Review: Helvetica

Helvetica is a nifty, proudly nerdy acknowledgement of the effect letters can have on our consciousness.

Helvetica
Photo: Plexifilm

The best recent episode of South Park is the two-part Go God Go, in which Cartman, impatient over the looming release of the Nintendo Wii, freezes himself and wakes up in a religion-free future where atheist factions are fighting over who has the better name: United Atheist Alliance, Unified Atheist League, or Allied Atheist Allegiance. You may say, “Semantics schemantics,” but Helvetica, the first—perhaps only—documentary about a typeface, is a nifty, proudly nerdy acknowledgement of the effect letters, and how they are arranged, can have on our consciousness. Director Gary Hustwit compiles interviews with many an illustrious person from the world of design, all of whom can be divided into three distinct groups: those who actively support the ubiquity of Helvetica, those who revere the font but allow themselves room to toy with it, and those who actively revolt against the prehistoric notion that type should be impersonal. Because blows have nearly been exchanged over the fonts used on this site, I admit that I may be overestimating the film’s appeal, but Helvetica makes a game attempt to understand how typefaces have been applied to contemporary modes of information and how battle lines have been drawn about their usage. But the documentary, for all its charming eccentricity, ultimately fails to think outside the hermetic box of the design world: I may never look at an IRS form or the cover of the Pixies’s Doolittle album the same way again, but I would have dug the film even more if Hustwit elaborated on why Helvetica is the cause for the war in Iraq.

Score: 
 Cast: Michael Beirut, Neville Brody, David Carson, Matthew Carter, Wim Crouwel, Erwin Brinkers, Marieke Stolk, Danny van Dungen, Tobias Frere-Jones, Jonathan Hoefler, Lars Müller, Dimitri Bruni, Manuel Krebs, Michael C. Place, Rick Poynor, Stefan Sagmeister, Leslie Savan, Paula Scher, Erik Spiekermann, Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf  Director: Gary Hustwit  Distributor: Plexifilm  Running Time: 80 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2006  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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