Friday, May 6, 2011


Helvetica (2007)
dir. Gary Hustwit

The concept of making a full-length documentary about a type face almost seems like a joke -- particularly when you hear that HELVETICA is not some fancy title for a history of printed word or something. The whole film literally is about the Helvetica font. There's a little bit about its history (it was invented in 1957 in Switzerland) at the beginning, but mostly the whole film consists of two things:

1: Interviews with graphic designers who talk a little about their own philosophy, how it relates to Helvetica, and what they think of Helvetica and

2: Musical montages of public signs throughout the world which are set in Helvetica.

That's it, that's all you get. But if that sounds absurdly narrow and dry, the movie has a trick up its sleeve: despite being almost obsessively about Helvetica and Helvetica-related topics, it's not really actually about Helvetica. It's about the evolution of design in the last century, in particular the long running grudge match between modernism and postmodernism.

As they interview more and more graphic artists, a trend slowly emerges. There are some guys extolling the virtues of Helvetica, singing its praises, almost lustfully articulating its perfection. Other guys can barely contain their disgust and compare it to fast food, bureaucracy, and even fascism.  At first, there's kind of a cheap thrill in chuckling at these weirdos gnashing their teeth at the proliferation of a type face as if it were a pestilence on the land, but slowly you'll begin to notice that there's something else going on. All the guys who love it are old guys talking about how effective it is, how by communicating clearly and without overt personality it is the ultimate elegant expression of lettering. The guys who hate it are middle age guys who feel that graphic design should be expressive and communicative beyond the content -- that type face has personality which is essential to any kind of meaningful expression of design.

They don't use the words too often, but without directly expressing it they lay out the philosophical history of the art form, merely by putting this one innocuous and ubiquitous type face in front of people who are passionate about what they do, and letting them react to it. It's a nice trick, and it allows the film to benefit from its narrow focus while still speaking to larger and more accessible ideas. Its obsessive interest in this one particular font would be pretty pointless without the subtext about the changing artform, but, curiously, the subtext is also made far more interesting by its unusually limited focus. Helvetica really is the star of the show, and the filmmakers take great pains to remind us just how deeply a part of everyday life this particular type face is. That it goes unnoticed and unremarked on by most of us makes it all the more interesting to have it isolated and placed under the microscope in this manner.

Despite all this, the movie is so stubbornly single-minded that it can drag a little. Most of the interviews are interesting, but they get a little repetitive since there's only so many basic philosophies to articulate and relate Helvetica to. After awhile you get the sense that these guys might have more interesting opinions about other topics, which the film is completely disinterested in exploring. And while the camera's fascination with Helvetica signs nicely adds to the intriguingly zen fixation on Helvetica, they probably don't need to spend minutes on end staring at airport signs to convey the point. The point is a good one, but after experiencing Helvetica fresh after the first few diversions to do this sort of thing, it becomes something akin to the repetition of a mantra and ends up losing all meaning again. They want to be so clear that it ends up muddled and meaningless. The filmmakers might take a hint from designer Dave Carson --  "Don't confuse legibility with communication"

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