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ScreenFonts: May 2018

This episode put me in a contemplative, even slightly melancholy mood, with posters for Disobedience, The Endless, Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City), Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia), Good Luck, Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, You Were Never Really Here, and Zama.

As I was compiling this month’s episode, it struck me that all of the posters exude a certain serenity—even with a thriller, a horror flick, and a gritty crime drama in the mix. You’ll have to come back for The Leftovers for visceral visual excitement; until then, turn your gaze inward.

Disobedience

InSync Plus’ main theatrical one-sheet for Disobedience
© 2017 Bleecker Street Media. Key art by InSync Plus.

Many film posters try to tell a story or convey an atmosphere, but how do you portray raw emotion? InSync Plus does it by bringing the camera uncomfortably close. In Disobedience, a woman returns to the community that shunned her for her attraction to a childhood friend. The pair’s passion reignites as they explore the boundaries of faith and sexuality. Where the superficially similar (and explicit) one-sheet for Gaspar Noë’s Love could be read as exploitative, this image is subtler, even ambiguous. The grainy, soft-focus nature of the backlit image tricks you into thinking you are witnessing a tender moment. Then you notice the conflict, the sadness bordering on despair in the women’s eyes: they are painfully aware that their embrace defies the religious tenets of a community bent on denying them happiness and personal fulfillment. The confusing mix of passion and anguish simmering just below the surface makes you feel uneasy for intruding on such a private, intimate moment.

The tagline floats in front of both women’s faces, trying to whisper away the viewer’s gaze. Similar to the progressive disintegration of Acrimony’s title mentioned in last month’s episode, the emotional tension here is visualized by the “heat map” gradient in the title. Probably because the designer wanted the typography to be self-effacing, the sole typeface in the poster is Tobias Frere-Jones’ iconic Gotham, which has become the new default movie-poster font. If you like this typographic style, try Proxima Nova, which also exists in a friendly rounded version.

The Endless

Main theatrical one-sheet for The Endless
© 2017 Well Go USA Entertainment. Key art by Brandon Schaefer.

The science-fiction thriller The Endless follows two brothers who return to the cult they fled from years ago, only to discover that the group’s beliefs may be grounded in truth. Brandon Schaefer’s enchanting, spiraling art invites us to drift away to parallel worlds and alternate realities. In a Twitter direct-message exchange, Schaefer revealed that his first batch of comps was more conceptual or tied to literal imagery from the film. “The distributor and the filmmakers preferred to try an M.C. Escher direction instead, which was the thrust of the second round, ” he said. “I used this as the lens to hint at or touch on plot details that unfold throughout the film.”

The spaced-out ITC Golden Cockerel, based on Eric Gill’s 1929 types for England’s Golden Cockerel Press, reinforces the artwork’s deafeningly quiet atmosphere. I was surprised to discover how Guyot Text’s capitals, based on distinct, unrelated source material, share so many formal attributes with Gill’s design. The lovely text face Elmhurst is a curvier, more organic variation on this model.

Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City)

Poster for Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City)
© 2016 Big World Pictures.

Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City) tells the story of a documentary filmmaker in Cairo who is having difficulties finishing his film, so his friends send him footage from the cities they live in: Baghdad, Beirut, and Berlin. Half of the canvas in this gorgeous one-sheet is taken up by nothingness, a metaphor for the blank page taunting the struggling creator. It draws the viewer’s eye toward the introspective filmmaker surveying an urban vista bathed in the yellow light of the fading sun, literally searching for inspiration. The damaged city stares back at him with indifference. The intricate beauty of the Arabic script makes the Latin version of the title appear clumsy and inadequate.

Poster for Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City)
© 2016 Big World Pictures.

One of the film’s main publicity shots, the Cairo cityscape captured upside down in a lens, is rendered between the filmmaker’s shoulders in this mirage-like photo composition. While this is exactly what happens when looking through a lens, it could also be interpreted as the filmmaker’s need to change his perspective and look at his subject from a different angle to escape the impasse he’s arrived at.

Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia)

Domestic one-sheet for Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia)
© 2016 Beijing Enlight Pictures.
Domestic one-sheet for Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia)
© 2016 Beijing Enlight Pictures.

We travel farther east for Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia), an animated fantasy about a sixteen-year-old girl visiting the world in the form of a dolphin and forming a connection with a human boy. The dreamlike domestic posters don’t disappoint. On both versions, the spellbinding painted artwork in complementary colors draws heavily on traditional Chinese art. It masterfully plays with light and texture, composition and scale, and is embellished with magnificent rough-brush calligraphy that puts the supporting Latin typography to shame.

Domestic one-sheet for Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia)
© 2016 Beijing Enlight Pictures.
UK one-sheet for Dayu haitang (Big Fish & Begonia)
© 2016 Beijing Enlight Pictures.

The UK one-sheet is an adaptation of one of the more conventional Chinese variants depicting the main protagonists in a serene mood. This specific version of Baskerville looks like it was drawn for text use and therefore is a bit clumsy. Matthew Carter’s exquisite, refined Big Moore, inspired by Baskerville’s types, would have been a more appropriate cut here. Personally, I would have loved to see Duos Paint grace this poster; its freeform letter shapes and brush texture would nicely channel the calligraphy in the original artwork.

Good Luck

Main theatrical one-sheet for Good Luck
© 2017 CaSk Films. Key art by Lucie Conan.
Main theatrical one-sheet for Good Luck
© 2017 CaSk Films. Key art by Lucie Conan.

Filmed between a large-scale underground mine in post-war Serbia and an illegal mining collective in the tropical heat of Suriname, Good Luck is a visceral non-fiction portrait of hope and sacrifice in a time of global economic turmoil. The unfazed faces of the two miners, half a world away from each other, exude calm resolve—or is it resignation? For the posters, movie sales agency Stray Dogs brought director Ben Russell in contact with Paris-based freelance designer Lucie Conan. In an email interview, Conan told me that she worked from an original idea by Russell, who wanted artwork riffing off both Russian revolutionary poster art and the hues of vintage black-and-white movies in the spirit of Under the Skin. “The graphic style is reminiscent of mining codes and artisanal production (paper collage, coarse line raster, and cutout letters), with a dash of propaganda posters (the textured paper effect and the orangy colors).” Conan chose an angular, industrial-looking face as the main type. The words in the black bars are translations of “Good Luck” in Serbian and in Sranan Tongo Creole (Surinamese), referencing the location of the two mines where the documentary was filmed.

Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare

LA’s poster for Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare
© 2018 Universal Pictures. Key art by LA.
LA’s poster for Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare
© 2018 Universal Pictures. Key art by LA.

In the horror thriller Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, the usually mostly embarrassing game turns deadly for those who tell a lie or refuse the dare. LA shunned the genre’s customary gritty imagery and cut-up Trajan (see Richard Lipton’s Canto for a lovely alternative to this ubiquitous face) in favor of a surprisingly subdued typographic treatment. A translucent red question mark, punctuating the question at the game’s core, covers the entire canvas. The punctuation mark is cleverly modified. In the white version, the inside curve adopts the shape of a human skull. In the black version, the exaggerated demonic smile that appears on the victims’ faces immediately before they kill or commit suicide becomes the continuation of that curve. The very narrow sans serif comes close to Titling Gothic Skyline or Benton Sans Extra Compressed.

You Were Never Really Here

Empire Design’s main theatrical one-sheet for You Were Never Really Here
© 2017 Amazon Studios. Key art by Empire Design.
Original theatrical one-sheet for Taxi Driver
© 1976 Columbia Pictures.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a traumatized veteran, undaunted by violence, who gets paid to track down missing girls in You Were Never Really Here. Because the promotional campaign describes the film as a modern-day Taxi Driver, I thought it would be interesting to compare their marketing collateral. Empire Design went for a contemporary retro look with their stylish theatrical one-sheet. Phoenix has the same introspective, brooding expression as de Niro’s Travis Bickle; however, making his figure loom over the scene turns him into a far more threatening presence. The single-point perspective draws the attention to the tiny figure walking in the middle of an abandoned street, carrying Ekaterina Samsonov on his back to safety. The city lights behind his back make it seem as if the streets are burning, a metaphor for the mayhem Phoenix leaves in his wake during his rescue missions.

Taxi Driver’s stencil titling face is nowhere to be seen, and the same goes for Weiss and Cheltenham as supporting typefaces. But the type here still references display typography popular in the mid-seventies. Modern-day interpretations of high-contrast fat faces can be found among the boldest weights in the largest optical sizes of families like GarageFontsFreight, Font Bureau’s Belucian and Escrow, and Carter & Cone’s Miller and Big Caslon. If you want less contrast but more adventure, take a look at Mondial Display and Kazimir.

P+A’s festival poster for You Were Never Really Here
© 2017 Amazon Studios. Key art by P+A.
40th Anniversary poster for Taxi Driver
© 1976 Columbia Pictures. Key art by Brandon Schaefer

I doubt this was intended, but P+A’s interpretation echoes the color scheme and bokeh effect of Brandon Schaefer’s classy 40th Anniversary poster for Taxi Driver. The problem with P+A’s design is that there is simply too much going on. All of the elements are fine—I particularly like the image of Samsonov floating in water as a metaphor for her helplessness—but the transparent layering of Samsonov and Phoenix on the busy background with the bokeh dots, the luminous title in two different typefaces, and the jumble of colors result in an overwrought poster.

Empire Design’s theatrical one-sheet for You Were Never Really Here
© 2017 Amazon Studios. Key art by Empire Design.

This pared-down version by Empire Design takes the opposite tack. Anything unnecessary has been removed to arrive at a powerful exercise in chiaroscuro, a superb modern-day Caravaggio. Clearly, this is a carefully staged studio shot, which makes it far better than any movie still or Photoshop composite. Phoenix’s simple black long-sleeved shirt makes his body disappear; the only thing left besides both actors’ heads are Samsonov’s arms dangling off his shoulders. It’s all in the details—notice the blood on her fingers and how the typesetting extends the line of her arms to form a triangular/rhomboidal composition.

Empire Design’s illustrated poster for You Were Never Really Here
© 2017 Amazon Studios. Key art by Empire Design.

The bloody fingers become the main motif in this striking illustrated poster, connecting Samsonov’s fingertips with Phoenix’ shadow as he leaves a trail of blood behind him.

Empire Design’s illustrated poster for You Were Never Really Here
© 2017 Amazon Studios. Key art by Empire Design.

In this second strong illustrated poster, Phoenix plunges into the water and distorts the square sans serif acting as a virtual surface. His drowning is a metaphor for being overwhelmed by the enormity of his mission to save as many disappeared girls as he possibly can. Cyrus Highsmith’s Stainless displays a similar squareness in its curves, and comes in four widths from Compressed to Extended.

Zama

Domestic one-sheet for Zama
© 2017 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, the historical drama Zama, set in the seventeenth century, tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, an officer of the Spanish Crown born in South America who expects a letter from the King granting him a transfer to Buenos Aires. The domestic one-sheet artfully visualizes his endless wait—the letter from the King never arrives, and Zama is forced to submit to every task entrusted to him by successive governors, who come and go as he stays behind.

The typography plays a defining role in this design, taking up two thirds of the poster’s surface. The letters hold another scene in monochrome red, with palm trees breaking out one of the letters’ contour to add dimensionality. The M with straight legs and high, sharp vertex plays a double role. On one hand, it frames and literally points at Zama; on the other, its crown-like features appear to pin him down, mirroring the movie’s storyline. More typefaces than you might expect feature this space-saving M shape, for example Miles Newlyn’s New Atten, Monokrom’s Telefon, Type-Ø-Tones’ Arboria, Occupant Fonts’ Allium, Font Bureau’s Nobel, and to some extent Gasket and Eagle, whose legs are slightly splayed.

UK quad for Zama
© 2017 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Key art by Andrew Bannister.

The heavily textured, baroque UK quad by London-based art director, designer, and illustrator Andrew Bannister is drop-dead gorgeous. In this instance, more is more and less is a bore. The concentric circles, crammed with narrative fragments and mood-defining elements, beautifully frame the stern Zama. Alas, Bannister replaced the typeface from the original poster with Futura—which is a bore. Its sole redeeming feature is that it creates a nice pattern of slanted strokes, an effect that could also be achieved with Monokrom’s much more interesting and unique Vinter

And that’s it for this month. I think I’m going to spend the rest of the day surveying the city’s rooftops from my bedroom window, and maybe ponder the changing of the seasons or days gone by. I may return shortly for The Leftovers. And I will definitely be back next month for another installment of ScreenFonts.

Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to humankind.