I've hung out with enough graphic design nerds to know how tedious their fetish can be to the unconverted, and the options for a documentary about rock posters seemed to be either that kind of geekery or hipster hagiography. "Culture is that thing you shovel out of your window in the evening," interviewee Mike King wisely announces in Died Young, Stayed Pretty; "otherwise, it will drown you." The danger in such a project is obviously that kind of self-valorizing mythology, when your clique's self-evident importance is inaccessible (or just stupid-looking) to outsiders. But Eileen Yaghoobian's documentary is unexpectedly excellent, a bracingly free-form group portrait of people who only recently discovered each other's existence when the founding of GigPosters.com showed isolated artists they weren't just working alone in the dark. I'll have to take Yaghoobian's word for it that eminently quotable interviewees like Art Charney and Tom Hazelmyer are actually luminaries of the poster world, but this is one entertaining film regardless of how its profiled community receives it .
Yaghoobian lives for tangents, by-ways, one-offs, weird interview interruptions and non sequiturs; this is the most-edited documentary I've seen in a while, and one of the best-edited too. She's amped up the non-linear, multi-dialectical logic of Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control to a faster tempo (if not as strangely affecting, it has an equally eccentric score by Mark Greenberg). Sometimes it's easy to tell what she's thinking — a fairly banal comment from one person about how selling your art is like getting fucked goes over random footage of gorillas humping in a zoo cage. Most of the time, blissfully, I don't know what she's getting at. I heard a lot in this movie, but I learned almost nothing worth repeating, and that's a good thing; this works minute-to-minute more than enough.
The presiding spirit of the film might be Charney. Everyone's met someone like him: a fearsomely auto-didactic aging punk who talks obnoxiously at a ridiculous WPM rate but knows it, and most everything he says is interesting. "I make cultural artifacts," he announces early on, rejecting any claim to artistry. Over the course of the film, he'll display a poster for a band called the Von Zippers featuring zippers over the mouths of everyone who annoys him ("David Byrne…such a twit"), announce the smiley face is the finest piece of graphic art of the last 50 years ("the American version of the swastika") and generally provide excellent copy. Perpetually dyspeptic, hanging on to his coffee cup and proposing with a minimum of irony that everyone should smoke from birth, he's genially apocalyptic and angrily recondite.
There's a few real through-lines. A lot of people appear deeply concerned that the spirit of punk is dead; most proclaim it's already stiff and worry what will "push music forward," which basically means nothing has changed since 1981. There's a great deal of breast-beating and concern about whether or not "the scene" is "underground" or has "sold out." (Austin's Jay Ryan is unambiguous: the answer has to be underground, because if not, "we'd all be getting sued.") Dialectics emerge: Tom Hazelmyer complains that anti-Bush posters are no substitute for punk's true spirit ("'Oh, Bush is so stupid!' Jesus, shut up!"), only for Yaghoobian to move on shortly to one Noel Waggener pontificating in Austin's Sam's BBQ about oppression; fortunately, everyone soon loses interest and Yaghoobian follows the restaurant's owner pointing out the autographed posters on the wall.
Yaghoobian gives the fervantly — if often incoherently — liberal artists a chance to wax political way too much, but otherwise most prove to be good company, hard workers minimally possessed by delusions of theoretical grandeur and/or being the cultural movers-and-shakers of the moment. A surprisingly hardheaded thread is how artists choose bands — trading drinks and admission for posters with venues, doing posters for already-sold-out shows because they'll sell better, worrying about selling their posters at the show because they don't want to siphon off the band's merchandise table customers. The wealthier, older ones worry less and have less attachment to any kind of "scene"; all of them are united less by proximity to an alluring music scene than their artistic compulsion and trying to figure out how to make money off it, or if they even should. But it's really just a blast of a movie, tying together the absolutely most entertaining bits from what appears to be a very conscientious and overwhelming amoun of footage. Yaghoobian ends not with any of her ostensible subjects, but with an angry ice-cream-truck driver talking about how kids these days are no good and when they get together there's trouble. Yaghoobian shows not just that these kids are good when they get together, but better yet, that you don't have to drown in culture. You can float on it, and that goes for her movie too, which is as far removed from its subjects' aesthetic as their posters are from the music.
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