I’m what’s known as a film geek. I wear that badge with pride, to a degree. I think there are lesser film geeks who rather muddy the reputation of those of us who are pure of heart.
I get angry about people who love film unconditionally, who somehow feel that the fact something is on the big screen gives it some immediate value and merit. That’s how I was when I started but I was very young and… well… I think back then that… well… everything kind of did have immediate value and merit. So much has changed with the film industry since that period between the late 70’s and late 80’s. I’m not saying that there weren’t a huge amount of awful films produced in that time, I just think that those awful films were kind of better than the awful films we get now. it feels to me like the bulk of films are now made for one of two reasons – profit or kudos. Films were always made for profit, but they were made by artists. We have very few artists left.
Artists once populated the mainstream. Where we had Kubrick we now have Christopher Nolan. Where we had Hitchcock, we have (shudder) M. Night Shyamalan. Where we had Irwin Allen, we have Roland Emmerich. Spielberg has handed the popcorn bucket to the likes of Brett Ratner and even the greats of the day who are still operating are doing so under the constraints of an anti-artistic industry and, probably, audience. How the man who directed Alien and Blade Runner has spent a decade churning out Russell Crowe films is beyond me.
Anyway. For me, there is one name which divides the true film geeks of my generation from the people who just really like films. That name is Drew Struzan. It’s the perfect test, it’s far from snobbish as the man is associated with some of the most mainstream, even hokey films of the period. Anyone who likes films, even in passing, will be completely familiar with his work but only people who LOVE films. True film geeks, who love the films so much, merely watching them is not enough, they have to know everything about them, clawing for information and memorabilia. Only true film geeks know Drew Struzan and all you have to do is say his name. Even just his first name. And you will see an expression of reverance, awe, love and wonder.
To those of you unfamiliar with the name, see if you can figure out what the following films have in common….
Did you work it out?
Probably. He was the poster artist. From the late 70’s right up to 2008, Drew Struzan was revered as the greatest film poster artist working. Some of his work, you probably wouldn’t even have realised were paintings, he worked with a photo-realistic quality but captured, as an artist, far more than a photograph ever could. Film posters are strange things – especially to film geeks. We may watch the film just a few times but we look at the posters every day (especially if your house has a den of geek like mine!) the posters represent and embody our feelings about the films that we hold dear.
I was aware of Drew very early on. His signature was surprisingly large and vivid. Almost distracting. I first noticed it on the Back To The Future poster, it’s not subtle, in a box right next to (and practically the size of) Marty’s shoe. It’s slightly subtler in the Temple of Doom poster, down on the bottom right and I was totally perplexed to find it on the Masters of the Universe poster because that just looks like a damn photo. Some of his posters were deceptive like that – The First Blood poster, Harlem Nights. It’s only because of the improbability of a lot of the poses – like The Goonies or Adventures in Babysitting posters do you instinctively know it’s not photographic.
Struzan seemed to dominate 80’s cinema with egalitarian brilliance. From Blade Runner to Police Academy 3, it almost didn’t matter what the film was, a Drew poster was like a hallmark of quality. He recognised what the film aspired to be and conveyed the heart and soul of it. I think he even might have done too good a job of it, I’m fairly sure my fondness for certain films is entirely poster-based.
This week I eagerly received my copy of his new book:
I’d just about resisted the urge to buy his previous coffee table book ‘Oeuvre’ because the shipping on it alone would bankrupt me and I feel like I’m so familiar with his work that I almost don’t need it. It’s firmly on the list of things I will treat myself to the day I ever get an actual tax rebate, though. This book is different, though. Firstly, it was way cheaper. Secondly, it was promoted as a book of never before seen work drafts, sketches and alternate, rejected artwork for his iconic posters.
I read the book in one sitting, one page at a time, resisting the urge to flick through it. It touched the film geek part of me which was in sublime ecstasy in that golden early period of DVD when it felt like every week a bunch of new classic films that I’d loved all my life turned up with missing scenes, documentaries and directors commentaries. To see the genesis of this artwork I’d lived my whole life loving, amazing. Even more amazing was to read Drew’s commentary. Unguarded, unedited, he tells you who ripped him off, pissed him off and screwed him over. He shows how in the days before photoshop, if a ‘suit’ (as he dismisses them with scorn) decided ‘make the buildings in the background bigger’, he’d have to painstakingly take a knife to his work to cut out the portraits, re-paint the entire background and then glue and repaint edges back on. He shows how some of his compositions were butchered and re-structured within the studio and how some producers would pay him only for preparatory sketches and then hire another, cheaper artist to actually complete the job using those composition ideas.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was the righteous bitterness of the man. He’s a blue collar illustrator, all about the work, and as the chronology moves forward, he describes the film industry’s change. Mid-level executives drift in and make careers by just ‘having a say’. They don’t trust or respect him or his craft and by the time Photoshop drifts in in the mid-nineties, they are gleeful. Photoshop means not having to deal with an artist, it means getting instant, ineffective changes. His last commercial stand is the the Harry Potter films. Keen to convey to the audience the magic of cinema, thy bring him on to give an artistic continuity to the posters (as he famously did with the Star Wars special editions and prequels). His poster for the first Potter film is lush, classic and magical. They ditched him midway through the second (which he decided to bring to completion himself and his final artwork for Chamber of Secrets is gorgeous) By the time of the third, he claims it was all new suits calling the shots altogether. The Potter posters now all use photo montage, all film posters do.
As Frank Darabont says in his brilliantly grumpy foreword to the book – Film posters SUCK now. Even though I often see films I love, I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was even tempted to put a poster of one on my wall. They are uniformly just a big photo of someone’s head, two people posing together or a line-up of hot young things looking hot and young.
Drew’s work dried up. By 2008, the only film-makers employing him were Frank Darabont and Guillermo Del Toro and they were funding his work from their own pockets. The studio wouldn’t even use it, the art ended up only being seen when those film-makers would self-fund a run of posters to give away at the San Diego comic-con. The posters Drew painted for Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy 2 are some of the most breathtaking pieces of his entire body of work but the only way to see them now is in his book.
In 2008, he gave up, retired. His bitter final words of the book are that you couldn’t drag him back to film work. After everything he’d done for so many films for 30 years, when he announced his retirement, there was no party, no awards, no recognition. No studio even sent him a card. George Lucas invited him to Skywalker Ranch and presented him with a special statue of Darth Vader bowing, he told Drew that he was bowing down to him. That at least is something.
Drew’s regrettable retirement is so symbolic to me. Even in the commercial mainstream, it feels like cinema has just lost its artistry.