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Scorsese’s passion for posters

Rummaging through his collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Tom Shone | July 1st 2015

Collecting movie posters has always been among the more socially acceptable of cinema-related perversions. Above my desk hangs a 5ft Polish poster of Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film “Something Wild”, featuring a geometric rendering of two parted female legs by the acclaimed designer Andrzej Nowaczyk. I bought it not because I speak a word of Polish but because I have always wished for my writing career to proceed from a point equidistant between the knees of Melanie Griffith.

“It was part of this urge or impulse to possess the cinema experience,” Martin Scorsese has said of his own collection, begun in the 1970s and now numbering some 3,000 posters, 34 of which are currently on show in “Scorsese Collects” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The posters range from Raoul Walsh’s silent classic “Regeneration” (1915) to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). But the great majority hail from the 1940s and 1950s, when Scorsese was a teenage movie fanatic, marinading in flicks like Joseph Lewis’s “Gun Crazy” (1950) or King Vidor’s “Duel in the Sun” (1946), which he remembers for its “bright blasts of deliriously vibrant colour, the gunshots, the savage intensity, the burning sun, the overt sexuality.” He was, at the time, just four years old, an age when most of us are taking in “Bambi”. And you wondered why “Raging Bull” is a little intense.

As a film’s first contact with the waiting audience, posters used to enjoy pride of place in the cognitive hierarchy of movie consumption. “You’d hold and absorb the image in your mind’s eye,” Scorsese once told Starstruck magazine. “Part of the excitement then was in watching the actual film and comparing it with the possible or likely film you’d conjured up during the few seconds you’d looked at the poster. It had to give you some sense of the picture, but it also carried its own mystery and romance.” That mixture of punchy hard sell and alluring obliquity speaks directly to a filmmaker whose own work mixes pulp and poetry so effortlessly. Notice how his description of Vidor’s film (“bright blasts of deliriously vibrant colour…gunshots…sexuality”) already sounds like the kind of brief given to a poster designer. Stick an Exclamation Point After Each Word! And You Could Almost Have the Catchline!

That the show is situated underground only makes it feel more like a rummage around Scorsese’s limbic brain. Marking the entrance is a video screen showing a selection of credit sequences from Scorsese’s own movies, from “Taxi Driver” to “The Age of Innocence”. It means that you are highly likely, upon taking the escalator to the lower level, to do so under the watchful eye of Travis Bickle himself. The exhibition can’t help but set you looking for clues to the director’s own work. It’s relatively easy to trace a line from his youthful viewings of “Scarface” (1932) or “The Killers” (1946) to the galvanic violence of “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver”. There’s a slightly more languorous, meandering line from Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” (1942) and Otto Preminger’s ghostly noir, “Laura” (1944), to the spooky lyricism of Scorsese’s own “Shutter Island”.

In fact, only one of the director’s own films is represented here: a wood-cut-style lithograph for “Mean Streets” by the British artist Peter Strausfeld, showing a grinning Robert De Niro brandishing a gun. It is part of a triptych that also includes Strausfeld’s similarly spare, graphic linocuts for Jean Renoir’s POW comedy “The Vanishing Corporal” (1962) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a devoted man of the cloth who quickens the pulse of the women in a small Nazi-occupied French village. Strausfeld’s minimalism—each figure created with a few deft gouges of the blade—brings with it a hint of the monastic. You can be certain that Scorsese’s use of Strausfeld was as much an homage to these other films as it was an advert for his own: even his posters are statements of cinematic heritage, auteurist shout-outs.

The sheer catholicism—in every sense of the term—of Scorsese’s movie tastes makes some of these lineages easier to trace than others. It doesn’t take long to figure out the appeal of a filmmaker like Max Ophüls, whose “La Ronde” (1950), “Le Plaisir” (1952) and “The Earrings of Madame de...” (1953) are all represented here in sumptuous pastel. Both directors are equally smitten by the power of virtuoso, hold-your-breath tracking shots—it’s just that Ophüls uses them to loop-the-loop with couples dancing a waltz and Scorsese uses them to show Ray Liotta pistol-whipping his neighbour. Cinema takes all sorts. Slightly more puzzling is his devotion to the work of Powell and Pressburger. They are the last gentlemen of British film, whose patrician, pre-Beatles formality always struck me as an odd taste for the poète maudit of meatballs and F-bombs—until, that is, “The Age of Innocence” tipped me off to the air of emotional repression Scorsese shared with them. Italian-Americans have their own version of the stiff upper lip, after all, except they call it omertà—not ratting on your friends.

It turns out that all I needed to do was look at the posters for Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” (1948), “Black Narcissus” (1947), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) and “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951) by the Italian designer Anselmo Ballester. His designs accentuate the films’ more florid emotional undertow: lots of passionate reds, flowing taffeta and artfully delineated cleavage. The transnational nature of film-poster design makes for some interesting accents and changes of emphasis. Ballester’s poster for “On the Waterfront” (1954) wrings too much pulp from Elia Kazan’s monochrome, neorealist classic. René Péron’s rendering of clouds and plane fusilages for “The Lost Squadron” (1932) owes more to the art of Fernand Léger than to its producer, David Selznick, but I loved it just the same. Ditto Guy Gérard Noël’s striking mauve-and-yellow cityscape for “The Killers” (1964), as close to a packet of Gitanes as Lee Marvin gets.

The show’s greatest glory though, all the way at the back, is Maurice Kallis’s stunning poster for Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941, above), featuring Veronica Lake. Or more accurately a simple, graphic rendering of Lake’s famous hairline, swooping down over one eye like a blonde curtain, half-drawn. Rendered with sumptuous sweeps of ink in which the brush strokes are clearly visible, the image is playful, mysterious, endlessly contrary—cinema’s answer to the Mona Lisa.

Scorsese Collects Museum of Modern Art, New York, to October 25th. From August, the poster exhibition will be accompanied by “Scorsese Screens”, a series comprising 33 films that reflect the varied influences on his career

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