Reading Roundup: Bass + 100

David Liu | 11 December 2012


Many are familiar with the Saul Bass’s work as an innovator in the field of film title sequences and promotional poster art — in a career spanning nearly half a century, Bass is credited with breathing life into the multimedia potential of the cinema. But Bass also holds a renowned place in the American corporate landscape as well, with logo designs for heavyweights such as AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines and Kleenex rounding out his personal resume. This legacy is explored in comprehensive fashion in Laurence King Publishing’s Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, a gorgeously conceived visual tribute to the late master curated by daughter Jennifer Bass and design scholar Pat Kirkham.

"Before I ever met Saul Bass, before we worked together, he was a legend in my eyes. His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era.” — Martin Scorsese

The book opens on a foreword by Scorsese, who worked with Bass and his wife Elaine on title sequences for four consecutive features (Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino). Decades removed from the legendary Hitchcock title sequences (North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho) and collaborations with directors ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Billy Wilder, Bass’s body of work experienced a minor renaissance through his partnership with Scorsese. In a way, their careers crossed at the right time; Scorsese’s early 1990s work was arguably the apex of his stylistic maturation, and as any of the aforementioned features can attest to, age scarcely withered Bass’s aptitude for astounding visual designs.


Beyond the spotlight on Bass’s contributions to the motion picture industry — and to be sure, the book contains plenty — Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design manages to conjure its strongest material from the man himself: affecting portraits of Bass’s birth and upbringing in the Bronx, painstakingly curated individual sections devoted to his contributions to the landscape of American postwar corporate culture, among others. With close to 1,500 illustrations reproduced from both private and professional sectors of Bass’s life, the volume — whose overall presentation and execution would have make its subject proud — works as a towering reminder of the vision, perseverance and influence of one of the last century’s great visual minds.

“The ideal trademark is one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable. Trademarks are usually metaphors of one kind or another. And are, in a certain sense, thinking made visible.” — Saul Bass


A strong antidote to the bland pages of mainstream film-related coffee table books, British critic David Parkinson’s 100 Ideas That Changed Film tells the story of cinema by honoring its roots and anticipating its future. Featuring gorgeous color and black-and-white images juxtaposed with analyses of cinematic innovation, the book spans over 300 years of moving-image culture, from the advent of the magic lantern in the 17th century to the digital video revolution. As with Laurence King Publishing’s Saul Bass, I was drawn to the visual presentation and delicate balance between words and images, and especially to Parkinson’s refreshing emphasis on foreign and avant-garde cinema to construct what nearly sums up to an alternate history of the medium.

A smattering of highlights: 

Idea No. 38: “Film Schools” — departing from narratives on elite educational centers based in Los Angeles and New York, this section presents a refreshing exploration of the achievements of Europe’s notable film schools: for one, the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), founded in Moscow in 1919. Although a lack of resources meant that early assignments often centered around reediting of existing American pictures, the school would eventually gain prestige and produce a crop of influential auteurs — Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Bondarchuk and Aleksandr Sokurov, to name a few — as well as assist in the rise of African cinema by fostering the development of foreign students such as Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé. (Who knew?)

Idea No. 71: “Safety Film” — here, Parkinson recounts the fragility of early film material, namely cellulose nitrate, which accounts for the loss of roughly half of the 21,000 features made in America before 1951. Beyond the history lesson, however, the real attention-grabber are the two sets of plates that adorn the page — the metaphorical disintegration of the celluloid in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and the use of burning celluloid as history-altering fantasy in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).


Idea No. 76: “Offscreen Space” — a recap of notable uses of offscreen space throughout the history of movies, from D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008). This section also deservedly highlights the mastery of off-screen space by Yasujiro Ozu, whose use of “off-center framing [exploited] an image’s centrifugal force to guide the viewer to the edges of the frame and the real world that existed beyond.”

Idea No. 86: “Feminist Film Theory” — an enriching look at the development of patriarchal hierarchy in cinema and the subsequent resistance to it, both academically (via Laura Mulvey’s landmark 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”) and stylistically (through the works of filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Marguerite Duras).

Idea No. 95: “Home Entertainment” — preceded by a full-page still from Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), in which Alexander, played by 10-year-old child actor Bertil Guve, prepares a slide show on his magic lantern. A luminous tribute to the immortality of cinema in a volume full of them.


All images courtesy of Laurence King Publishing and respective distributors.

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