Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One font ain't enough

On June 30th, I wrote that I considered almost all documentaries to be good, and that fewer than 10% of those I'd seen were movies I would not recommend to a friend.

Well, now you can add one more to the "dislike" list.

Over the course of this weekend, my wife and I watched Helvetica, an 80-minute documentary that took us three sittings to finish. That's right, we watched it about equally in thirds on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night.

Sure, part of this had to do with the fact that my mom is visiting, and she's been staying over at our place until 8:30 or 9:30 each night. This has left little time and energy for us to unwind before bedtime rolls around. We rarely see 11 p.m. anymore in the baby era.

But if Helvetica had been even slightly more interesting, we probably would have pushed through it on the first night. Or at least the second.

If the title and the poster above don't make it clear, Helvetica is a documentary about the Helvetica typeface. And that's about it. Really.

Yeah, it discusses the typeface industry in general. But all discussion points ultimately tie back in to this one font, which is supposed to be the world's most popular -- and the world's most rebelled against.

And how popular is it? Well, let documentarian Gary Hustwit show you. Let him include shots of where Helvetica is being used over ... and over ... and over ... and over again. Let him stockpile proof of the ubiquity of Helvetica until you want to gouge your eyes out.

I swear, without all the B-roll of signs written in Helvetica, this 80-minute movie would have been only 65 minutes long.

Helvetica is the poster child for the extreme amount of navel-gazing that can occur when documentary topics get whittled down to their most narrowly defined levels. Focusing on one very specific topic and demonstrating the unexpected breadth of its influence can be highly illuminating, if done correctly. Take this trio of documentaries that are essentially about very specific parts of language/communication: Fuck, The N-Word and The Aristocrats. The first two are about the societal uses of two very stigmatized words, and the last is about the history of a bawdy joke told by comedians throughout the generations. On the surface, each film seems like it might be so narrowly defined that it will collapse in on itself. But each film is fascinating in its own way.

Not so with Helvetica. Upon just hearing the description, you might think this film would have the ability to join the ranks of those above. Instead, it does in fact collapse in on itself.

Hustwit's relentless appetite for proving the popularity of the Helvetica font is bad enough. But what's worse is his interviews with various typeface designers and other questionably relevant personalities. The interviews are presented in no particular order with no narrative momentum of any kind, and each interview subject bends the discussion to his own design interests. Sure, Hustwit has prompted each to make sure he circles back around to discuss Helvetica, but the rest of what's there is the interview subject's own agenda. Making for quite the mishmash discussion of fonts and their influences.

The stuff that's really interesting in the movie -- like, how this popular font was developed and named (it's a variation on the Latin word for Switzerland) -- is in fact interesting and worth seeing. But if the movie were stripped down to just those bare interesting elements, it would have been about 13 minutes long.

And I can guarantee you that would have required only one sitting.

I will say, however, that Hustwit's most urgent point -- "Look at how popular Helvetica is!" -- was driven home when we stopped our streaming Netflix and looked at the home screen of the movie. And then looked at the home screens of other movies, just to be sure.

That's right -- Netflix uses Helvetica.


Don Handsome said...

I think the point of the film Helvetica was to drive home the point that design is everywhere and it permeates much of what we see. This is, of course, a very simple take on the film, but my problem - like yours - was that there isn't much else (or anything)there of substance. Yes, fonts are designed, and yes Helvetica is a font...but did we need a whole movie about it.

I think Helvetica was released to correspond with the 50th anniversary of the font's design...so I guess its audience might have been built in with the masses of people who were rushing to celebrate that anniversary in 2007. But to me it just meanders and muses.

Incidentally, Hustwit's other film ("Objectified") is about objects and how we use them AND how we like to look at them.

I don't think this guy has anything real to say except that he wishes he was in Design School.

Vancetastic said...

I also think my feelings toward this movie are a market correction -- ever since I realized I had liked 93% of the documentaries I have ever seen, I have probably been looking for one to shit on.

I am also holding out for the Comic Sans MS movie, as that is my favorite font. Does that font have an anniversary coming up?