hundreds of dollars. Despite all the artists’ outsider rhetoric, American Artifact often feels like a small-business story.
Yet Becker has also made a real effort to appreciate the genre in all its rich variety. She begins with a visit to Hatch Show Print in Nashville, whose rudimentary letterpress posters advertised shows by the original 50s rockers. Victor Moscoso, among the first wave of great poster artists in the 1960s, explains how he inverted the established principles of poster design to create some of the more eye-popping images of west-coast psychedelia. Winston Smith and others explain how the low-budget use of photocopiers informed the black-and-white flyers of punk in the late 70s, and more contemporary artists like Frank Kozik and Art Chantry talk about their postmodern experiments repurposing pop-culture images from earlier eras. Interviewing nearly three dozen artists (including Chicagoans Jay Ryan, Mat Daly, Steve Walters, and Jim Pollock), Becker accumulates a wealth of hard information on their choice of materials and printing techniques; her respect for the actual process of art making provides a refreshing check on all the countercultural lore.
Perhaps the key difference between the two movies is that Becker makes a more concerted effort to connect the stylistic dots among her many artists. They speak with great enthusiasm about one another’s work, and in one case, when considering 60s pioneer Rick Griffin, Becker cuts together shots of eight artists citing him by name. Whether that sense of artistic community really exists or was just created in the editing room, it provides a marked contrast with Died Young, Stayed Pretty, which features some of the same artists (as well as local hero Keith Herzik) but creates an impression of willful isolation. Artists putter around their workspaces and talk about their own projects, but one seldom thinks of them as part of something larger. “If there was a scene, I didn’t know about it,” says Barry Ament of Seattle. “It was never really about, like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna hang out in the poster scene.'”
That sense of emotional isolation gradually develops into the theme of Died Young, Stayed Pretty, whose impressionistic editing and hypnotic score (by Chicago musician Mark Greenberg) heighten one’s sense of being deep inside the artists’ heads. Clearly their preoccupations have relegated them to a life on the fringe: Jim Madison and Connie Collingsworth of Bowling Green, Kentucky, explain how they recycle images from both Christian art and 70s porn films. Rob Jones of Austin, Texas, shows off a Turbonegro poster that turns Elvis Presley into a flaming gay icon, speculating that Colonel Tom Parker used evidence of a homosexual affair to blackmail the King. And Brian Chippendale walks us around a futuristic map of his native Providence, Rhode Island, crowded with concentration camps, nuclear power plants, a factory manufacturing Christian warrior robots, and a rendering facility that converts human bodies into oil.
Ultimately, the more mainstream American Artifact and the more underground Died Young, Stayed Pretty speak to a similar tension in the very medium they explore. From the 60s onward, rock posters have existed in a sort of cultural limbo, part art and part advertising. Posters that subvert commercial imagery eventually become valuable commodities themselves, though whether that phenomenon validates the artist or negates him is a debate unlikely to be settled any time soon. v
For more on Chicago’s screenprinting community, see Liz Armstrong’s 2007 Reader piece “The Screen Scene” at tiny.cc/screenscene.