Originally created 03/15/04

Athens' last movie poster painter saddened by 'Matrix age'



ATHENS, Greece -- He has painted some of Hollywood's greatest stars and his art has been seen by millions.

But few may notice when Vassilis Dimitriou eventually packs away his paint brushes and retires. The last maker of hand-painted cinema signs in Athens is a bridge to another era - one that is rapidly disappearing.

Poster painters throughout the world are under pressure from computer-generated competition in India, where the art once thrived. There are a few lively exceptions - such as Ghana and Afghanistan - where artists remain a low-cost alternative.

Dimitriou gets little pleasure from his latest work, a slick 21-foot wide ad for "The Matrix Revolutions."

"I don't like that kind of film. I don't like the movies that are out now," says Dimitriou, a fit 68. "They don't do anything for me."

For him, the sci-fi action trilogy is a reminder of what cinema in Greece has lost over the decades - a hectic transformation from grand theaterlike movie halls to the multiplex, a process that been speeded up by Athens' headlong rush to modernize itself in time for the 2004 Olympics.

"The new theaters have no connection with the public. They have numbered seats. ... People enter from one door and leave from another, to make room for people coming in to see the next show. That's not cinema," he says.

He reminisced about the more relaxed 1950s and 1960s, when motion pictures dominated entertainment here and artists were in fierce competition for the hottest billboard.

"We would go to the movies in our good clothes. We'd go out in the interval, have a drink and talk about the film. We'd talk to strangers about their impressions. That doesn't happen anymore."

Dimitriou's personal favorite: A 1965 poster for "Adios Gringo," starring spaghetti Western hero Montgomery Wood.

"I made this cutout figure of him as a cowboy. His legs came all the way down to the ground in front of the entrance, so the customers would have to go through his legs to get into the cinema."

The youngest of his poster-making peers, Dimitriou spent his life somewhere near a big screen. Even as a boy he tended to an outdoor cinema so he could watch the films for free.

He believes stubbornness more than talent brought him success. Helped by his wife and two employees, he once supplied up to 30 theaters in Athens with his handmade work. Now he paints for just one, the old-fashioned Athineon cinema, a few blocks from where a giant multiplex is under construction.

He's sorry to see a tradition go in a city that boasts nearly 200 movie theaters, half of which are open-air and only operate in the summer.

"I think about it a lot," he says. "It's a shame the skill that is being lost. I'm the only person keeping it going. ... As long as I'm healthy, I'll continue."

A stout former boxer, Dimitriou works with classical music on the radio, in a small shed outside his Athens home. He boils up batches of diluted furniture glue and paint used for religious icons, making a brew he perfected to get the "right shading."

It takes two days of flat-out work to finish a poster. He makes about $400 for each piece of work. "That's not a lot of money," he says. "A movie may run for three weeks and then I don't have anything to paint."

The posters are "too big" to be stored, and a small selection of photographs stacked on top of a cupboard that were provided by friends and admirers are all that's left of his life work.

His work space is crammed with half-burnt candles, photos of grandchildren, plastic paint pots and piles of pencil sketches of poster outlines. Sean Connery is on top of the pile, sporting a brow-covering hat in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Jim Carrey poses in the nude for "Bruce Almighty."

Dimitriou hopes to devote more time to watercolor painting, and teaching his art to his grandchildren.