So I watched the documentary American Artifact: the Rise of the American Rock Poster (as yet unreleased on DVD) at a special screening at Mississippi State University Thursday night. Merle Becker, our director-cum-narrator, apparently quit some staid, high-paid 9-5 to travel the country talking to poster artists. In itself, this requires slight suspension of disbelief, but when she made the inflated claim that she was unaware of what she terms “the rock poster art movement” until roughly five years ago, my bullshit trigger immediately tensed; not optional audience sentiment at the start of an amatuerish documentary. American Artifact is mostly talking heads and posters that flash too quickly for real visual contemplation, betraying Becker’s background as the made-for-TV editor and producer that she’s been (often for MTV…I know it’s Industry, but come on, did she really not know about rock posters?)
But the film serves its purpose as a crash course in the poster art that accompanied the dawn of rock and roll and experienced a revival alongside the digital era’s disdain for handmade commercial illustration. It even manages to be entertaining, thanks to the gregariousness, passion and wit of the involved artists (Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin,Frank Kozik, Coop and Lindsey Kuhn to name a few). These guys are almost charismatic enough to rescue the film from its warm and fuzzy (and altogether viewer-alienating) personal journey narration and (always a bad idea) re-enaction scenes. With the exception of some amazing MC-5 concert shots, American Artifact also suffers from a lack of raw vintage footage or even stills—show footage, backstage footage, footage of the artists doing their thing—and the editing is often a cut-and-paste cheese-fest. In Becker’s defense, this footage may not even exist, and the outtakes during the credits are pretty fun. But in the hands of a more skillful filmmaker or a person intimately familiar with the material or the “community” (buzzword alert) being covered, this could have been a great documentary. Instead, it comes across like the Cliff Notes version of Paul Grushkin & Dennis King’s 2004 book Art of Modern Rock: the Poster Explosion, and I was the fifteen year old geek that devoured Crime and Punishment. So for me, the film was a disappointment—worth seeing, sure, but not worth seeing more than once.