Hot Docs 2007 – Helvetica – blogUT


Helvetica is a sans serif font, best known as the default font on Apple computers; Arial is Microsoft’s inferior imitation font. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Helvetica: New York City’s MOMA held an exhibition in its honour and director Gary Huswit made a documentary, Helvetica.

Huswit interviewed a variety of typeface experts, from academics in graphic design to font-makers great and small, all in an effort to compile the varying perspectives on typeface and on that particular one, Helvetica. As we learn in the film, Helvetica is a “modern” font, which helped usher in the era of clean and serious fonts, leaving the cutesy multicoloured typefaces of the fifties behind in the dust. Some admire it for its simplicity and ability to blend into all sorts of surroundings, taking on a different character depending on its setting; others despise the font for its lack of ‘identity’. But it is reasonably unanimously agreed that no matter how hard people try, Helvetica cannot be improved.

Over an hour before the film was scheduled to screen, enthusiastic typeface fans began to line up in the rush line for this sold-out screening, hoping to enter the magical world of fonts on the silver screen. While lining up in the ticket-holder’s line-up, I received two highly amusing pamphlets. The first was a clever flyer for a “down with Arial” protest scheduled for that evening; the second was an ad for an “indie fonts” company, with the tagline “don’t feel the need to sell out to corporate America and always use fonts like ‘Helvetica’. Support local indie fonts”.

In the film, the interviews and musings on fonts are interspersed with one montage after another of Helvetica typeface. These montages make it clear that Helvetica is both beautiful and ubiquitous: it’s the font of the New York City subway, of American Airlines, and of American Apparel to name a few of its many popular uses. The montages initially work like a modern art exhibit, a series of images which make art out of the banal of the everyday, but by the nth montage, I was left restraining myself from screaming “we get it! Helvetica is everywhere! And it’s pretty!” It was like being forced to walk repeatedly through the same exhibit about Helvetica until you couldn’t stand anymore. Perhaps a feature length film about fonts simply wasn’t meant to be.

Like the director, as a lover of both film and fonts, I thought a film about fonts seemed like a dream, a glorious sight to behold, but that only lasted for the first half hour. While I have often found myself flipping through books on fonts, and I’ve spent hours deciding upon a font for various publications, my attention span for flipping through these books rarely exceeds thirty minutes. I doubt the attention span of your average viewer – one who, like me, doesn’t clap when the god of typeface appears on screen – can take much more than I can. Some of the interviews revealed new perspectives on the role of typeface and its usage, often presented in a fascinating if not sometimes hilarious manner. Nevertheless, to dedicate an entire eighty minutes to this one font, seems to be excessive; by the 8th montage I was pinching myself to keep from nodding off. It seems the sort of subject that would best be suited to a delightful and loveable short film.

Typeface is a fascinating art, and it certainly belongs in a moving picture as art, but I’m inclined to think that the material suits a short film more so than a feature film. As a short, I would have left the theatre wanting more rather than relieved I wouldn’t have to watch yet another Helvetica montage for a while. That being said, I enjoyed the movie, especially in its early stages, and I want a copy of the film’s poster.

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