Ahhh… nostalgia. A wistful remembrance of things past, a yearning for an idealized yesteryear. Nothing like a bunch of ex-hippies or ex-punks or ex-slackers reminiscing about the spirit of the times and the rock show poster's particular ability to preserve it. The art, the drugs, the freedom, etc. Now, it seems rock show posters are finally getting their due, in a movement that began with the Flatstock poster-fest and was immortalized in Paul Grushkin and Dennis King’s 2005 book The Art of Modern Rock. Now we have a documentary, American Artifact, by first-time director Merle Becker.
The film begins as Becker informs us she’s quit her “corporate” job to travel around the country to “tell the story of rock show posters.” From there, we witness the work of such great poster artists as Stanley Mouse, Art Chantry, Jay Ryan and Frank Kozik. We also meet Jello Biafra, Dave Wakeling from the English Beat, and, um... one of the guys from Phish who isn’t Trey Anastasio. Using interviews (new and classic) and archival footage as her frame, Becker leaps from hippies' psychedelic gig posters to late-'70s Xeroxed punk fliers to the rock poster revival in the 1990s, culminating with Flatstock.
Her approach to telling the story is rather reductive. Psychedelic posters of the late 1960s look that way because everybody was on acid. Punk fliers all expressed the angsty anti-Reaganism of disillusioned suburban youth. And posters of the '80s and '90s were all made with antiquated screen-printing set-ups, because computers would compromise the integrity of the work. Becker’s central thesis seems to be that rock show posters are the DIY-iest, anti-corporate-iest form of artistic expression out there (next to rock and roll itself, of course.) It wasn’t about the money, it was about the music, we learn, over and over again throughout the film. While Becker’s statements aren’t wholly inaccurate, they are obvious. It would be easy to reach these conclusions on our own, flipping through the pages of one of the countless books devoted to show posters.
And this is the core problem with American Artifact: The inadequacies of its message come from flaws in the medium. Documentary just isn't the appropriate form for reveling in great rock posters; as a visual medium best pored over, they are the perfect coffee table book subject. Left to peruse the pieces at our leisure, we can examine the visual flourishes, the printing flaws, the artist’s in-jokes and hidden fuck-yous. Instead, Becker chose digital video to tell this story and, as a result, she minimizes even the grandest posters. By forcing hundreds of works into this 88 minute film, the filmmaker never gives us a good long look at a single one.
While documentaries like Helvetica and Wordplay benefit from the film format by enlivening seemingly dull subjects like typography and crossword puzzles, American Artifact fails to fit its subject matter to its medium. The film does show a few screen-printing demonstrations and some archival footage, but the majority of the film consists of reduced-resolution posters and talking heads. We meet scores of poster artists, but we don’t learn much about them, besides perfunctory background information and some of their axioms about how important rock 'n roll is. Becker’s film would have made a great coffee table book. Too bad somebody (or, rather, a whole lot of somebodies) already had that idea.