Translating Hollywood: The World of Movie Posters

Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters

“Only the Japanese poster hints at Belle du jour‘s erotic nature
by showing thumbnail stills. The two painted portraits of the actress
(Czech and French) showcase Deneuve’s beauty, though little else.”


Movie posters for the sake of selling
and movie posters for the sake of art

With an arresting image and a pithy tag line, a movie poster can catch your eye and make you want to watch the film, without your knowing anything about it beforehand. But can you not know anything about a film that is about to be released in our time and age? We have access to all kinds of information even during the shooting: the subject, the actors starring, the behind the scenes moments, the story behind the movie. The accessibility to the making of a film may aim at building up the public’s interest, but it often has the exact reverse effect on me. And that’s exactly why I believe that it should be given great importance to film posters. Yes, I am talking about the medium that hasn’t always been the domain of Photoshop and graphic design. I am talking about art. It may be a lost art, unfortunately. Film posters that are not about advertising, but about adding something to the experience of the movie – accompanying it rather than simply attempting to sell it. Poster art is a medium designed to speak to the public before the film does, the window to the world or story waiting for you to discover. Another bridge to that world is the title sequence, but that’s a different story that I talked about a while ago.
Translating Hollywood
“The Argentine and Japanese posters both showcase the film’s Mediterranean setting and a sense of wanderlust. The Czech version uses a black and white newspaper aesthetic with typewriter type stamped across Monica Vitti’s face, eliciting a tragic, newsworthy story.” An interesting contrast, but I am afraid that all these versions fail to capture the essence of Antonioni’s film. I believe a much more evocative option is this one, by Sam Smith, and another choice would have simply been a still from the film, particularly the one used by the Criterion Collection as cover art for their blu-ray and DVD editions.
Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters
Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7), 1961, by Agnès Varda. “Bold striking green lines break up the three distinct moods
of Corinne Marchand. The Japanese version presents Marchand in three fog-like moments of drama,
selling the film’s very touching tale of a woman becoming new again.”

I am fascinated by movie posters and when I recently found this book, Translating Hollywood: The World of Movie Posters, in a local bookstore, I grabbed it on the spot. What’s fascinating about it is that the author, Sam Sarowitz, compares posters from a film’s country of origin against versions created for foreign markets. You know what they say, an image speaks a thousand words, and viewing posters of the same film side by side is so revelatory in realising the striking contrast between America and the rest of the world, between just how much America and Hollywood have always been interested in making money with films and in building an industry (you may have heard of the “floating heads syndrome”, a term referring to the tendency for film posters, especially for Hollywood movies, to have a black background with the faces of the lead actors, “the stars”, above the name of the movie, which eventually filtered into many international posters as well), and how much Europe and other parts of the world have been preoccupied in presenting films as an art form.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. The American poster for Chinatown (left image below), for example, is a beautiful piece of classic illustration (by Jim Pearsall): a lime-lighted Jack Nicholson, smoke becoming Faye Dunaway’s hair, the waves of his chest. Whereas, the Czech version is an absurd surreal work – the truth is the Europeans sometimes overdo it. Although not mentioned in the book, it’s interesting to know that the German version (see below, bottom image on the right page) is a reproduction of another American poster for the movie, by Richard Amsel.
Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters  
The book brings something bigger into the discussion, as well. “More than about selling a film, these posters from all over the world embody the cultural tendencies of the respective countries, making for fascinating case studies about how information is disseminated visually and digested, and the responses they generate.”

That being said, one of the most pleasant surprises I found in the pages of Translating Hollywood was the Romanian (not Italian, as stated in the book – it’s Vacanță la Roma, not Vacanze romane) poster for Roman Holiday (see first photo below) – such a simple and suggestive art work that best evokes the escapist nature of the film.
Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters
Translating Hollywood The World of Movie Posters

In the original US poster for The Birds, “the famous image of Jessica Tandy’s character
being attacked makes fear the star, not the actual female lead, Tippi Hedren”.
I have always liked this poster, because although there is nothing artistic about it, it is very telling and gripping.
It’s Alfred Hitchcock, after all; he made great movies, and knew how to sell them, too.

photos of the book taken by me | Translating Hollywood: The World of Movie Posters, by Sam Sarowitz, published by Mark Batty Publisher

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