October 11, 2007 | Chris Garcia | Austin American-Statesman | Lifestyle
That song. We know that song.
It's twangy, eerie and iconic, all tangled in a familiar tumbleweed. In those first notes, it conjures desert loneliness and ghosts twisting in southwestern winds. Imagery flies: galloping horses, guns, sweat and dirt - the grandiose mythology of the cowboy and the American West.
For people of a certain age, Ennio Morricone's title anthem to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is a rush to the head. It is also the ring tone on Marc English's cell phone. You hear it bleat and suddenly Clint Eastwood in a poncho has, for those few seconds, hijacked your brain.
Once you hang out with English - an award-winning Austin graphic designer who likes to live large, as if he's in his own epic movie - you know that's what he wants.
Your attention would be greatly appreciated. He wants you to hear him, see him. He wants to meet you. If you haven't taken notice, he'll introduce himself, just amble right up to your table in an Austin cafe and ask how your Spanish homework is going.
After sucking down a peach smoothie laced with green tea - "It's my dinner" - he does just that at Irie Bean Coffee Bar. There sits a woman, her face abstracted by the task at hand, pen scribbling. She sports ear buds, which means: I am in my bubble. Please do not pop it.
English doesn't care. He (pop!) enters her space. He trades some Spanish with her. She smiles. He's on his way.
Known for book, poster and catalog art, English calls himself a "design shaman," and does so without irony. And like most nonindigenous people who use the word shaman sans shame, be it Jim Morrison or Oliver Stone, English radiates a formidable zest for living, a gulping thirst for hair-blowing, mind-bending experiences, stuff that is bounding, sensual, transformative.
Autodidacts such as English cut their own roads. English has dabbled in acting and rock 'n' roll. He's an incurable film nut. He inhales books and freely, and unpretentiously, quotes Immanuel Kant, Mark Twain, Aristotle, "Casablanca" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." He rides horses across the Four Corners. He rode a camel across the Sahara. He used to ride a Harley-Davidson.
Since the late 1990s, English has fronted Marc English Design, located in a classic ranch house around the corner from Irie Bean that he shares with other artists. His office is a rave party of clutter and color, books and license plates, posters and stolen signs.
English is a multi-armed Shiva, pulling the books and artwork that have influenced his work over the decades: The Beatles' "Revolver" album cover that rattled him at age 10. The children's picture book of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" that blew his mind. American Indian rock art he investigated in the Four Corners when he was 26. Japanese ukiyo-e painting and the blinding poster art of Tadanori Yokoo. The opening credits to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." A poster of "Lawrence of Arabia."
The well appears bottomless.
"As a designer, I look at art and film and wonder, 'What can I take from it?'"
English, 49, was born and raised in the Boston area. When his parents divorced, his father would take him to the movies, from "Cool Hand Luke" to "The Wild Bunch." English sponged it up and remains one of Austin's most reliable movie fans. He's at every film festival and every glitzy premiere.
You can't miss him. His head is a fuzzy peach. A rebellious snaggletooth fronts a generous smile. Silver rings bejewel fingers. He dresses like an outlaw: denim and leather.
English's film love led him to the Austin Film Society, where he was a board member for six years. He continues to donate work to AFS, reinventing the nonprofit's branding, creating its collectible-worthy Essential Cinema Series posters and designing special event badges, including the catchy ones for the Quentin Tarantino festivals.
AFS co-founder and filmmaker Richard Link-later told English, "You took us from Kansas to Oz."
In many minds, English is responsible for some of the coolest and most extravagantly sophisticated DVD package designs out there. He's working on his sixth and seventh DVDs for the highly esteemed Criterion Collection, Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop" and Alex Cox's "Walker."
This after creating acclaimed packages for "Dazed and Confused," "Naked," "My Own Private Idaho," "Border Radio" and "Slacker."
His latest project with Chronicle Books is also movie-related: the coffee-table companion book to Robert Zemeckis' upcoming "Beowulf."
"I want to do stuff that's so good, people want to steal it," English says.
For a poster he designed for an independent documentary, he got his wish.
"When I was told that people stole the posters, I'm like, 'Yes!' They saw something they recognized, they saw a spirit, and they want to possess that and put it on their wall," English says. "It touched them, it told them a story. Design needs to do two things: It has to inform and it has to add to beauty."
His cell phone rings. He doesn't take the call. This visual communicator and rock 'n' roll cowboy moves to his own jingle, a tune that happens to open one of the baddest Westerns ever made, a movie in which myths are immortalized.
"That's what we're doing here," English tells me. "We're building my myth."