I know, I know, this has to be one of the silliest posts I’ve done, right? Well, you might think so at first, as slight amendments to a proposed cover aren’t big news in any film circles, but I thought this could springboard into a larger discussion of the Criterion Collection, and their overall design aesthetic, and perfectionist behavior.
Last year, the incredible graphic design artist, Olly Moss designed a series of minimalist posters, including the design which was picked up for the cover art for the Criterion Collection’s release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s a simple red background, with black imagery. This recent trend of minimalist posters has certainly divided many online, between those that might have once found them clever, but now find them cliche and over exposed, and those that can’t get enough of them. While I certainly can appreciate that anything overexposed will eventually become obnoxious, I have not lost my interest in appreciating art like this. The idea that you can whittle down a film into three simple graphic pieces, the dictators hair, and the iconic Chaplin hat, with an equally iconic mustache holding the two together, no matter which way you look at it, is fascinating from a story telling perspective. Even if you have no idea what the film is about, this cover does so much more than if they were to simply employ an image from the film. I’m still torn on whether I like the font choice of the title. It is clearly expressionistic and evocative of an era and style, but it just doesn’t grab me.
When Criterion put out the initial cover art, I didn’t put too much thought into the fact that it was the dictator on top, with Chaplin’s character below. Does this design choice imply a power of the dictator over Chaplin? In comparing the first image to the later ones, I’ve found the first could almost be seen as the dictator holding the hat out, as a sign of victory. That might be reading too much into it, but it could also be a reason for flipping the image vertically. With the second version that Criterion put online, the wording and placement of the text is identical, but now Chaplin’s character is on top, with the dictator below. This, I think, helps the viewer read the film differently, and would avoid any confusion about the film’s message.
The third, and most recent version of the Great Dictator cover is also interesting for several reasons. The placement of the central characters remain the same as the second image, but now we have the introduction of a whole new color in the palette, and a new design choice for the text. The first two images had the title right side up on the top of the image, with the directing credit flipped. On the bottom of both images, we had the credits right side up, with the title upside down. With both of those, you could theoretically flip the image, and read it the same way. You’d read the title on top, and the credits below. With this third design, the credits and title match, and you’re only reading the bottom of the cover. The top text is upside down, and would only be read if you flipped the image around. They’ve also decided to take out the “A Film by” when crediting Chaplin. I almost think this is Criterion assuming that the people looking at this cover, you’ll know it’s a film that you’re looking at. Or maybe even that the fact that it’s a film is irrelevant. It’s his work. His piece of art. They’ve also made his name stand out by adding white to the image, in his name. It could be that they’re making his name stand out above everything.
While I think we all assume that Criterion has a master plan long before they ever release anything to the public, we all have to remember that they’re a group of people that love film, and want to see it portrayed and archived in the best possible manner. This means pulling designs when they don’t work. Questioning their own decisions, and showing that they’re human. I love it. All of the above thoughts are completely speculative. I don’t have any knowledge as to why they’ve made these changes, but I love that changes were made. I’m a fan of constantly revising your thoughts on life, art, and philosophy, and never allowing yourself to become so rigid that you can’t change your mind.
I can’t wait to see the final printed version of this. The Modern Times release that Sam’s Myth helped produce is a gorgeous piece of art all around, from the cover to the interior booklet. I hope that Criterion gets Olly Moss to design the booklet as well, and perhaps the menus of the discs.
What do you think of these design choices? Am I totally off my rocker and is this post a complete waste of time? Leave your thoughts below.