Rick Poynor, and Adrian Shaughnessy | Dialogues

We Found It at the Movies: Part I

The Cinema as Art by Ralph Stephenson and J.R. Debrix, Penguin Books, 1974.
Cover design by Germano Facetti
Everyone loves a good movie, but for Design Observer contributors Rick Poynor and Adrian Shaughnessy the passion for film borders on crazy. They started to exchange emails about their favorite visual art — after design, of course — and just couldn’t stop. This is the first part of their wide-ranging conversation, with the second part following later this week.

Rick Poynor
Looking back, it’s surprising how long we’d known each other before it emerged that we shared an obsession for film. A couple of years ago you lent me a box set of Werner Herzog documentaries, a visionary filmmaker we both love. Since then, film has become an ever more frequent theme in our conversations and email exchanges, but these are often just asides so I have only a partial sense of what you admire, why you admire it, and how it all fits together. I get the impression that you spend a great deal of time watching films of all kinds and that’s certainly the case with me. 

My interest began as a teenager when I realized that cinema offered a perfect fusion of two other obsessions, literature and visual art. One of the first films I watched in this new way, as more than just entertainment — on TV when I was 16 — was Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. It was a moment of shocking revelation: I adored the controlled savagery of its surrealism, the enigmatic events and mysterious ending. If . . . . , Lindsay Anderson’s Brechtian fable of insurgency in a private school, had the same impact on me. I wanted to find out about how filmmakers use film technique and film language to create meaning and I turned to Pelican paperbacks such as The Cinema as Art, Film as Film and Film and Reality. By 1976, when I took out a subscription to the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine and then bought the first edition of the film critic David Thomson’s incomparable A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (now titled The New Biographical Dictionary of Film), I was a hopeless celluloid addict, devouring as many films as I could afford at film theaters and on London’s then thriving arthouse and repertory circuit.

If I wasn’t writing about design, it would probably be about film. But very little of this “research” has any public outcome and I suppose the redundancy of all this viewing is a key part of it. It’s a private fascination, almost an absurdity, its authenticity guaranteed by the fact that its only real purpose is the pleasure of doing it. It’s also driven by the impossible dream that one day about 200 years from now I will finally have seen everything worth seeing.
If . . . . directed by Lindsay Anderson, 1968 

Adrian Shaughnessy
Your obsession with film came as a surprise. Before lending you the Herzog box set I had you tagged as a visual arts man, not a cineaste. Like you, my interest started in the 1970s. I can’t claim to have been as well read as you in my early days of film-going. I didn’t discover film writing until much later. But now, reading the great movie critics is one of my top pleasures — often more enjoyable than the movies they write about. My bedside reading is fat compendiums of movie reviews: Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, Manny Farber and David Thomson.

At first, my interest was more visceral than cerebral. I craved the buzz of cinema — action, sound, color, and the energizing mule kick delivered by directors like Scorsese, Roeg, Altman, Peckinpah, Tarkovsky and Bertolucci. But after the high-water mark of the 1970s, films from the next two decades seemed inferior. Anyway, building and running a design studio and having children put paid to movie-going (I never cared for the glutinous fog of VHS tape) and my interest flagged. When I set up my studio in the late 1980s, we combined print graphics with moving-image production (unusual in those days), and this channeled my interest away from movies into animation, music videos and TV commercials. But I also noticed that even when we discussed print design projects, film was a constant reference point. The fizz of William Klein’s Mr. Freedom, the muted color palette of Coppola’s The Conversation, and Tarkovsky’s crumbling Soviet-era spaceship in Solaris, all contributed to the art direction and styling of various design assignments. It was during these discussions that I realized how fundamental film was to my life. The movies I’d watched as a teenager were part of my unconscious.

Now that I no longer have the weight of a studio on my shoulders, I’ve returned to movie-watching with renewed enthusiasm. But I often wonder what the attraction is? Escapism? Thrill-seeking? A desire to live vicariously? Mark Cousins, the film writer, published an interesting article in Prospect about how a life spent watching films had shaped him in numerous ways. He writes: “ . . . when it sticks close to questions of self, confidence and eros, of who rather than how, when it’s about medium-sized things like aloneness and fear, when it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew — when it does these things, film matters.”
A History of the Cinema by Eric Rhode, Penguin Books, 1978. Cover design by Ken Carroll
This nails it for me. Film is about numberless small details — a gesture, a single image, a scrap of dialogue, a landscape — that accrue and shape my sense of selfhood and the world. I watch films for their visual style, for acting, editing, music, dialogue, even action, but mostly I go for psychological plausibility. This doesn’t stop me liking fantasy or comedy — although I draw the line at musicals and films where the hero karate chops slo-mo bullets in half — but I want to experience authentic feelings on the screen. I want to watch films by directors, actors, screenwriters and technicians who have the nerve to tell psychological truths.

Rick Poynor
When I started studying film, I thought it might lead somewhere. In 1979, I attended a year-long evening course in film studies organized by the BFI. I went to around 170 films that year at places like the Electric, the Essential, the Scala, the Paris Pullman, the ICA and the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank), where in one month of wonders I saw 10 films by Jean Renoir. I had a go at making a road movie on Super 8. Not a success — it was like a shaky, hand-held, moving-image version of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards.
There was a thriving cineaste film culture in those days, a feeling that it really mattered, and the exhaustive film listings and reviews in Time Out magazine provided the scene’s handbook in London. I even applied for a post on the Time Out film section — this was long before I’d published a word — but it was pure wishful thinking. Judith Williamson, a film graduate who had already written the classic Decoding Advertisements, got the job.

The magazine’s highly knowledgeable team of film critics — including Tony Rayns, David Pirie, author of A Heritage of Horror (recently updated), and Chris Petit, who went on to make Radio On (1979), a British road movie we both admire — encouraged an eclectic style of viewing, mingling “high” and “low,” modernist experimentation, Hollywood classics, cult movies and the trash aesthetic in a glorious visual feast. That’s still my approach to film. So you could see a tragedy of great formal perfection by Kenji Mizoguchi and then a wacked-out Roger Corman B-movie fright-fest the very same day, and there was no contradiction (though I’d still pack Mizoguchi for the desert island).
Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen, Secker & Warburg, 1974
I like Mark Cousins’ film writing, but his “medium-sized” credo is too restrictive for me. From its earliest days, film has been a medium of compulsive fantasy — in 1902, Méliès was already offering audiences a trip to the moon. The possibility of the fantastic, of visualizing forms of experience and dimensions of time and space not otherwise open to us, is implicit in the idea of cinema. Films can plunge us with intense emotional engagement into the illusion of being locked up in jail or an asylum, toiling across a desert’s burning wastes, cowering under sniper fire in a war zone, or trying to outwit a malfunctioning super-computer in the sterile interior of a spaceship. Strict, here-and-now realism is possible — as another kind of screen illusion — but film is also the perfect medium for time travel, for impossible journeys, spectacular visions and meticulous historical reconstruction, for fabricating images of things we have never seen, could never see, or would never in reality want to see.
While I greatly appreciate the social realism of Kes, the hard documentary eye of Lilja 4-ever, the emotional intimacy of Alice in the Cities, I also want the imaginatively ambitious, outsized and fantastical cinematic other-worlds of Last Year at Marienbad, The Ballad of Narayama (either version), A Matter of Life and Death, Eraserhead, Blind Beast, Stalker, Drowning by Numbers, Donnie Darko, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Cube. The strange, mysterious, phantasmal and monstrous can all become “real” in film, and these dark longings, moments of wonder and dread, and disturbing inner realities are part of us, too.
Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Calder, 1977
I know we’ll end up talking about DVDs, but for me the love of film is primarily a love of the film image projected in the dark on a big screen. I still try to go to the cinema whenever I can. I also identify film-viewing experiences with places. So, on my first trip to the U.S. in 1978, I saw WendersThe American Friend in downtown Chicago, and Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales in a dowdy picture palace in Monterey, with popcorn crunching underfoot. Like a lot of British film buffs, I made a pilgrimage to the Left Bank in Paris to see, for the second time, a scratchy, poorly projected print of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which played there for years after it was banned in the U.K. I usually try to see something when I’m travelling. In Ljubljana, I once slipped away from my slightly baffled hosts to catch Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen on a local screen. (It was packed — who can predict where a filmmaker’s fans are?) At a vast dream-palace multiplex in the suburbs of Detroit, I saw The Matrix when it was first released, with digital design pioneer P. Scott Makela — the perfect companion for that movie.
Much as I love the freedom to watch high-quality widescreen images at home, films become scaled-down, domesticated exhibits in the museum of the living room. I still prefer to engage with them as intense, immersive, overwhelming, collective fantasies, two hours of emotional and intellectual brain-release from all the distractions going on outside. Everything about the experience is more vivid and involving in a movie theater: those are the optimum viewing conditions most films are made for, after all.
Negative Space by Manny Farber, Studio Vista, 1971
Adrian Shaughnessy:
Romantic as you make it sound, I can’t share your enthusiasm for watching films in movie theaters. I realize this downgrades my status as a cinephile, but when you talk about the “distractions going on outside” I have to say that I have a misanthropic aversion to the distractions inside cinemas. I’m infuriated by the 30 minutes of ads I’m conned into sitting through, not to mention the “popcorn crunching underfoot” or the cacophony of ringtones that accompany a trip to the silver screen.
Watching movies at home on DVD is preferable. Not only because I can watch them at times that suit me, but I can also rerun key scenes (which I do often), and skip the dull bits that nearly all films contain, even the best ones. And when DVDs come with a commentary by an articulate director or screenwriter, the pleasure of movie watching is automatically multiplied.
One of the main reasons I’m attracted to movies is the mythology that surrounds well-made films. I love hearing about the struggle to get films into production and the happy accidents that lead to pivotal decisions concerning casting and locations. One of my favorite films, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), only exists because of a series of semi-miraculous incidents. Commentaries feed my appetite for movie mythology.
When I talk about mythology, it’s really a personal mythology that I’ve built up after watching hundreds of movies. Here’s an example of what I mean. I recently sat through Touch of Evil for the umpteenth time. For me it’s easily Welles’s best film. (I take the Borges line on Citizen Kane; he called it a film “whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again” — sound judgement from a blind man.) But everything about Touch of Evil fizzes with genius — especially Henry Mancini’s atmospheric score.
There’s a scene where Janet Leigh is terrorized by a gang of leather-jacketed thugs. Their leader is a smooth-faced Elvis look-a-like played by Valentin de Vargas. He has a brooding hoodlum presence infused with an obvious intelligence, and it’s this odd mixture of menace and sensitivity that makes him into cinematic dynamite. Later I watched To Live and Die in LA (a dated potboiler by an interesting director, William Friedkin), and who should turn up but Val de Vargas, this time as an acerbic judge sitting in book-lined legal office. It’s a magical moment and we can be sure that Friedkin knew what he was doing by casting de Vargas. It’s not inconceivable that the character de Vargas played in Touch of Evil had hauled himself out of a life of crime in a Mexican border town and is now a high-ranking judicial official in LA.

This magic happens again and again in films, and looking for these serendipitous moments is a way of viewing cinema that I’ve been encouraged to follow by reading David Thomson. He writes about actors and directors establishing personas and artistic voices over dozens of films; in so doing, they turn cinema into a celluloid continuum where everything connects with everything else.
Sight and Sound vol. 46 no. 1, Winter 1976/77. Designer: John Harmer
Rick Poynor:
I was intrigued by something you said earlier about mostly going for psychological plausibility in the films you like, and that you wanted to watch films that “have the nerve to tell psychological truths.” It made me wonder to what extent I’m looking for psychological revelation when it comes to my own tastes in film. It certainly isn’t the main event.
It’s often been noted that compared to the novel, which can take us deep into a character’s thoughts, film is an awkward, indirect medium for psychological exploration. We can intuit psychology from the behavior that filmmakers present to us, and a brilliant actor can express great interior depths through facial performance — think of Falconetti’s almost painfully moving close-ups in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) quoted by Godard in Vivre sa vie (1962) — but the viewer is still confined to being an outside observer. Even voiceovers are rarely developed far enough to become the medium of psychological reality, though one blistering exception is the racist butcher’s relentless, raging interior monologue in Gaspar Noé’s Seul contre tous (1998). But that film is an extreme case. Terrence Malick has also experimented interestingly with voiceovers, from the naïve teenage girl in Badlands to the multiple, merging recollections of the soldiers in The Thin Red Line (1998).
The inner life of the characters can also be expressed by aesthetic means. I recently revisited an old favorite, Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1967). Now this really is psychological cinema, ratcheted up to the point of horror and much of its intensity comes from Bergman’s concentration, in tightly coiled, superbly composed close-ups, on the actors’ faces: Max von Sydow, playing a tormented artist, and Liv Ullmann, playing his wife. Even here, though, the characters must remain ultimately unknowable and the film underlines this point when the artist goes missing at the end, seemingly lost to madness, without explanation and without trace.
Persona and Shame by Ingmar Bergman, Calder & Boyars, 1972
Many of the films that mean most to me — by Powell and Pressburger, Resnais, Godard, Bergman, Cronenberg, Malick, Herzog, Greenaway, Lynch — are visually exceptional, whatever their other qualities. I have no preconceptions about the style this visual dimension might assume. Chris Petit’s Radio On is a visually expressive film that completely eschews psychology. Petit notes in an interview on the DVD that he wasn’t interested in character, motivation or plot; what he cared about was mobility, architecture and sound. We learn very little about the protagonist, a factory DJ who sets off in his car to investigate the death of his brother, finds out nothing and fails to connect with the people he encounters. Yet by the end, when he abandons his vehicle in a quarry, he seems ready for some kind of unspecified next phase in his life.

Radio On
is entirely carried by its acute matching of wonderfully moody monochrome images of roads, buildings, interiors and bad weather with a soundtrack that includes music by Kraftwerk and David Bowie. There’s an exquisitely severe shot of the DJ, sitting at the wheel of his ancient Rover in a car wash, looking through the windscreen at the inky blur of the whirling brushes as Devo’s dislocated, robotic version of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” clanks away on the soundtrack. The camera doesn’t move; the shot lasts a long time; nothing else happens in the scene. This isn’t a psychological moment in any explicit sense — we can only see the back of the actor’s head — yet this oblique image, like the rest of the circuitous, dramatically reticent non-narrative, still packs great emotional, symbolic and cinematic power.
Adrian Shaughnessy:
I’m driven to film because of visual style almost as much as psychological truth. I watched Alphaville the other day. Godard’s futuristic movie, made in 1965, has the sort of visual style I find irresistible. His noir-inflected view of Paris, with its soulless modernist office blocks, hotel lobbies, air-conditioned computer rooms, car parks and other locations of urban alienation, is like the LA of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe transposed to Mars. I felt the same about Theorem by Pasolini — the visual style haunted me for days; it’s eerily modern, despite being made in 1968.
 Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim, Faber and Faber, 1958
The beauty of cinematic images and their ability to stimulate and inspire is one of the modern world’s great achievements. I’d have to add, though, that visual impact can be weakened by poor psychological insight. You mention Terrence Malick. He is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished visual artists in cinema. But how good is he at psychology? You sense that he’s not interested in the homicidal nihilism of Kit and Holly in Badlands. Like the primordial Texas landscape, Kit and Holly’s murderous instincts, cruel beyond measure, are simply there.
But let me press you a bit further on the visual qualities of cinema. Surely the modern obsession with the “look” of movies — hugely influenced by advertising and MTV — has resulted in a vacuous cinema of image and action?
Rick Poynor:
Yes, it has. But I’m certainly not proposing visual style as an alternative value to psychological truth — I think you are using that term more broadly than I would. Beyond anything the protagonists might say, what films are good at is revealing character and sometimes motivation through expression, gesture, intonation, movement, emotion, dress and setting. We “read” films effortlessly on this level without necessarily being aware of how much information we are absorbing. Explaining what was happening on screen to my daughter when she was young — why someone spoke or behaved in a certain way — really brought home to me how effectively films communicate on this behavioral wavelength once your experience of the world is deep enough. You can tell a person is about to strike you without understanding anything at all about the complexities of their psychology.
Martin Sheen’s performance as Kit in Badlands is highly detailed and nuanced as a study in behavior. No, it can’t ultimately “explain” Kit’s deviant psychology. (Though it’s no secret that sociopaths can be utterly charming to get what they want.) Yet the film is incredibly rich on every level and this is partly to do with the unexpected ways it keeps changing register. There’s a great sequence where Kit sets fire to Holly’s house, a flurry of quick shots as he swings the gas can around. As the car pulls away, we hear the first notes of Carl Orff’s sublimely poetic “Passion.” Then Malick shows a measured series of shots of the burning house: a framed picture; a palm tree; a table and chairs; a bed’s ornate frame; a dolls’ house with a burning bird inside it; Holly’s father dead on the floor — all consumed by the silent flames, with Orff in place of their roar. Fire has never looked so ravishing. The music lingers as Holly collects her books from school, confiding in all sincerity that she senses her “destiny now lay with Kit.” We have moved from an almost metaphysical poetry of cleansing flames to amusing social irony and it all fits together because the whole film is like this. A lesser director would never attempt anything so personal or delicate.
The contemporary obsession with “look” is often a distraction: all these numbskull caper and action movies that try to disguise their emptiness and lack of heart with desaturated colors, hyperactive camera lunges, syrupy layers of post-production, and the feverish intercutting of blip-length shots. That’s not what I mean by a concern with visual expression. I’m interested in visual style as a product of vision, not as an end in itself, and that’s what we see in Godard, Herzog, Malick or Lynch.
 Two or Three Things I Know about Her directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966. Poster design by Ferracci
The more of this “look” filmmaking I see — Domino (2005) was probably the pits: I had to bail out — the more I admire the locked-off shots, long takes and trust in performance, made possible by fine writing, seen in classic American, European and Japanese cinema, where the action is allowed to unfold in its own time within the film frame, after careful planning. The frenetic contemporary shooting style often seems like a denial of the power of the image. It annihilates the image, smashing it stupidly into a series of transitory kinetic sensations that prevent you from looking at anything for very long, or thinking about what you are seeing and why the director wants you to see it.
Adrian Shaughnessy:
Your advocacy of Badlands made me watch it again for the first time in a long time. It’s a spellbinding film and it forces me to retract what I said about Malick’s lack of interest in psychology. In fact, there’s lashings of psychology in Badlands, and it’s deftly and subtly handled. You mention the scene where gullible, unthinking Holly collects her schoolbooks after Kit has killed her father and before they set off on the run; this vividly reveals her lack of comprehension — and inner emptiness — about the situation she finds herself in. Equally convincing is the way she slowly comes to realize that Kit is a psychopath. There’s no sudden histrionic revelation. It’s a slow and entirely convincing awakening.
It made me rethink the difference between the way novels and films handle psychology. Novelists have unrestricted access to the interior world of their characters — the God’s eye view — but I’ve sometimes felt uneasy about this aspect of fiction; omniscience is simply not possible and I can’t help feeling that there’s often something phoney about this literary sleight of hand. By allowing us to watch the actions of Kit and Holly, and by allowing us to listen to them talk, perhaps Malick is actually giving us a more realistic picture of them than if he permitted us unrestricted access to their innermost psychological beings. This is what I mean by the psychological plausibility of films: consistency in the way characters talk, act and interact with others within the sacred rectangle of film. It is different from the psychological insight provided by novels. We are rarely told what the protagonists are thinking, but we can work it out for ourselves by their words and deeds. Just like real life.
Watching Badlands again made me realize that my love of that film, and of Malick as a director, has been tainted by The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005). In these later films, the actors are empty vessels and reveal about as much psychology as a TV commercial for a designer fragrance. Malick’s handling of pictorial beauty is ravishing and as sure-footed as anyone’s in cinema, and yet in these two films it comes dangerously close to the modern cinema of the look. Even with Badlands, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if Kit, instead of being played by the young blue-jeaned Adonis Martin Sheen, had been played by Michael J. Pollard? Or what if Malick had cast someone who looked more like Charlie Starkweather, the real-life character Kit is based on?
The modern obsession with look contributes to more than the ruination of cinema, and it’s a process that graphic designers are embedded in. As a designer, I’ve got the beautifying gene, too, and it’s hard to override it. The world of manicured imagery, of CGI hyperrealism, of pixel-manipulated perfection, extends into all aspects of modern life, and has created a culture of “lookism.” It influences who we vote for, who we allow on TV, and what we spend our money on. By chance I watched David Lynch’s The Elephant Man on TV last night. It’s a fine piece of cinematic rhetoric that shows what happens when we judge on looks alone.
 Film Theory and Criticism edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Cover design by Simon Ross

Rick Poynor:
The contemporary insistence on visual surface just makes me more determined to seek out filmmakers with something personal and urgent they need to express. Visual considerations will be important, since that’s the nature of the medium, but an emotionally and intellectually engaging piece of film art has to be motivated by deeper concerns. It occurs to me, though, that we haven’t so far explicitly addressed the idea of the film auteur — an individual with a recognized body of work displaying a high degree of thematic consistency. Perhaps it’s because we tend to regard this level of quality as self-evident in our favorite filmmakers.
The auteur theory has been out of fashion among film scholars for many years now. Placing so much emphasis on the supposed controlling influence of the director has some obvious limitations as a way of understanding the collective activity of filmmaking and demonstrating how films come to embody meaning for their audiences. Yet the idea of the artistically coherent film determined by a central, shaping vision is still compelling. Is anyone seriously going to argue that Bergman’s films, written and directed by Bergman, aren’t in some essential way his own? While few bodies of film work can measure up to a benchmark quite that stringent, auteurist assumptions nevertheless inform the way that film is viewed and discussed, even in a newsstand film magazine such as Sight & Sound, which has many academic contributors.
I’ve often wondered whether a version of the auteur theory could be applied to designers’ bodies of work as a way to determine the presence of a coherent personal vision. We tend to take this for granted with certain well-known designers, without doing the critical work to show that this level of authorship is really there. A few years ago, in a monograph, I attempted an auteurist reading of the work of Vaughan Oliver, arguing that his use of imagery, even when it was produced for him by others, revealed consistent themes personal to Oliver. (It has to be said that this kind of scrutiny made him uneasy.) Clearly, if you make something, you are in the most elementary sense its “author,” but the purpose of the auteur theory was to go deeper and assess the complexity, seriousness and artistic worth of the endeavor. A designer might, after all, simply have made what someone else asked them to make, with a limited amount of personal input. So, turning back to film, it’s unlikely that many experienced viewers would consider Tony Scott, as “author” of Domino, to be the artistic equal of Bergman, as author of Fanny and Alexander.
Adrian Shaughnessy:
Yet it’s the notion of cinema as a collaborative medium that gives credence to the existence of the auteur: for an authorial voice to be maintained in a movie with dozens — sometimes hundreds — of co-creators, is a staggering achievement. Only a director with a granite-like resolve could have his or her vision survive the filmmaking process.
 Wide Angle vol. 2 no. 1, 1977. Design director: Michael Amirault
I recently had to write a definition of art direction in graphic design for a book I’m working on. In my experience it’s a difficult and ambiguous term that means different things to different people. I’ve often written proposals for clients and then been asked why I’ve made a distinction between design and art direction. To many commissioners of graphic design — admittedly the less sophisticated ones — it’s the same thing. But within graphic design it’s the closest a designer comes to being a film director. The most important aspect of art direction is that it is involves directing other people. Arguably, Vaughan Oliver is more an art director than he is graphic designer since his work is nearly always dependent on others. In writing my piece on art direction — and having acted as an art director on many occasions — it occurred to me that you become a good art director by allowing your collaborators lots of freedom. You won’t get the best out of them if you leave them no room to breathe.
This same “freedom” seems to be present in great films. No one would deny that Bergman is an auteur. And yet I recently read his autobiography, and in it he says that his relationship with his lighting cameraman Sven Nykvist was utterly pivotal to his filmmaking process. He writes: “There’s a sensual satisfaction in working in close union with strong, independent and creative people: actors, assistants, electricians, production staff, props people, make-up staff, costume designers, all those personalities who populate the day and make it possible to get through.” I watched Fight Club again the other day. Imagine that film without former graphic designer Alex McDowell’s art direction? Unthinkable. His Ikea parody is a stunning piece of graphic cinema. And yet David Fincher’s frazzled and grungy directorial signature remains clearly visible at all times.
The auteur theory in cinema stands up because of the collaborative nature of film rather than the despite it. It is the great paradox of movie-making.
Rick Poynor:
I’d put it slightly differently: the auteur theory is an attempt to explain how the collaborative nature of filmmaking can nevertheless, in exceptional cases, produce highly personal work that is, in the fullest sense, the director’s. Auteurs, whether working in film or design, will need to give their collaborators freedom within limits, asking them to give their all, so long as what they contribute serves the aims of the project, which the genuine auteur must necessarily determine.
The same possibilities could in theory apply to art direction, though being an art director doesn’t automatically make you an auteur. Art directors can be brilliant at directing others, in the service of their projects’ communication aims, without having any consistent concerns or themes of their own to express. Has there ever been a study of art direction, I wonder, that seeks to show that it has regularly, or even just sometimes, been used as the vehicle of an auteur’s controlling vision?
One obvious candidate for appraisal would be the German art director Willy Fleckhaus, long regarded as the “auteur” of the 1960s magazine Twen, though whether his precisely engineered pages based on super-tight picture cropping amount to more than a set of dominating stylistic preferences is a moot point. This is a key question when it comes to design. To what extent can stylistic choices, the main sphere in which designers express themselves, serve as the medium of a coherent worldview, in the same sense that we expect a film auteur, an artist or a novelist to possess a worldview? The auteur theory, as developed by Andrew Sarris and others, stipulates that a strong personal style is not on its own enough to make an auteur.
 Valerie and Her Week of Wonders directed by Jaromil Jireš, 1970. Poster design by Rudolf Němec
All these provisos only serve to underline the problematic nature of film authorship. We’ve both recently watched Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) by the Czech director Jaromil Jireš, released in the DVD series you used to art direct for Second Run. It’s a remarkable film in content and style, a final flowering of the Czech New Wave suffused with a pastoral-hippy optimism that might seem to be unambiguously the work of an auteur (though only an analysis of Jireš’ other works could show this to be so). In fact, the film historian Michael Brooke points out that Valerie is not like Jireš’ other films and suggests that Ester Krumbachová, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jires and designed the atmospheric costumes and sets, was a critical influence. The bizarre gothic novel on which it’s based — by Vítězslav Nezval, a 1930s surrealist — shouldn’t be forgotten either. So perhaps there is no clear auteur in this case.

I don’t want to put too much emphasis on authorship, despite my love of certain auteurs, because I don’t view most of the films I watch through the lens of authorship. So much of American cinema, in particular, is about genre, and it’s often more revealing about how films work for their audiences to examine the ways they follow, manipulate, hybridize, or flat-out contradict the conventions of their genre.

See also:
We Found it at the Movies: Part II

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [12]

Informative post, In fact I liked all posts in your blog. This is first time am visiting your blog and bookmarking it to visit again and again.


Film just enriches us in some way we can't really explain. Sometimes its about escapism, but sometimes a film just makes you feel better, and makes you think, or changes your point of view.

Hopefully this is the start of something beautiful: intelligent writing on film from The Design Observer.

Love the conversational tone, and the way it can veer off into unexpected places.
Craig Hubert

Blah, blah blah...Anglo/Spanish Imperialist cinema...Blah, blah blah!
Clinton from Australia

What I found lacking was appreciation (or even mention of) for many contemporary non-Western directors, like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Zhang-Ke, Hsiao-hsien and Ming-lian. I wonder whether the two men are even familiar with their works?

After Quantum of Solace, I hope I am not looking at a new annoying trend in cinema editing. Specifically the attention deficit disorder action movie cut. Bourne Ultimatum's camera was shaky and hazy (I hate it when I was watching from my favorite seat in theater, which is middle row, but I love it on DVD) but at least the editing was not rapid.

In Quantum, made by an otherwise talented Marc Forster, it's like the editor or director can't stand his own movie and want it to be over as quickly as possible.

panasit ch

I feel like I've been standing at a party, eavesdropping on two people who obviously love their subject, but not wanting to interrupt the flow of the discussion. Every so often, one or the other says something so obscure, but that I can actually relate to, and I just want to burst out laughing.

So I'm left with one question and one observation.

Rick: Would you discuss the pros and cons of If.... versus O Lucky Man in the Lindsay Anderson oeuvre?

Adrian: While I agree with your analysis of Valetin de Vargas in his more serious roles, surely you aren't going to discount his comedic talent in Hatari!....
L.M. Cunningham

Thanks for everyone’s comments.

To answer your question, L.M. Cunningham:

If . . . . is a film I go back to — it remains a touchstone and I have a copy. O Lucky Man! (1973) I first saw around 1980. Its episodic narrative and the musical interludes from Alan Price, breaking into the story’s structure like a Greek chorus, made a strong impression, but I hadn’t watched it again until it finally came out last year on DVD. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it stands up, largely thanks to the animal magnetism of Malcolm McDowell as Travis, the naïve travelling coffee salesman, a reincarnation of the Travis he plays in the earlier film. O Lucky Man! is much longer and looser, yet Travis’s rambling series of social encounters and moral lessons has its own momentum, and the unexpected body-shock scene is still startling. Even though the film has dated it and feels a bit too 1970s British sit-com at times, it remains involving (that’s the pleasure of the picaresque form: never knowing what’s round the corner).

Still, I prefer If . . . .’s focus on a single setting. Schools are microcosms of society and Anderson uses his old public school brilliantly, having persuaded the headmaster to let him film there, as a way of critiquing late 1960s Britain. The old establishment was being forced to come to terms with the new social energies and freedoms — you see that, for instance, in the “new managerialism” of the headmaster’s pep talk to the boys as he strides about the place. If . . . . has moments of unforgettable poetry: Travis and “the girl” (Christine Noonan) struggling in the café; the telescope scene where Travis shows Peanuts a bullet and Peanuts tries to show Travis the stars; the discovery of the foetus in a jar among the piles of junk under the school stage, not long before the final rebellion. And then there is the political ambiguity of the ending: is Anderson advocating violent revolt as an answer? O Lucky Man! is more of a satirical yarn, a romping piece of theatre: still interesting as an experiment, though without If . . . .’s enduring power as a classic work of British cinema and as a provocative modern myth.
Rick Poynor

Exceptional post on a subject very close to my heart. I think cinema works best in black and white, and some of the pictures you selected drive this point home. I could not imagine Persona in colour for instance.

Good to see the standard of your blog is still as high as ever.

Hello Rick Adrian its Mack from MMU - I Just found this post Adrian / Rick - great stuff - all 'after my own heart'

Serendipity really ( see the Manchester Met graphics blog below ) as if you remember Adrian we had a film-buff like chat about Lindsay Andersons brilliance and our admiration for him in the Sandbar off Oxford road after your visit to us at Manchester Met - I promised to send you Malcolms Macs film of him on stage discussing Lindsays work - if you havent since found it - then its called 'Never apologise' - I'm sure Rick has passed it on to you by now - and its here - to view on Flash


Its a coincidence as around March I decided I must set up a weekly Film club for the course and so Kino4 was born for our Graphic Design students at Manchester. 'If' and Mick Travis were the first name on my team sheet every time - and Oh Lucky man a close second ( memories of watching that for the first time in about 1979 as a 13 year old - what a narrative and being a 'northerner' too - those travelogue scenes were 'close to home' and that golden suit concept blew me away.

then 'Mirror' by Tarkovsky - Herzog of course - Bladerunner and Wenders Wings of Desire - with Kurasowa's Seventh Samurai and Bergmans Persona to round things off - plenty of shorts also - Polish animation - ? The Quays and some Johnny Hardstaff - oh yes and Adam Curtis - 'century of the self'

and ... hopefully Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi animated by Jan Lenica UBU ET LA GRANDE GIDOUILLE if I can find it - any help appreciated as its very rare

Here is my blog for the third year students at Manchester with some good Kino stuff - have a gander


hope to see you soon again Adrian - and Rick would you consider a visit this new term - we would all really like that - Obey the giant has been top of the book list for some time - a lecture for them would be really good - some Bubbles too

Do get in touch Rick if you can come up to see us
best wishes - Mack Manning [email protected]

for those who havent seen it already here is the website for Anderson anecdotes by Malcolm - great stories



Kubrick as designer?


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