Art + Commerce

Marc English Design's DIY criteria

Art + Commerce

I've been here plenty of times before, but I still feel the urge to stop and check myself whenever I walk into the studio-cum-office of Marc English Design, because in truth, this sudden border crossing is like stepping out of the everyday and into a more acutely realized reality.

This isn't an office; it's a Rorschach test that got caught in the crossfire between Angel Eyes and Tuco. It's the good, the bad, and the ugly-gorgeous, all wrapped up in a single identity, a brand that not only defines the artist and his art but leaves a lasting, lovely scar to boot. It sears you. Honest art leaves marks.

Everything is everywhere: A sprawling, chromatically grating gig poster announcing the Clash's June '81 Bond's Casino show in NYC threatens three chords and the truth against a vintage one-sheet for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, while across the way a velveteen Virgen de Guadalupe smiles sly and radiant; she alone knows the name of el hombre sin nombre.

Books, tattered, well-thumbed, and loved to the quick, are piled, stacked, strewn about: Gardener's Art Through the Ages, H.H. Arnason's History of Modern Art, Islamic art, American Indian art, and, on yet another wall, a faded but no less inciting agitprop poster announcing an "Artists' Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America" by the sculptor Claes Oldenburg. Apsaras vie for space on English's desk with his shiny new Apple laptop, which sits adrift in a pulpwood sea of Post-it Notes, hastily scribbled half-formed ideas, DVDs emblazoned with Marc English Designs' award-winning handiwork, the Beatles' Revolver, and a hand-tooled leather gun belt bearing a pair of ivory-handled toy six-shooters.

This glorious, hypercreative cavalcade of all things Marc English – his lifetime essence, outlandish explanation, and never-ending quest to discover as much cool as his soul can hold – is as clear a glimpse into the soul of self-described "design shaman" Marc English as anyone with half a mind and a working knowledge of midnight fancies and south-of-the-border (any border) rambles could ever bear. Really, you might want to wear a welder's visor and some chain mail just to be on the safe side; in his hands, "design theory" is a radical, insurrectionist weapon. Joe Strummer would've dug this cat, but good.

And speaking of that late, lamented combat rocker, Strummer, oddly enough, turns up – briefly in the flesh, frequently on the soundtrack – in English's newest design job, the packaging for the new Criterion Collection edition of a nearly forgotten slice of thrillingly mad filmmaking called, simply, Walker.

"No one will remember Walker," says Peter Boyle's conniving Cornelius Vanderbilt of Ed Harris' manifest-destiny-driven yanqui imperialist running dog and real-life soldier of fortune, William Walker, in Alex (Repo Man) Cox's spectacularly misunderstood 1987 film Walker. "No one remembers men who lose."

Not so fast, Moneybags. Cox's pseudo-historical bloodbath epic is finally getting its DVD-due in a remixed, remastered, bells, whistles, and commentaries ne plus ultra Criterion Collection edition that's arriving in stores Feb. 19. And regardless of what you may think of that film's surreal, Peckinpah-meets-Gilliam take on the Walker mythos, one thing is already inarguable: From a design standpoint, Criterion's Walker will suck your eyes right out of your head and its retail price right out of your pocket. It's worth it, every penny. And for that, you can thank/blame Austin-based graphic designer Marc English of Marc English Design.

To be sure, fans of Cox, Harris, and a post-Clash Strummer have just cause for imminent revelry, but what's really – and instantly – remarkable here is English's cunning, audacious graphic design. (See cover art, along with a review of the Criterion release, at right.) Composed of a pop-arty pic of Harris portraiture atop a field of dusky crimson, with archival, period text visible beneath and jagged blue, kinetic outbursts radiating from behind, Criterion's Walker should be filed under "O" for "ordnance." It looks less like a DVD package and more like a dark promise of revolution, a lesson in chaos, and, above all, a real-life, based-on-a-true-story story. It's English's version of the Clash's Sandinista! pared down to its rebellious visual quick: ¡Viva Nicaragua! Viva la Revolución!

English's seabed talents as graphic designer, filmmaker, writer, teacher, and general renaissance cowpoke-cum-illustrator man are no secret among Austin's multidisciplined art and design communities, but few may have realized that the man has made one of the most treacherous crossroads of all time, that of commerce and art, his designated moving-picture specialty (although, as English himself stresses, his forays into DVD design are far from the only things he does).

At last count, English has notched no fewer than seven Criterion Collection design gigs on his bedpost gun belt, beginning with Austin Film Society cohort Richard Linklater's Slacker and Dazed and Confused and continuing on through Mike Leigh's Naked; Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho; Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss' Border Radio; and Monte Hellman's existential automotive epic, Two-Lane Blacktop.

Alone amidst all of Criterion's top-shelf rediscoveries, 1971's Blacktop is the legendary, fuel-injected car ride to nowhere. It may be the single-most American road film ever made, part Bresson silence, with just the gravel thrum and sidewall whisper of the post-Graffiti, pre-Apocalypse U.S. of A. radiating off of it like something out of Kerouac's dark, endgame dreamings, and part Route 66(6) downward spiral, a pitch-perfect portrait of the mid-'Nam quest and failure never for high-octane meaning and poetry of motion in the midst of torque-ified terror. It's an anxious, nervy ride, now, finally, complete with a Dolby 5.1, sternum-rattling sound mix that seems to find its proverbial vanishing point. Like the sunbaked Santa Fe macadam and shoulderless hellway that, in time, came to be the new American reality – strip malls and strip bars and little else to gauge your bearings by – Two-Lane Blacktop for once and for all looks and feels like the Great American Epic it always was, right down to Marc English's spare, dreamy design.

Some of the seven DVD package jobs Marc English Design has completed for the Criterion Collection
Some of the seven DVD package jobs Marc English Design has completed for the Criterion Collection

It stars (other than the cars and the road) Warren Oates as GTO, in a monumentally cipheric performance as woeful, pathetic obfuscation personified, and James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as the Driver and the Mechanic of that howling '55 Chevy, with talky, too-soon-dead Laurie Bird as the Girl who comes – not so much between them as beyond them – a stoney, roadster thumb-babe whose bleak, matter-of-fact lustfulness corrodes the road like battery acid leaking from a sprung DieHard.

The packing is English's coup de grâce, a perfectionist, minimalist design job that tweaks the borderline existentialism of the film right into the packaging. But don't take our word for it: Hellman was so impressed by the Criterion/English treatment his film received that he promptly went out and bought a massive, 50-inch television to screen it on.

"As of last week, it's gone into a fifth pressing," says Hellman, by phone from L.A., noting that not only is that unusual for a cult film whose only previous DVD release (from Anchor Bay) is long out of print but much of that is due in no small part to English's design, which smartly mimics the spare, clean lines of Hellman's rocketing road-to-nowhere odyssey.

"His work just exemplifies Criterion's style in that it catches your eye immediately," enthuses Hellman. "It's so different from any other company's DVD product that it's like it's from a totally other world. From a director's standpoint, I don't think that anyone imagines that a film they make is going to be alive and well after almost 40 years, and certainly when it was made, nobody envisioned that anybody would be looking at it with fresh eyes almost 40 years later. When we were doing the color correction on it, I realized, wow, this is a whole 'nother world. I'm just really overwhelmed by Marc's work on the design. I think it's one of the most gorgeous packaging jobs I've ever seen. I just like everything about it."

Five things you may not know about Marc English:

1) He has incorporated his daughter Rebecka's name into the packaging of every one of his DVD designs. Go look for it.

2) He has a penchant for Venn diagrams, the better to discover the hidden connections between story and storyteller, art and point of sale.

3) He trusts his interns implicitly.

4) A former Bostonian before his move to Austin in 1995, he still has the remnants of his Southie accent, which bubble to the surface whenever he says the word "however," rendering it "howevah."

5) He once rode a camel through the eye of a needle in the Sahara.

So, okay, that last one might be a case of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance maxim: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," but still, it fits English's oversized, supremely confident design- and self-identity like a black leather jacket cast in blood-rusted iron, artfully gnawed on. He is known as much for his smart, attention-getting theatrics. (His lectures, of which there are many, have been compared, favorably, to rock concerts.)

Half of what comes out of Marc English's mouth sounds a wee bit like finely tuned hyperbole hucksterism, self-mythologizing but never self-absorbed.

His identity both as a human being and an artist is XXL life. Austin filmmaker/writer Cary Roberts has rightly called him "the Stanley Kubrick of design." He fairly burns with passion for his life and work, and he wants you to burn, too. No sparks or embers here. English is a conflagration of design theory, overwhelming talent, and experimentalism, and his work with Criterion meets at the dirty crossroads of the artistic truth of what has been entrusted to him and the bottom line, the movement of "product," the allure of the dream made cardboard, laser-encoded plastic discs, at midnight, beneath a full moon, with pistols and blood well spent. His aim is truest.

The art of DVD design is, for most of those assigned to "move product," as a rule, pretty disposable stuff. Criterion is one of the few exceptions to that rule, where the designer is encouraged not only to use a film's packaging as a means to be creative with an eye toward moving a product but also to view the design as an extension of the storytelling process.

Case in point: Criterion's 2004 release of Richard Linklater's iconic Slacker. English, who already knew Linklater from their days together in the Austin Film Society (they're both on the board of directors), got the job after Linklater tipped the company off to English's work on the AFS brand and website. It was English's first shot at a DVD, and the results couldn't have been better or – and this is important – more Austin.

"When I sat down with Rick to discuss ideas for Slacker, I assumed he was going to give me some direction, but instead he said: 'You're the professional. I trust you.' So then I knew that all I had to do was make him happy. Because if he's happy, then Criterion's happy. And I also know that, in the scheme of things, Rick Linklater has bigger fish to fry, by which I mean whatever film he's currently working on; however, for posterity, he needs the DVD to be a certain way. Trust is the number one thing in any relationship, business or personal."

Creatively unleashed, English's first DVD gig remains his most personal and most iconoclastic – not only does it complement Linklater's film, it enhances it, adding, in the form of menu options, artwork, and attitude, a completely new but wholly recognizable DIY echo of Slacker's anti-credo.

"From a corporate identity standpoint," English explains, "the existing Slacker logo had a certain amount of equity, so I didn't want to mess with it too much. What I did was take the iconic image of Pap smear girl [Teresa Taylor], print it out on a laser printer, soak it in water to make it look beat, duct-tape it to a telephone pole, and then just hold a stencil of the title up in front of it and shoot the whole thing in camera. Which created an instant extension of the film's DIY edge. And then as far as the interior design of the DVD, we spray-painted the menus out back of my house, and the pictures on discs themselves are the manhole covers from outside of my office – they have the word "Austin" on them – because the film Slacker is of the street, right? It made sense to try and capture as much Austin in the design of the DVD as possible so that someone who was not from here would be fully immersed."

The end result so impressed both Linklater (who later handed Criterion's Dazed and Confused design off to him and plans to do the same with SubUrbia) and Criterion that English has gone on to become something of a cause célèbre in the rarefied world of DVD design. His packaging flies off shelves as though it were fired from a cannon, and it proves, once and for all, that DVD design doesn't have to follow the rote template it so often does. With English, anything goes and goes wherever it wants.

"As long as I can remember," adds English, "I've been using this Zen phrase I picked up: 'Let it be what it wants to be.' That's always what it's about. When I did the Naked packaging, the initial feedback from Criterion was that they wanted 'to see more Marc English,' right? But that wasn't about Marc English – it was about Mike Leigh's Naked and the utter, raw emotion of that film. So I ended up going in the other direction and finding a typeface that had no emotion, so that way the only thing on the packaging that carries the weight of the story is the images, not the typography."

Looking over the assorted imagery that served as the basis for English's design for Walker is a lesson in the cyclical nature of both English's life story and the act of storytelling itself. The key components – Ed Harris as Walker, Nicaraguan political-poster-inspired color usage, and typographical styles as English notes that would be akin to what you'd see in a newspaper advertisement from the mid-19th century – were only arrived at after an exhaustive series of combining one element with another; at one point, the cover image had helicopter gunboats and AR-15s framing Harris' rather genteel-seeming portrait.

It was, as ever, a means to an end, with that end being the furthering and/or distillation of the film's storyline. Since Walker is both a based-on-a-true-story-style historical drama and an anachronistic, very Alex Coxian romp through the surreal, the project went through scores of design configurations before ending up in its current and final Cox- and Criterion-approved form. (See "Drafting 'Walker'" below for some of the many versions the design went through.) With Marc English, you get what you pay for and whoa, nelly, so much more.

"I like to humor myself," he says, "by pretending that I wrote a letter to all my corporate clients saying: 'From now on I refuse to do corporate work. I will only do work that I care about. No more widgets. No more annual reports for widget factories. From now on I will only be dealing with Things That Matter, like film and literature and music and culture.' Of course, I don't have any clients that would merit such a letter, but that's where my head is at these days. Great clients make great design, DVD or otherwise, and, ultimately, my job is to authentically tell somebody else's story. My responsibility is to the stories of other people and to finding a way to encapsulate them, in amber, if you will."

Consider then the story of William Walker, not forgotten at all, but retold, visually, strikingly, alongside those of Hellman's Driver and Mechanic, Linklater's dazed and confused high schoolers, and all the others yet to learn English as a second language: 400 cc, all-guns-blazing art for art's sake, a cool, clean package surrounding a bomb in your DVD player. Watch and learn and then – why not? – dream and do and hit the road, if only for one more time.  

  • More of the Story

  • Sometimes the Music's in the Scratches

    In defense of the bootleg
  • DVD Watch

    Alex Cox managed to make an anti-American film (funded by Universal) about Nicaragua (on location) during a volatile and secretly funded U.S. opposition to Nicaragua. Sneaky.

    Drafting 'Walker'

    Eleven other stabs at Walker's DVD cover design

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Marc English, Criterion Collection, Walker, Richard Linklater, Marc English Design, Two-Lane Blacktop, Slacker, Alex Cox

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