About three months ago, Helvetica had a special screening in my city, one night only. I didn’t have high expectations about a movie that seemed to be only about a typeface. But thank goodness Jim Emerson mentioned this movie at his Scanners blog recently, calling it the best documentary of the year. Otherwise, I probably never would’ve checked it out.
Almost instantly, I was pulled into the world of typefaces. I’ve had a very slight intro into fonts since I’ve been working on the college paper. I never realized the importance of the curving of the letters, how the background “held the letters in,” or what the typeface even conveys. Not just Helvetica, but all fonts. Everywhere we go, we see Helvetica, but we see typefaces wherever we are. Newspapers, fast-food menus, web sites, product labels, company logos… and all of these (and more) are written in a particular font to encourage people to feel a certain way. I’m sure this is Advertising 101, but I learned something new.
In one funny scene, a graphic designer compares Coca-Cola ads from the ’50s and today. The older ad had exclamation points, loud colors, and crazy fonts in order to draw attention to itself. But the modern ad simply featured a tall glass of coke, and the slogan is in bold Helvetica at the bottom. “It’s that simple, drink Coke!” says the designer.
And throughout the movie, designers put in their two cents about their feelings on fonts and, specifically, Helvetica, which appears to be the most often used font. But some argue against Helvetica, citing that the use of original fonts in ads or logos are unmistakable because they’re rare: “You can recognize a Marlboro ad from miles away, all beceause of that stupid typeface.”
Even though I don’t think I can call this the best documentary of the year, Helvetica does draw attention to two of its doc contenders. It highlights the main problem with Michael Moore’s (Sicko) work: if parts of his films are staged (of which he’s been accused multiple times), there’s some truth lost, since these components are what make up the truth of his movies. Helvetica has its moments where it seems truth can’t be that much stranger than fiction, but even if parts of the movie were staged, it still has a grip on its truth, the importance of fonts in our world today. It’s like Werner Herzog’s idea of ecstatic truth: he’ll stage a scene in his documentaries that reveal a larger truth about the subject.
Helvetica also reminded me of The King of Kong, the documentary this year about Donkey Kong fandom gone ‘nanners, which also contains some moments that seem too impossible to be true (but they probably are, nonetheless). And, strangely, Helvetica also draws comparison with No End in Sight. Even though the facts in both films are astounding, there’s still the question of re-watching the movie or recommending the movie to a friend. Even though I would clearly recommend Helvetica (and definitely not No End in Sight), around the half-way point, both films seem to drag and lose steam.
So, is there a limit to how much one can take of a movie completely devoted to typefaces? Yes, and no. I’m not big on interviews in documentaries (it feels cheap and uncreative), but sometimes it’s the only way to get particular information, and if they are used well, I’m okay with them. The designers’ monologues, in which the interviewer rarely speaks on-camera, really work in the context of the film since it’s their objective opinion is what matters. It’s also cool to see how they seem to provide arguments and counter-arguments against each other even though no two opposing designers appear on-screen together.
No matter what you think of fonts, you won’t stop thinking about them after seeing Helvetica. The movie is charming, funny, and smart about its compositions.
Note: A few of the designers seemed to be inspired very much by album covers. Two that are featured are both Pixies’ albums: Come Pilgrim and Doolittle. You can’t miss the little dog with the circle around it’s head.