Box-Happy: Recyling Templates in Modern Day Movie Art

Notice anything...oh, I don't know...similar about the posters below?

My trips to the multiplex have been few and far between in the last year or so. On my most recent visit to one, however, whilst giving an old and dear friend of mine the old "Kremer Tour" of New York City, we decided to end the day by seeing a movie...and since he is not particularly a cineaste, we wound up at a multiplex. I noticed something in the theater lobby that functioned as the culmination of a continuing observation. I noticed the poster for the film State of Play nearby. Awhile ago, when I purchased both Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream and Cronenberg's Eastern Promises on DVD, I noticed instantly how strikingly similar the cover art-design seemed for both those films. Furthermore, upon first recently seeing the DVD cover for the new release Frost/Nixon, I came to realize how similar the DVD art for that film seemed to that of Cassandra's Dream and Eastern Promises. Then, this was almost immediately compounded upon witnessing the State of Play art hanging in the lobby of the multiplex. To put it...mmm, bluntly...the art is all rather "boxy," if you catch my drift. They rely on the arrangement of enclosed spaces, boxes (many of which are headshots), within a larger field of enclosed design space. The boxes are arranged in such a way that one might say the arrangement lends to the films the look of ham-fisted soberness that graphic designers often use to provoke the prospect of "commercially heavy" subject-matter and/or edge-of-your-seat drama in audiences. The meretricious "box-happy" design seems to be trend in movie art design within the last five years. Okay, that may or may not be all well and good, but as it turns out, these three are not the only examples...not by a long shot. No. Above, you will observe eight titles that ostensibly use an identical template.

It is fair to note that, before this article was fully written and when the "Coming Soon" sneak-peak of the article had been posted, fellow blogger, film studies scholar and friend Chris Cagle at the Category D blog used the coming-soon post as a launching pad for his own speculation about the recent "box-happy" trend in movie art. Cagle says, "Dan Kremer notices the lack of originality in movie posters. My initial thought is that the template quality reveals the absence of high concept material and is a way to communicate genre without it. And like genre, the difficulty is that while too much repetition is not optimal in selling films, neither is too much originality."

As a self-described Saul Bass enthusiast, I think I can make a confident claim that the days of high-concept movie art have gone the way of the dodo, and with it, a mainstream marketplace for high-concept cinema. Compare the real poster for the recent Frost/Nixon with the way the poster would have looked in the hands of moviedom's favorite graphic designer Saul Bass. Thus, we have been led hook, line and sinker into a time when the vacuous annual "Oscar bait" is simply self-conscious "prestige cinema" -- and the art for such cinema is in direct proportionality to this condition. The movie poster (as opposed to the DVD cover) for Frost/Nixon suggests a different approach, if nothing at all spectacular or even attractive to the eye. In the design of the cover, however, the distributor has opted for the evidently popular boxy template. What does it truly suggest? In 1970's cinema, boxes in mainstream movie art served a completely different function, suggesting star-powered vehicles, often in the disaster movie subgenre. Posters were always in competition with each other, it seems (i.e. "How many boxes, i.e. headshots of stars, can we include on the poster, meaning how star-studded is our film compared with others?")

Above, you will see posters for three all-star 1970's genre flicks: The Towering Inferno, Capricorn One and Voyage of the Damned (the latter two being big budget Sir Lew Grade/ITC productions). The boxes in these instances act as bait, as a means of luring in audiences. If you saw small headshots of actors below the actual movie art, this usually indicated a disaster picture. However, the boxes in these posters serve definitive purposes and possess a clear objective. The movie art of now does not seem to have such an objective, other than the evocation of the "prestige picture" flavor. Often, the headshots in the box-happy art of now is aimed at lending an austere and heavy-handed gravitas, as films began losing their explicit genre elements and it is in this sense that I agree with Cagle's analysis of this "phenomenon". Take a look around at your local video store. Design like this is everywhere! Has classic movie art become an outmoded novelty? An exercise in passé? Notice how posters up until the 1980's (I will venture to say 1982 was when a shift began occuring) were often drawn or sketched. If photographic art was used, it was sparingly. Posters of today use actual photographic representation of the film they are advertising.

What is it, really? A pervasive laziness in studio advertising departments? A capitalist malaise where the photographic (hence this obsession with boxes) is thought to be more effective and has hence replaced the actual "art" of movie art? A growing distaste for the "quaint but superfluously baroque" movie art of pre-1980? Too little time, too many movies? What truly accounts for a lack of originality in these designs? Questions, questions, questions...who knows? But now I'm going to go look at the hand-drawn Elliott Gould caricature in the cartoon poster for Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) now and wax nostalgic for a time in which I didn't exist. Take me back, doo doo doo doo!

POST-SCRIPTUM: Another box-happy example: the DVD cover of The Last Word (2008), just saw it a few seconds ago (I am at the Denver Airport awaiting a connection).

The Cult of Terry Silver, CEO of Dynatox Industries

Before I begin writing, this blog entry is dedicated to my two older brothers.

Okay, so although I talk all high-falutin' about film as high art and yada yada yada, I (like many others) really grew up on the "classics," and by that I mean the 1980's Hollywood franchise movies. I was born in the 1980's, what do you expect? Needless to say, I am very literate in the ways of the Rocky franchise, the Superman franchise, the Indiana Jones franchise, the Back to the Future series, the Star Wars franchise (if I hadn't been a little bit literate with that, I would most likely have been branded a Communist) and the Karate Kid franchise. And that is what this post is partly about: the Karate Kid franchise. ConFluence Films takes a trip to the so-called "low-brow" — hey, who cares and who's counting? — with this post. Every once in awhile, posts like this and the older one about Weekend at Bernie's is good for the soul.

Throughout the last few days, I have been receiving e-mails from my brother with Internet links to fan-sites about a supporting character from the third installment of the Karate Kid series. For anyone reading this who knows The Karate Kid Part III, I am speaking of Terry Silver, the megalomaniacal, ruthless, self-satisfied, cartoonishly corrupt and often campily flamboyant industrialist, not to mention CEO of the hilarious named Dynatox Industries. My brothers and I grew up quoting the hilariously over-the-top dialogue mouthed by the Terry Silver character, played with bravado and sometimes excessive zeal by Thomas Ian Griffith (who might as well be on the "where are they now?" list). Savor images like Silver soaking, Tony Montana-style, in a large bubble-bath while receiving three young male visitors and other "businessmen," or the character's grease-backed pony-tail...or his mellifluously evil grin. Or having an animated, hot-and-heavy, over-zealous phone-chat with his old Vietnam buddy while being massaged in heavy steam (complete with "Vaseline lens") by a Tahitian beauty, clearly on a sound stage doubling as Tahiti. And savor these classic Terry Silver lines:

"This slope, what's his name, Miyagi, and that punk kid, I'm gonna get them for what they did to you. They made you suffer, so I'm gonna make them suffer...and suffer and suffer and when I think they've suffered enough, then I start with the pain."

"Keep the score at zero-zero. Pulverize him for the full three minutes. Then in sudden death you get the point, we win. I want him to experience pain. First he suffers, then he suffers some more."

"Do what I usually do. Bribe them."

"Ten years ago, nuclear was the preferred waste. You could dump it anywhere! Now everybody's a detective. I'm lucky if I make one deal a year without being indicted!"

"A man can't stand, he can't fight. A man can't breathe, he can't fight. A man can't see, he can't fight."

"I love it when he pounds him!" [sic]

"You don't have to fight. You can just stand there and let him kick your ass!"

A few days ago, my brother e-mailed me, along my other brother, these two links: The Dynatox Institute for Advanced Karate Kid III Studies and Terry Silver's MySpace Page. I was tickled pink by both of them, just in considering how a more or less obscure supporting character in a successful franchise could spawn such websites. You might call it naivete in not truly and fully considering the scope of the Internet and the occasionally off-kilter fixations of the billions of web-users around the globe. It just goes to show you that you can most likely find anything about any number of topics, no matter how much they have seeped into pop-culture esoterica. Where there is one, there is another, and another. How many obscure franchise-movie supporting players have their own cult, one might ask.

It is the performance itself, from Thomas Ian Griffith, that breathes life into this cartoonish, transcendently amoral fictional figure. Whenever I would indulge in a play-fight with my brothers growing up, and whenever they got the best of me in that fight, a line of Terry Silver dialogue would be habitually uttered. Well, it was either a Terry Silver line or a General Zod (from the Superman movies) line...or a Mr. T line from Rocky III. Not only is this post for my brothers, but this is for anyone who grew up in a house flooded with the mouthing of juvenilia-esoterica garnered from incessant viewings of 1980's franchise films. I am sure we were not the only ones because I have spoken to a few who have told me similar stories.

"Thomas Ian Griffith in the best role of the movie! The Karate Kid III is a movie which teaches you that millionaire CEO's have nothing better to do than to torture 19-year-olds who run afoul of their Vietnam buddies."
-Ben Black,

POST SCRIPTUM: My brother Matt e-mailed the Dynatox Institute for Advanced Karate Kid III Studies. Below was his original message:

Subject: Tuition
Date: Monday, May 18, 2009, 10:15 PM


Do you offer scholarships and/or financial aid to the institute?

Thank you,
Matthew Kremer

PS - How is Mr. Silver?

He then received the following response:

Subject: Re: Tuition
To: matthew kremer

Mr. Kremer,

Unfortunately, due to Cobra Kai Incorporated policy, we are not offering financial aid at this time. If you are interested in our Laruso Scholarship, you may start by finding a scrawny Italian kid in your neighborhood and torturing him relentlessly while dressed as a skeleton. After that, you must make racist remarks to any elderly Asian men (“buddhahead” is a good start). To answer your other question, Mr. Terry Silver is doing fine and has just been awarded “Business Man of the Year” by the Waste Disposal Group of Borneo.

Thank you for your interest,
Jordan Krall
Bizarro Author
and Dean of The Dynatox Institute for Advanced KKIII Studies