January 30, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Helvetica

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Helvetica (2007)
Directed by Gary Hustwit

It's definitely true, that the amount of ultra-nerdy things I happen to be into could easily fill several traveling meme lists -- Victoriana, futurism, Drum Corps International, city planning, oh, the riches of embarrassment could just go on and on if I wanted. Out of all the ultra-nerdy things I myself happen to be into, however, perhaps none is as loser-geeky than the subject of typography, or that is, the creation and appreciation of different typefaces, also known as "fonts" in their collective form. It's a subject that from the invention of movable type until the 1980s was mostly the purview of a small, dedicated group of wonky engineer types, people who needed to understand the mechanics of a printing press as well as the elegance of a perfect curve; since the '80s, though, the Adobe Postscript format combined with powerful consumer-level computers and laser-precise printers has brought this subject home to the masses, with the act of creating typefaces now belonging not only to full-time professionals but also the same weekend tinkerers like me who are also into things like model trains, Second Life, MAKE magazine and more.

Helvetica, the movie

It's what brings us to the remarkable new documentary Helvetica by Gary Hustwit, the same man who brought us the fellow remarkable documentaries Moog from 2002 (about the electronic-keyboard inventor) and 2004's I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (about Chicago indie-rock band Wilco). And would it surprise you to know that this unassuming little nerd movie about the most important typeface in history would just happen to be the all-time biggest money-maker in the history of Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center? A movie with no actors and no sets that got more attention than most Hollywood actioners last year? Well, it shouldn't, especially after seeing the film yourself; because once you do, you realize Hustwit's entire point, that this little font we all take for granted virtually defined the 20th century, from nearly its first year to its very last, meaning different things to different people in different ages based on what else in society was in vogue at the time. It could very well be the most perfect typeface, something its fans endlessly argue, literally impossible to improve upon when it comes to clarity and transparency; and indeed, after watching this infinitely sharp movie that will forever be associated with these Web 2.0 times, you can see why the film has garnered all the successes it has, and why such a nerdy subject like a typeface would be such a compelling one for a documentary.

Helvetica, the movie

Because that's the thing to remember, that's hard to remember in these days when sans-serif fonts are all the norm; that before the invention of such typefaces as Helvetica, there simply were no simple and legible fonts in existence, with all written type instead being done in overly fancy Goth-style faces or the ho-hum classicism of Trajan, Times, Garamond, etc. Such a thing was fine for a long while; after the chaos of World Wars I and II in the first half of the 20th century, though, the "Modernists" who came out afterwards started thinking about this subject in a very different way. If we are indeed moving into an Information Age that people claim, these Modernists argued, then the world will be better off if we can democratize this information as much as possible, even down to the smallest detail; if even the typeface being used, the argument goes, is ultra-clear and ultra-legible and doesn't feel like you need to be a lifelong monk or academe to understand, then even the information the type is conveying becomes clearer and easier to understand. In effect the type itself becomes a blank slate, not conveying any information on its own but being simply a conduit for the actual information the converser is try to pass along.

Helvetica, the movie

It was the groundbreaking artists of Germany's bauhaus movement who first started seriously experimenting with the idea of a "perfect typeface," of a universal one that could act as a perfectly neutral thing on its own; but it was Swiss smartie Max Miedinger in 1957 who actually perfected it and created Helvetica, an ultra-sharp version of the Roman alphabet that its fans say can literally not be drawn any more perfectly, as far as the letters' relationships to each other. This is the subtle thing about typefaces, the thing that makes us amateur buffs such fans to begin with, the same thing that makes others roll their eyes every time we typography buffs bring up the subject in a pub; that a big part of what makes a typeface particularly effective is in how little it calls attention to itself, to whether the letters relate to each other in a way so as to create a natural rhythm and flow to human eyes, letting us consume a wealth of information intuitively without our brain constantly starting and stopping from the tics and spaces inherent in bad kerning and the like. Each generation has had its own schools of thought concerning this oh-so-ephemeral subject; they are determined from decade to decade not only on new technology and understandings about the topic, but also the popular culture of those times, the natural rebellion of whatever came before them, and a host of other criteria.

Helvetica, the movie

This is what makes the Helvetica movie so successful, when all is said and done; because it is not only a gorgeous high-definition look at the typeface actually in action out in the wild, in these breath-taking montages the filmmakers create in various large urban areas around the planet, but also a series of in-depth interviews with the most famous typographers the industry has seen in the last half-century, from those who knew Miedinger himself to the Modernist designers who so heavily embraced it in the '60s, to the hippie designers who rebelled against it in the '70s and '80s, to the next generation who embraced it for different reasons in the '90s and now in the shiny happy 'aughts. As seen from the eyes of such nerd rockstars as David Carson, Matthew Carter, Jonathan Hoefler and a lot more, we understand in a powerful way why Helvetica in particular keeps getting revisited over and over by each newest generation of designers, either in emulation or in scorn; along the way, then, we understand a lot more about these typographers whose end products we use so often on a daily basis, as well as an understanding of what was informing the entire design community from one generation to the next. (Particularly fascinating, for example, are the interviews with the '70s designers who rebelled against using Helvetica, emotionally equating the typeface in their heads with the white-male-controlled evil corporations of the '60s who were funding the Vietnam war.)

Helvetica, the movie

That's why people have been going so freaking nuts over this movie, is not necessarily the details of the Helvetica story itself (although the details are admittedly gripping in a dorky way); it's because through the filter of mass-media design, we can in fact metaphorically see the entire history of Western civilization over the last hundred years, can see all the things that each generation of that century found important, can see all the ways that each generation was primarily defined by the rebellions they held against the previous generation. And in this, the Helvetica typeface really does hold up to the lofty goals first set by those smartypants European designers way back at the dawn of the 20th century; to create a font that is literally a mirror, literally a blank slate, that literally reflects whatever in the world is going on around it at the particular moment it's being used. That's why people have been going so nuts over this movie, is that in reality it's actually a highly digestible overview of the last half-century of history; the fact that it's told through such an unexpected and nerdy topic makes it all the better.

Out of 10:
Writing: N/A
Acting: N/A
Directing: 9.8
Cinematography: 10
Overall: 9.9

Best viewed: with fellow typography geeks, if you're one yourself; alone if you're not, to avoid smacking several pairs of clunky plastic glasses off the self-righteous shaved heads of a roomful of turtlenecked IKEA fanatics by the end of the night.

Next on my queue list: The Simpsons Movie. I know, I know, I know.

Read even more about Helvetica: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Official site | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:31 PM, January 30, 2008. Filed under: Design | Movies | Reviews |