Movie Poster of the Week: “The American Dreamer” and Jay Shaw’s Top Ten American Posters

One of our favorite contemporary poster designers picks his ten favorite American posters.
Adrian Curry

All this month, MUBI is presenting the exclusive worldwide online debut of L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s 1971 documentary The American Dreamer, a fascinating and revelatory portrait of Dennis Hopper during the making of his legendary folly The Last Movie.

For the film’s theatrical screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco and Austin, Mondo creative director Jay Shaw designed a new poster for the film:

When we were asked to create a poster for The American Dreamer I was instantly overwhelmed. I’ve seen the film several times and absolutely love it. It’s a candid and endearing portrait of Dennis Hopper’s maniacal creative process. Lawrence Schiller, the film’s [co-] director and acclaimed photojournalist, sent a collection of photographs he’d taken during production back in 1971. When I saw these wonderful photos I realized there was nothing we’d be able to illustrate that would capture the essence of this film in the same way. One photo in particular stood out: Dennis sitting in the middle of a group of devotees smiling toward the viewer. There’s an optimism and naiveté in that image I just love. It’s a moment you imagine Dennis would want to bask in if he could.

Mr. Schiller graciously collaborated with us in turning one of his photos into the poster for the film. We decided to create a four color process screen print to pay homage to the analog nature of the film and posters of the era. Our dear friend and artisan printer Dan Black assumed those duties for us. We’re incredibly proud of the project and couldn’t be more honored to work with Mr. Schiller on it.  

Readers of this column should already be acquainted with Jay’s work, as I’ve written about him a couple of times. When I first interviewed him in 2012 he told me that he had only been designing posters for a year. Now, four years later, he is creative director of Mondo and his portfolio is one of the most impressive in the business. Each time I check into his website Kingdom of Nonsense I’m blown away by a new round of posters and record covers that are witty, graphically arresting and uncannily beautiful. You can listen to a terrific interview (or more like a fireside chat) with Jay on Sam Smith and Brandon Schaefer’s podcast The Poster Boys. (And if you’re a reader of this column and you’re not already subscribed to The Poster Boys, well you should be.)

In honor of The American Dreamer I thought I’d ask Jay for his Top Ten American posters of all time, and he unstintingly obliged. (For the record, and if it isn’t obvious from his work, Jay is a huge admirer of Czech and Polish posters, but he said that doing an all-time top ten including the Czechs and the Poles would be an impossible task.) So here, with his own comments, are Jay Shaw’s favorite US one sheets in ascending order.

10. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

This is such a great design. Everything is perfectly balanced. The little jokes—the pink band-aid, the "(OBVIOUSLY)" bit—make me smile every time. I totally ripped off that billing block structure for my Survivor book poster.

9. Silent Running (1972)

George Akimoto’s stunning painting on this poster is almost more than I can handle visually. There is so much going on! The tilted perspective perfectly illustrates the unsure footing of the environment. That title treatment is pure typographical porn.

8. Altered States (1980) 

It’s actually tough to write descriptions for a top ‘anything’ list. I mean look at this damn thing! It’s gorgeous. I’d sooner be able tell you why a sunset is fun to look at. Flipping William Hurt upside down is smart but this poster works for a hundred other reasons. Just lovely design bottom to top.

7. The Driver (1978) 

The mix of loose rendering and air-tight design structure is what draws me to this poster. I love when strong movement can be conveyed without making a mess on the page.

[See more about this poster here.]

6. Mean Streets (1973) 

Mean Streets finds itself on a lot of top posters lists. For good reason. Here the simplest imagery conveys tone and theme perfectly. That red hot gradient color treatment on the city is so effective. I don’t know if it’s intentional but the black and white rendering of Johnny Boy’s gun seems to communicate his separation from the rest of his environment. He’s above it, he’s below it, he’s in the middle of it, but he’s different. That title treatment drives me nuts though, clean that up and this is the best poster out there.

5. Thief (1981) 

Of all the posters in this list Thief is the one that makes me say “Holy shit what’s THAT movie? I want to watch it.” I remember seeing this art in a video store and thinking exactly that. Pure energy.

[See more on the posters for Thief here.]

4. Seconds (1966) 

A few years ago Criterion came to me and asked if I’d like to design the blu-ray cover for Seconds. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, of course I wanted to! I love that movie. I toiled over that goddamn cover for weeks and could not crack it. I think I could do something good now but at the time I wasn’t ready for that assignment. When they told me they were going to go with the original Saul Bass poster art I remember thinking “WHAT?! You had that available the whole time?!?! Why the hell am I even talking about this?!?!” I assumed the Bass estate had made the art off-limits or something. Ditch anything I would ever come up with, you can not beat this one.

3. Westw0rld (1973) 

Let’s forget the wonderful Neal Adams painting and outstanding title treatment for a second, that stuff happened all the time in the 70s. What a tagline! “… Where nothing can possibly go worng!” falling off the baseline! It’s those brilliant little decisions that I strive for as a designer.

2. Get Carter (1971) 

I realize this wasn’t officially used but that to me is one of the greatest crimes in movie poster history. Bill Gold was an absolute master of the visual punchline and this, to me, is the best example of it. “He can do two things better than anybody… “That’s it! That’s ALL I need. This film is about a sexy killer and it stars Michael Caine. I’ll take 2 tickets please.” This poster is the one I reference a lot when I’m trying to explain the job of the movie poster. A true object lesson in film advertising.

1. Putney Swope (1969) 

This is the greatest movie poster of all time, no shit.

Many thanks to Jay for his time and exquisite good taste. Be sure to check out more of Jay’s work at Kingdom of Nonsense.

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Movie Poster of the WeekJay ShawDennis HopperBruce DernWilliam HurtMartin ScorseseJames CaanMichael MannSaul BassYul BrynnerBill GoldMichael CaineRobert Downey Sr.George AkimotoKen RussellNeal AdamsColumns
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