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“The Man with the Golden Arm” title sequence has been a popular study even in modern context. Its timeless beauty is attributed from the tactful usage of art style to symbolise social connotations. It reflects its rejection on post-war American culture of conformity, conservatism and cinema pop culture. “The Man with the Golden Arm” is most known for the exaggerated disjointed arm. Besides the arm, it also had white, stabbing rectangular blocks and motion typography, all on a black background. One contributing factor which shaped the composition of the design is credited to the designer himself – Saul Bass. Bass is well-known for his deconstructed yet symbolic title sequences which captivates the audiences. He studied graphic design in Brooklyn College, under the mentorship of Gyorgy Kepes, who was influenced by Constructivism and Bauhaus himself.
Constructivism movement originated from Russia, and is born from the rejection of the traditional art culture, which revolves around its purpose to be beautiful without any real meaning. Constructivists believe that art and design should have a function and also to serve a social purpose. Besides Constructivism, the influence from Bauhaus is noticeable in the unification and synchronisation of the title sequence with the opening jazz score. Bauhaus is a philosophy of uniting art of different forms and technology to have a sense of totality and strong relationship between all of them. Like Constructivism, the Bauhaus adopts a visual notion of a simplistic, geometric and functional design. When this two philosophies are translated to the visuals, the form usually consist of basic and geometric shapes, strong and bold typographic elements. The colour choice is also kept to an amount. The intent behind the exclusion of excessive decoration is for the design to speak clearly and quickly. As these philosophies and interpretation of art movements are passed down to Bass, the title sequence naturally showed artistic influence from both Constructivism and the Bauhaus. In the title sequence’s context, the metaphorical crooked arm, rectangular blocks and bulky typeface was first designed for the movie’s poster advertisement. Bass, alongside with Otto Preminger, the movie director, decided to bring these elements from the poster to the title sequence. Since they both felt that the poster design was clear in delivering its social message, bringing it to the silver screen would definitely yield the same results, while reaching a wider audience. The element of Constructivism is most apparent with the disjointed arm, monochromatic colour palette and off-axis, misaligned rectangles of different sizes to symbolise the dark and disarrayed life of a drug addict.
The artefact embodies these values as seen in the simple moving frames of geometric rectangular blocks and kinetic typography. These were deliberately designed in tandem with the musical score and with the content of the movie in mind to better set the ‘climate and mood’. This marriage of minimalistic title design and musical composition is for the audience to resonate with the movie before it even starts. In an interview, he mentioned that by bringing together the visuals and audio, he is able to set an emotional atmosphere right at the beginning, so the audience would know what to expect for the rest of the film. In hindsight, the artefact’s art direction complimented its message so well because the simplicity of it made the crooked arm the centre of attention and even more jarring. The sheer amount of black used in contrast to white, sharp rectangular blocks which appeared in a slow, stabbing motion, coupled with the dramatic saxophone notes, amplified the evocation of mystery, discomfort and curiosity in the audience. It is the complete opposite of the predominant art movements at that period – Pop Art. As the name suggests, Pop Art incorporates the usage of objects or people which are popular in that period of time. It uses cheap and efficient means of mass production so as to reach a bigger crowd in a shorter time. If Bass decided to design using the dominant American Pop Art movement at that time, the message would be lost in transmission, its message dissolved and doused by distracting colours and illustrations to represent popular culture. To solely speak of the aesthetics of the design would do it injustice. The real light of the design radiates the ethos of America in the 1950s. The American economy was starting to pick up and people were increasingly affluent. The country was shifting into an era of Consumerism. Television was then easily found in any sub-urban households. This boom in the popularity of television was a huge threat to Hollywood’s business, since people were in the comfort of their own homes, binge-watching game shows or series rather than watching movies. Cinemas then had to innovate ways to out-perform both television, and other film productions for business. While movie plots were constantly written to keep in trend with pop culture, its publicity was also used as a marketing technique to appeal to the market.
The predominant trend in 50s film design for billboards, posters and title sequences employed the use of Hollywood stars to appeal to the fan-base. Because the designs did not include witty elements to summarise movie content, people had no clue what they were about to watch. Yet, majority of the Hollywood publicity did not to steer away from this conformity in fear of losing viewership. Both the audience and film-makers did not see an importance in opening title sequences because there was absolutely no message and reason behind it. If in any case anyone made a trip to the cinemas, they regarded the opening title sequence time as the “popcorn time”- a useless few minutes where the credits roll, showing snippets from the film, or faces of the movie’s cast. People either skipped the whole opening sequence, or paid more attention to their own conversations. Bass saw all of these as an opportunity to differentiate their film from the market. “The Man with the Golden Arm” in contrast to other movie title sequences – is devoid of colours, portraits of film stars and decorations. It was simply rich in mood-setting and metaphorical story-telling. To design in such vast contrast was refreshing and revolutionary in film design. He even deliberately left a note on film cans to instruct cinemas to start the movie once everyone was seated, because he was confident the title sequence is quintessential in adding meaning and experience to the whole movie, like no other movie before. Many would think the popularity of television would mean an introduction of efficient and accurate information. Ironically, it also lead to a selective and biased transmission of message. Advertisements depicted a ‘model’ lifestyle of an average American household.
The fallacy of the way of life led to a culture of Conservatism. There was little to no coverage of drug abuse. People who were dealing with drug abuse had no knowledge on how to deal with it. Besides the omission of information in mass communications, the fact that there was tight censorship by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) only further made the ideology of the American culture shallow and uninformed. The association was fearful that the movie would stir up curiosity in drug usage. Preminger fought hard with his team and other agencies to make a point that the film’s Seal of Approval is crucial in breaking the authoritarian clutch the association has over films’ production, which other than radio or television at that time, is a powerful mean to educate audiences on the repercussions of the abuse of narcotics. The crooked arm was an apt and deliberate representation of drug addiction. It was done with symbolism rather than the usual faces of film stars because metaphors allows a deeper connection with the reality of drug addiction, rather than a celebrity. It adds a plane of relatability for the audiences’ mind to associate their emotions. Bass and Preminger knew how well-received the icon was by the market, and used it as a visual punctuation for almost all of the movie’s publicity. “The Man with the Golden Arm” has so much fullness, culture and life that it speaks to the audience not just about the designer himself, but also the cultural climate it resided in. “The Man with the Golden Arm” serves as a reminder for designers to look beyond the act of composition. Before we construct a design, it is important to have a holistic approach to understanding social needs and how to best bring the message across. A design has to have a reason for its existence. A purposeful design is a powerful response and it directly reflects the designers’ stance, be it in agreement or disagreement, and the willingness to participate and contribute to a subject matter. The often under-looked aspect of context adds taste, depth and substance to its design. The visual is what gives a design its beauty, but the spirit of the message is what gives it its pulse.
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