Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #1: Helvetica (2007)

When Gary Hustwit’s documentary, Helvetica was released in 2007, I had the same reaction as a lot of other people: “So wait...how do you make a movie about a font?” I could see it easily as a book, since Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves made the subject of English grammar sexy enough to launch her book to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list back in 2006, but a movie? About a font? I figured the film was either a hoax or just incredibly boring.

But I was wrong.

So how is it that Gary Hustwit can use his directorial debut to make a movie about a font? Simple. He didn’t make the movie about the font.

is a genuinely fascinating look at the entire world of graphic design. It uses interviews from successful graphic designers, as well as seemingly endless shots of pamphlets, billboards and shopping bags typed in Helvetica font, to demonstrate that the average consumer is completely unaware of the impact which typeface has on their absorption of information. It’s the ultimate example of that old phrase, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” And believe me, it says a lot.

One of the most interesting things about Helvetica is that it not only explains a great deal about its namesake’s role in graphic design, but also why it has never occurred to most people to question its use. Designers don’t want fonts attracting any attention at all--if the reader pays more attention to the typeface of the letters and words, and less attention to the content they convey, then all is lost. But Helvetica takes this rule and flips it on its head--now the conveyance of the content is the content, and in eighty minutes, you will learn more about how you see the world than you ever thought a movie about font could teach you.

Finally, one of the best parts of Helvetica is, believe it or not, its soundtrack. I thought this was particularly important to mention since soundtrack is the cinematic equivalent of typeface. Its job is to highlight what’s being said without detracting from it, and to invisibly enhance the audience’s consumption of the content without being consumed itself. The ambient post-rock of Helvetica serves its purpose extremely well, and it implicitly reflects the message of the film without being noticeable until the very end. (It also gave me a band to look into--they’re called El Ten Eleven, and I must say, they’re pretty good.)

All in all, Helvetica comes with my glowing recommendation, in any font. You can find it in the Documentaries section, or perhaps even on my Staff Picks shelf.

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