American Artifact world premieres tonight with two showings at the Red Vic Theatre on Haight Street, 5pm and 7pm.
If only everything about this movie were as cool as that Cheetah wearing sunglasses. Director Merle Becker’s debut documentary has its heart in the right place, and the filmmaker’s passion for posters bleeds from every frame, but American Artifact fails at the crucial task of transmitting this enthusiasm to its audience. Becker thinks we might be made interested in rock posters, and, indeed, we might, but her answer to the question “why should I be interested in rock posters?” seems mostly to consist of “hey, check out this really cool rock poster!” Shirking the documentarian’s role as journalist and cultural historian, the director instead concatenated something closer to a fan film, pitching softball questions to artists she transparently reveres.
In the early going, the film is not helped by one of the lamest set-ups in documentary history. Paraphrased, it goes something like this: “I bought a book about rock posters, and I liked it.” Drawn into the flourishing underground culture of rock poster memorabilia, Becker spent several years traveling the country and interviewing her ink-spattered idols, who expound gamely but tepidly about getting to do what they love, making art on behalf of their favorite bands, with unfettered creative license and a small but steady income.
Much is made of the vast impact that the posters had in their heyday, when Bill Graham was organizing grand, mythical shows at the Fillmore, or when xeroxed Dead Kennedys flyers were coalescing into pulpy mush around the nation’s many telephone poles. This rosy-eyed retrospective even spawns 2009’s worst simile, in which these crude, photocopied punk flyers are described as “like MySpace for the 80’s.”
Poster art’s modern incarnation, as presented by Becker, seems more like eBay for the 60’s, in which zany, spontaneous rabble-rousers are set up as larger-than-life indie celebrities and then swapped on the internet, preferably at gigposters.com, which merits several mentions. It appears as an insular world, an enthusiast’s world. Aging poster artists are shot at behind small tables at Poster Cons, peddling their greatest print runs. You almost expect a guy in a Klingon costume to wander into the frame. It’s a far cry from the “current rock poster art movement” described in the film’s press release.
Becker has a frustrating tendency to gloss over topics she is unable or unwilling to treat with, and the film is plagued by wonky chronology and number of startling omissions. If you lived in a small cave on a mountainside and knew nothing of mass media save what you saw in American Artifact, you might literally think that no one created rock posters in the 70’s, at all. Becker also cherrypicks her genres. Most people think that Ratt is a terrible band (not me), but is it really prudent to suggest that no one ever created a poster to advertise their oh-so-hairy presence?
According to Becker’s film, rock posters worth mentioning were created during four semi-discrete time periods: The late sixties, when pyschedelia was at its peak. The mid-eighties, when punk was in full swing (this segment features several mentions of Phish, no joke). The early nineties, during the salad days of grunge. And finally, the swinging aughts, at least, whenever they involve an artist that the filmmaker particularly enjoys. Viewers expecting a comprehensive or at least comprehensible account of “the rise of American rock poster art” might leave disappointed. Perhaps most notably, the film makes no mention of Raymond Pettibon, arguably the most important rock poster artist of the last three decades. Posters, moreover, are the only topic at hand. If any of these artists ever did an album cover or a t-shirt, we’ll have to find out for ourselves.
Local viewers will get a kick out of the many San Francisco ties, most related to the Fillmore Auditorium and Wolfgang’s Vault, which preserves a vast collection of vintage Fillmore posters. Many SF-based artists are also interviewed, including Victor Moscoso, whose description of how he deliberately violated the traditional precepts of poster-making (be legibile, don’t use loud, clashing colors, etc.) is one of the most intriguing bits of interview.
Sequences that focus on the mechanics of poster-making, whether by block- or screen-printing, give valuable insight into the processes involved in creating the art. Short, throwaway segments with obsessive collectors, who think nothing of dropping $800 on posters in a single day, give hints of what the movie might have been: a more objective look at an obsessive but noble subculture, along the lines of 2006’s sly hit Wordplay. Instead, speaking in cloying first-person in a series of increasingly noxious voiceovers, Becker proves herself incapable of stepping the necessary distance outside the poster culture that she loves–she is a serviceable pulpit-pounder, but a terrible missionary. As a presentation of a lot of really kick-ass poster art, American Artifact is a smashing success. As a documentary, it’s not much of anything.
American Artifact will make it’s world premiere at the Red Vic Theatre, 1727 Haight St., SF. It will play one night only, at 5pm and 7pm.