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  • Died Young Stayed Pretty
  • Directed and written by Eileen Yaghoobian
  • Starring plenty of poster artists
  • Classification: 14A
  • Rating:

Sometimes, to get a handle on our crazy culture, it's best to head away from the mainstream and look hard at the fringes. Perhaps because they themselves often feel marginalized, doc makers have an especially acute eye, and a place in their heart, for folks who occupy the periphery. Think of Errol Morris's work in Gates of Heaven or Terry Zwigoff's in Crumb. And now add to the list Eileen Yaghoobian with Died Young Stayed Pretty, a documentary that is only nominally about poster art. Really, it's about the poster artists, and what an intriguingly ragtag bunch they are.

For many of us, the notion of a poster is incomplete without its attendant wooden frame - the urban telephone pole, festooned in papered layers of ads that are also artifacts and may even be art, all urging us to buy something or go somewhere or to vote for someone.

But who draws them and to what purpose beyond the obvious promotional goal? To find out, Yaghoobian takes her camera on the open road, stopping in Florida and Calgary and Seattle and points between.

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One of the artists has definitely tasted success, enough to have seen his work "hanging in the Louvre for two weeks." But most find their galleries on garage doors, although our guide wastes little time evaluating merit. In fact, regardless of status, they all look a bit unkempt and seem to live in similarly ramshackle abodes, plying their sullen craft with a shared passion.

Wisely eschewing voice-over narration, Yaghoobian just lets us look and listen, structuring her documentary much like the posters on display. The result is a collage fascinating in its very unevenness, as the crude competes for space with the sophisticated, the mumblers and droners-on with the articulate and the insightful.

En route, we hear that the recent history of posters is rooted in rock music, especially punk. And porn is a big influence, although that shouldn't be a surprise. If your job is to bill a band calling itself The Impotent Sea Snakes, where else could you turn for inspiration?

The wicked den of politics is also a target, but only for a few. The rest fancy themselves too radical for such mundane satire, aspiring instead to ink posters that are "cooler than the bands they promote," then to take their recompense in a comped ticket and a free beer or five.

Ironically, what sticks here is not so much the visual images as the verbal asides. Several of these poster boys are very adroit wordsmiths. Consider this report from the Southern Bible Belt: "For every church here, they had to build a strip joint - for the other six days." Or how about the ne plus ultra of icons: "The happy face is the most ubiquitous piece of graphic design in the past half-century. It's the American version of the swastika." Now that's delightfully subversive.

Occasionally, during her travels, Yaghoobian proves she has a flair for the telling detail every bit as keen as her subjects'.

For example, somewhere deep in the American heartland, the doc visits a bowling alley where, between frames, sportsmen in trucker hats hydrate with Budweiser and ignore an overhead sign that sternly cautions: "No Chewing Of Tobacco Products Allowed". Yikes, cleanup in lane one.

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My favourite stop, though, is in a picture-perfect town that rings to the ding-a-ling sound of the ice-cream truck, prompting an uncharacteristically sunny artist to wax sentimental: "As long as they play those little ice-cream songs, the world can't be such a bad place."

Slowly, the camera sidles up to this heaven-on-wheels, then closes in on the nice ice-cream man who, craning his thick neck out the side window, snarls that today's kiddies are always throwing rocks at his truck, and he hates the little buggers almost as much as his job. Ah, a poster for small-town values.

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