Sign and Design: Essays in Rewriting

By David Ellis


The Cinema Marquee, the metal structure that holds the exterior signage, is frequently requisitioned by those believing themselves carriers of urgent, apocalyptic messages, Cassandra-like obsessive who see it as an oversized rectangular glow-in-the-dark Ouija board.

Moses himself would opt for thermoformed acetate Gemini Pronto letters, with their 3 dimensional, snap-locking beauty against the primitivism of engraved granite, and take a crowbar to the grilled cage of the ‘alphabet room’ of London’s Screen on the Green Cinema, to get his hands on the characters and spell out the commandments. Admonishments and obscenities often appear, mysteriously, above the fascias of defunct cinemas and, whilst most remain unrecorded, others enter the canon, like the accusatory ‘Hiding your motives is despicable’, a sentence hung beneath the ornate mouldings and Greek goddesses of the Lyric Cinema on 42nd Street N.Y. during the 1990s. There are others: the megabyte sermon ‘Satan subtracts and divides’ plus the oxymoronic ‘No end in sight coming soon’.


Film directors of an auteur bent can’t resist issuing coded communiqués, through the medium of marquees viewed in the background of their own films, cannily alluding to their own past by feeding obscure cinematic references via the hotline of the Read-o-graph. Rejigging the letters into a haiku-like configuration of pithy words breaks the perceptual flow of the passer-by, who rarely looks above eye-level, whilst also defining this urban spectacle as a means of getting a message across, aided by the architectural features of the Cinema building with its arsenal of special effects, from grandiose Romanesque pillars to garish pink and blue neon squeezed through tubular glass. A 1930s flyer for a Glasgow Cinema claims that THE SHOW BEGINS OUTSIDE. It does.

Spelling out ‘Semtex’ was intentionally provocative. But did it provoke? The word ‘Daisycutter’ elicited some response, for being mis-spelt, NOT as a word describing flesh-shredding bombs. Liberated from its utility, its function as a commodity display, a Canopy CAN register dissent. Words like Neutron and Pol Pot, when up there, can work as an illustrated lesson in the ubiquitous power of the Logo. Only typography? Maybe, but moveable letters are rapidly becoming obsolete as the dot-matrix system with its versatility becomes more prevalent: to use them now is the equivalent of reverting to battery-driven text messaging.


However, as using the shift key of an Olivetti Typewriter or Pavillion dv6000 pc can accelerate a shift in consciousness, so these letters also possess a tactile, palpable aura of the X-rated, something mildly seedy and ignoble, so that whatever’s hung becomes tainted, carrying with it a grubby element associated with porn. Maybe it’s about getting your hands dirty, just as in a handling of the raw material of film itself. On the canopy Pol Pot is writ large in capitals and red plastic, lit from behind by strips of neon seen to accentuate the lurid gangsterism of this historically nasty piece of work. Choose between Pink Pussy and Pol Pot? No contest. It’s time to name and shame in neon.

David Ellis continues to confound across the continents.

Images by David Ellis and Dave Nance.