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Pop Montreal: Film Pop – Popping the poster scene

Died Young, Stayed Pretty: October 3 at 9 p.m., Cinema du Parc
Film Pop runs ‘til October 5 at venues all over Montreal. Check for details.

Died Young, Stayed Pretty is a movie about rock posters – those silk-screened graphic design wonders you see on telephone poles and mailboxes, here one day and gone the next. It’s about the eccentric characters who make them, and an artistic boom that happened discretely, a movement that wasn’t much of a movement at all.

Rock posters first caught filmmaker Eileen Yaghoobian’s eye in her native Vancouver, while she was going through a rough period after her brother’s death in 2002. Their cynical humour and twisted imagery appealed to her. “I just thought it was funny stuff,” she said, citing a poster of a teddy bear with its arms chopped off. The way the posters put found images into strange new contexts also struck her. “They alter pieces of other people’s forgotten dreams into a poster for a rock band,” she wrote in her Director’s Statement.

The posters raised some persistent questions: Have subcultures lost their edge? Is the system of cultural production too structured today for art to have any kind of subversive power? Yaghoobian wanted answers, so she set off on a road trip across the U.S. and Canada in search of these artists who live off the grid, shooting on location for three years with no outside funding, filming alone, often sleeping on the floors and couches of the artists she interviewed.

Her documentary follows the sudden flourishing of poster production that arose in the wake of September 11, putting the spotlight on a group of artists that often work in isolation and rarely get talked about as a movement to themselves. If the poster artists belong to a community at all, it’s a particularly postmodern kind: diffused, decentralized, linked through the internet. What’s fascinating about Died Young, Stayed Pretty is that, un-unified though the artists are, common themes start to emerge.

Yaghoobian made a point of letting the artists speak for themselves rather than using voice-over narration. “I don’t want to preach what I think,” she said. “These are the discussions in their world: does the youth have [any] power? Do these posters even do anything? That’s really for me the most interesting question that I kept on trying to figure out.”

The conversations that result are surprisingly loaded, with globalization, artistic integrity, and the psyche of small-town America all out on the table for discussion. A certain sense of cultural stagnation comes through in the crossfire. Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records questions whether subcultures today are doing anything new. “Being in a punk rock band now? That’s like being a hippy in 1984,” he says. “Jesus Christ, invent your own new thing. Let’s go forward! What happened to the fucking future”

Some point to posters as a potential last bastion of artistic independence, outside the system of art galleries and cultural industry. Others say they’re crass advertisement, or even useless, sometimes appearing only after the show they’re promoting has already been sold out

Conceived as the filmic equivalent of a rock poster, Yaghoobian’s documentary preserves the paradoxes surrounding poster art, letting multiple voices stand in contrast with each other without drowning each other out. The film employs ironic juxtaposition and sassy editing, cutting off abruptly in ways that make the artists’ outrageous one-liners sound almost like stand-up comedy. Posters flash onto the screen with an effect like a flashbulb going off, lingering only for a few seconds in a way that underlines their ephemerality while giving them added force.

Died Young, Stayed Prettyis one of the feature offerings at Film Pop this year, the music-oriented film festival held each year in conjunction with Pop Montreal. It’s one of the 43 films on show, in addition to several live events, including appearences by the filmmakers, concerts accompanying the films, and master classes with celebrities like Jem Cohen at reasonable prices. Highlights include a movie about one-man bands and a documentary on Montreal’s up-and-coming Rockabilly scene, followed by a performance by some of the featured bands.

Carmen Nagrelli, one of the Film Pop coordinators, says that it’s a different kind of film festival. First drawn to Pop Montreal as a volunteer, Nagrelli appreciated Pop’s collaborative ethos, in contrast to the more hierarchical structure of other industry situations.

“It’s not about what’s hot in the film world,” she said. “I think we have a lot of heart, basically, as cheesy as that sounds.” This year there’s a loose focus on building community, on coming out and watching movies together instead of alone in our homes.

Though Film Pop has a distinct interest in issues of underground culture, Nagrelli says it’s not their goal to make an overt statement. “We’re not trying to be political,” she said.

Speaking about the experience of filming Died Young, Stayed Pretty, Yaghoobian said it was a strange time in America to be filming a documentary. Bush got re-elected, and Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Yaghoobian herself was in the area when the storm hit, missing it by a day. “Some people say ‘we’re not political,’” she said, “but they are, just because of the images they use, the times they’re living in.”

– Braden Goyette