Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ergodic Literature and House of Leaves

A few weeks ago, I picked up a book called House of Leaves from the library. I'd never heard of it until I came across its mention in a discussion about Paranormal Activity on The Onion A/V Club. It intrigued me enough to go out and find House of Leaves immediately. Rather than summarize the plot, which is difficult enough, I'll put Wikipedia's description of the book here, for the sake of expediency:

"House of Leaves begins with a first-person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee. Truant is searching for a new apartment when his friend Lude tells him about the apartment of the recently deceased Zampanò, a blind, elderly man who lived in Lude's building.

In Zampanò's apartment, Truant discovers a manuscript written by Zampanò that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record.

The rest of the novel alternates between Zampanò's report on the fictional film, Johnny's autobiographical interjections, a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson's brother, Tom, a small transcript of interviews to many people regarding The Navidson Record by Navidson's [wife], Karen, and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Johnny's mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled The Whalestoe Letters. Each narrator's text is printed in a distinct font, making it easier for the reader to follow the occasionally challenging format of the novel."

The description alone is daunting, though, so far, my experience reading House of Leaves has been more exhilarating (and some nights flat-out terrifying) than overwhelming. It's a really great way to immerse a reader into the world of the story. I would describe it as the adult equivalent of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid.

Though House of Leaves isn't as overt as that. The genius of it is that by the very nature of the writing - the fact that, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, it is written as if the characters wrote every word - you feel danger not only for the fictional characters, but danger for yourself for simply reading the book. It's like you're discovering something you shouldn't be seeing. You get wrapped up in the sense of discovery as you interpret hidden messages in the text, refer to footnotes and footnotes about footnotes, and you read the appendices and examine photographs. It's an obsessive and rewarding multimedia experience.

I wondered what kind of novel this could be categorized as, since it has so many elements involved I couldn't even begin to classify it. It turns out, that it falls under the description of ergodic literature. Here's a definition from

"Ergodic literature is literature that requires special effort to comprehend or read, perhaps due to a "non linear" structure. The term is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work" and hodos, meaning "path". Ergodic literature demands an active role of the reader, such that they become "users" who may need to perform complex semiotic operations to construct the reading."

So, by that definition, everything you read online is ergodic literature. This blog entry is ergodic literature. At anytime of your choosing, you can click any of the links I've provided and go on a separate path that will take you to things that I didn't write. And then that may direct you to something else that I haven't foreseen. And so on. The entire online universe is one big piece of ergodic literature.

As for House of Leaves, it's just another example of why I hope physical, paper-bound books never go away. The experience of reading House of Leaves would be miserable on a Nook or Kindle. When you read a book like this, it needs to look like this once you're done with it:

Website Redesign:

Since I talked so much trash about the Musicovery site, I figured I should offer a prospective redesign for their layout.

Here's the original:

Broken down into basic shapes:

And the redesign:

I think framing the web of songs within a dark, circular space would be a great touch, because it would make them all seem like they were floating in space, and you were at some sort of hub, controlling it all, picking and choosing the songs. Maybe the background could change shades with whatever mood you were picking for the music. Almost any color would be better than that blank white space they have now. And the ads could be relegated to the corners to keep things a bit more tidy.

Poster Trends: Footnotes for the future (part II)

There is a theater in Austin, Texas, called the Alamo Drafthouse that is often used for screenings of old cult classics, new movie geek event movies, or sometimes for filmmaker moderated film festivals, such as Quentin Tarantino's QT Fests.

Whenever they have a special screening of an older film, they commission certain designers and illustrators to come up with a new poster to promote the screening. Though the styles have a lot of differences between them, there is an underlying unity that makes me think that there could be something to what they're doing that may carry over into mainstream poster design. I'll start with designer/illustrator, Tyler Stout.

His style of movie poster almost always consists of a massive orgy of floating heads, just piled upon each other among little knick knacks and various stuff from the movie. It's like a big fanboy geekout collage. Packed to the gills with obscure references and frozen moments taken directly from the screen. He keeps everything unified amid the chaose by sticking to only a handful of colors for the whole image. It's a style with a palpable sense of energy and glee for whichever movie is being represented.

If you look closely at the way the figures and faces are outlined, it looks like he's using Adobe Illustrator, or a similar vector-based program to make these images. There are a lot of outlines, which makes everything almost look plastic. Though, the wavy-ness of some of the line work makes me think that he may physically draw a lot of it, and then scan it into the computer for the finished work.

... come to think of it, this all looks like inkwork, now. Jeez. Look what computers have done. Here I am underestimating someone's handiwork just because it looks so precise. "He must have used a computer!" I say. For shame...

Poster Trends: Footnotes for the Future (part I)

So you may have noticed I've been writing a lot about movie posters. Is my only ambition to become a movie poster designer? No, it isn't exactly my highest ambition, but I am sort of obsessed with them. In general though, I'm just very interested in how we choose represent stories in any medium with just one single image. It's not something that's going away any time soon. No matter how advanced technology gets, now matter how far removed our entertainment outlets get from printed media, stories will need posters or cover art, of some sort, to represent them and grab the attention of a target audience.

By looking at so many different design choices, good and bad, and seeing how much of it is repeated, I can get a broader sense of the design sensibilities that will define my generation, and thus I can begin to speculate on what sort of trends may become the norm in the future.

Already I've begun to see some trends among amateur and professional poster designers who are finding new ways to represent older films. Here are some styles I've noticed that could very well become a trend in the distant (or, not-so-distant) future.

A designer named Olly Moss has a small collection of posters made only in black and red and the results are excellent. It's definitely a minimalist approach, but the capacity to get so much across using so little is something that I think more and more poster designers may end up utilizing in future poster designs to set themselves apart. Of course, it will take a pretty adventurous marketing department to put their faith in this kind of design in the current marketing climate. There is a lot to compete against.

More to come in Part II.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part VI)

Click here for The Visual Puns and Metaphors intro

The Truth in Shadow variation

Don't you wish our shadows did this in real life? It would be so much easier to cut through all the crap we talk on a daily basis and find out what someone is truly all about.

This has become one of the most commonly used visual metaphors in movie posters, so whether or not one really works depends on the execution. The Phantom Menace teaser poster is a great one. That's mainly because of the iconography involved. Anyone who watches movies knows who that shadow represents. But the positioning of young Anakin Skywalker (that irritating little brat) is also very striking. He looks so innocent and alone and helpless. And yet he will become... him. It's pretty sad when a movie's poster has more emotional impact than the movie. I know, The Phantom Menace is an easy target, but it had to be said.

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part V)

The Phallic variation

These are just shameless, aren't they?

This is something that's only done with comedies. Or, in the case of Shortbus, sexually explicit indie films about nothing else other than having sex and talking about sex. I haven't seen it, but I've heard it's pretty terrible.

Hot Fuzz is a sort of loving parody of cop movies, particularly buddy cop movies (Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, etc), so the use of phallic symbolism is there to poke fun at the inherent (mostly unintentional) homosexual overtones that you'll find in the typical buddy cop movie. Hot Fuzz is fantastic, by the way. Not only is it funny, but it's a worthy entry into the very genre it's mocking (much in the way that Shaun of the Dead was funny, but also just a great zombie movie).

Mr. Woodcock is not so much using a phallic symbol as a... testicular (?) symbol, but it applies nonetheless. The other two movies are just bad sex farces.

All in all, I think these five posters are an accurate representation of how often this particular visual pun gets any attention from me. It's as if I've done some sort of poll, and the results are:

Only one in five movies that use the Phallic variation are actually worth my time.

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part IV)

Click here for The Visual Puns and Metaphors intro

The Symbolic Hybrid variation

These are always interesting. Even when they're not that great, they're certainly more appealing than the Floating Heads.

By creating a hybrid of two objects, whether they're people mixed with things, things mixed with things, or things that pile up to make another thing, the merging of the two forces you to evaluate what each thing is separately, and then what they mean together. That meaning speaks to some core element of the film.

Depending on the movie, they can't be too oblique. If there's one thing marketing departments try to shy away from, it's making the viewer feel stupid. But art house films can be a bit more obscure.

Take that AntiChrist poster, for instance. Everything about it is disturbing. It's an incredibly strong image. But what does it mean? Well, since I haven't seen it, I can speculate only with what I've read about it. I know, for one, that there is a pretty brutal scene involving scissors. Hence, the scissors and the blood. That stream of blood is also very strategically placed. I know that it is about a couple (Willem Defoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) and that it gets pretty erotic at certain points. I also know that it messes with your head. It's a horrific and surreal experience. All of that is hinted at with this one bizarre image. So, though it is referencing a plot element that those who haven't seen the film won't catch, it is a very successful representation of the content.

The same goes for the rest of these examples. They are all capable of not only representing content, but also the attitude or tone of the films.

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part III)

Click here for The Visual Puns and Metaphors intro

The Odd Couple variation

This is a trend I know I've seen more of, and yet these four are all I could find. If you can think of any more please mention them in the comments. I've seen all four of these movies, so I can tell you, with authority, that each one is about Person A who is living a regular old boring life until out of the blue, they meet Person B, who turns their life upside down, for better or for worse. That is literally the basic synopsis of all four of these movies. And it's expressed with just this one image. It's very on-the-nose, but at least it's a layout that hasn't quite been overused to the point that it's lost its meaning. It's still very potent. And accurate.

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part II)

Click here for the Visual Puns & Metaphors intro

The Hidden Face variation

I'm using the term "hidden" loosely, here. The faces are obviously there, but they're not there, you get me? It's more of a visual pun than a metaphor and in general there isn't a lot of meaning to it aside from the fact that sometimes it's just cool to see a face made out of things that aren't supposed to make a face. It's a popular image for horror movies, as you can see. I had a lot to choose from actually, so just know you're only seeing the tip of the Hidden Face iceberg.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Poster Trends: Visual Puns & Metaphors (part I)

I think I've mentioned before that I think movie posters are at their best when they focus on obscure plot elements that are representative of the film as a whole - OR - when they use a visual metaphor to express the theme or primary conceit of the film. Well, for this entry, I'm going to focus on just that; The Visual Puns & Metaphors

It's pretty daunting though. This particular trend is pretty general, so it's going to have to be divided into multiple parts. But it's totally worth it. I can honestly say that I did not know nearly as much about poster design until I started doing these. By deliberately looking for patterns and trying to interpret the reasoning behind those patterns, I've learned a lot about the different choices you can make in trying to represent a whole work with one image, and what consequences come from those choices.

So, without further ado...

The Silenced variation

The first thing that comes to mind with this look is, of course, censorship. And that's exactly why it's used. Most of the time, when you see a poster with this kind of metaphor, the movie is either literally telling a story about censorship (The People vs. Larry Flynt), a story about secrets "they" don't want you to know about (What Just Happened, Syriana, and Dysfunktional Family), or it's a visual way to express the word "silent" in the title (Silence of the Lambs, Silent Hill), which is a bit on-the-nose, don't you think? Especially with Silent Hill. The Silence of the Lambs poster is at least a provocative image. "Why the moth?" you think. But that Silent Hill poster just looks like a bad Photoshop job.

Poster Trends: The Warhol Look

Continuing my focus on poster designs that pay homage to famous artists, I present to you, The Warhol Look.

As if this one needs any introduction. The high contrast print look has been aped so many times now. From people's Facebook/Myspace pictures to movie posters, Andy Warhol's influence can be found just about anywhere.

Much like the Magritte Look last time, the poster designs are paying homage to one specific series of works by the artist, as opposed to the artist's overall philosophy or style. In the case of The Warhol Look, the posters are referring to these:

Warhol loved celebrities and the concept of being a celebrity. When he made images like Marilyn, Jackie or Mickey Mouse, he was re-idolizing the idols. You would never see him make this kind of portrait of just anybody. They had to be icons.

Posters that reference this look are interesting because the very fact that the movie posters are copying his style is in itself an expression of the ideas Warhol brought about when he printed images of pop culture icons. It's kind of a meta-design thing. Warhol himself, or rather his style, has become the thing that's being printed and idolized over and over for whatever use deemed necessary.

More specifically, though, using the style for a movie poster serves the purpose of idolizing whatever character is featured in the image - as if to suggest that this character is an icon with enough pop culture status or mystique to be worthy of Warhol's style. In that sense it's almost a parody. Because, with the exception of the middle poster at the top (Man from Plains, a documentary about Jimmy Carter) the posters are idolizing fictional people.

Here are a few more:

Factory Girl is a movie about Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol's muses. So the use of his style for the poster is unavoidable, but I can't decide if I really like any of these. The color usage is appealing, the high contrast is always pretty striking, but, all in all, it's a little unimaginative to me.

Next up on Poster Trends, Visual Puns & Metaphors (part I).