30 April 2007

[design] Sunday Night At the Hollywood

792 I have a short, no-longer-shameful confession to make: I adore Helvetica.

The font–and the movie. No better survey of the intersection of art and culture at this point exists. In tracing the history of the little Swiss font that could (and did), Helvetica demonstrates the connection between history in the form of standing on the shoulders of giants and artistic evolution, trend, fad and backlash, and context.

As mentioned in my personal reaction at Designorati here, it's also a crackling good time. I came away with a newer appreciation of this font, which had humble beginnings as an updating of a font called "Akzidenz Grotesk" (a font itself with a name as humorous sounding as it is strange to look at) with the awkward name of Neue Haas Grotesk (it was developed by the Haas Type Foundry, a Swiss concern). Along the line someone realized that that wasn't terribly marketable and renamed it with the inspiration of the Latin name of Switzerland, Helvetia, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was the right font at the right time. Typographical and graphic design during the 1950 was well-nigh drunk Modernism and on what was being called the "Swiss Style", a school of design thought that emphasized the basic, clean, and functional. Once released into the wild, it spread pretty much everywhere, changing the look of print seemingly overnight.

Eventually, gorged on Swiss Style, the art and design world reacted with more recent evolutions that eventually had us arriving at iconolclastic destinations such as the so-called "grunge style". Helvetica, regarded at its debut as fresh and energetic, became so establishment that then up-and-coming typographer Paula Scher (interviewed in the film) called it (with a shot of dark humor) the "typeface of the Vietnam War".

The film doesn't lambaste or lionize Helvetica really; it leaves that to the designers who were asked to participate in interviews. Type design gods who you might have heard of (such as Zapf), that me and other type geeks have heard of (Hoefler, Frere-Jones, Carter, Speikermann) and that I haven't heard of yet (International Jetset collaborative) all had opinions runnning from soup to nuts. Some love Helvetica, some hate it, some are indifferent. It is in these moments, these interviews, that the film has real power; Rick Poynor's enthusiastic riffing on the design sea change that Helvetica represented had the audience in stitches.

It wasn't derisive laughter, it was laughter of understanding; the audience was full of AIGA members, people of design bent, those who have been similarly moved by passions which may seem austere and arcane to others. It was exhilarating to see the range of unafraid opinions; all of us, regardless of our situations and success, had been there before.

And these people were genuinely funny and witty. You don't bask in that sort of interchange every day in this world of ours.

Truly, as the movie demonstrated, Helvetica is everywhere all the time, and its triumph is that it's become a universally-accepted carrier of information; if you read Helvetica, you don't look at the design of the font, you look at the information it obtains; if you see the word "road", for instance, you don't dwell on whatever artistry there is in the letterform design, and you don't even dwell on the sheer coolness and geometricity of it.

For some this is a good thing; for some this is a bad thing. The film tells nobody how to think about it; you're still left up to thinking about it for yourself.

But really, you don't have to be a type geek or even a designer to enjoy this film; anyone with an eye for visual culture–in other words, just about all of us–can find something there to take away. It's one of those works that help bring alive the mundane world by reminding us to look, not just look at it.

Short Subjects

There were two entracing short-shorts that played just before the main feature.

The first, How To Draw Clouds, is a film by Seattle's Salise Hughes. A mere two minutes in length, it's desciribed by some as "a poetic meditation on the desire to make permanent what is ephemeral". What it amounts to is a loop of a time lapse picture of a cloud being re-rolled over and over, while an unseen hand attempts to draw what an unseen eye sees over the top. There's a sort of desperate futility in the repeated attempts to capture what is in motion, which the audience found quite humorous; in the last repeat, however, the unseen hand gets the frame to pause, and traces a rather good interpretation in the last, and when that was finally done, the audience kind of seemed to share a "wow" moment.

The second, Neuro Economy, by Aucklander Jill Kennedy, was a surreal sort of animated trip based, the film asserts, on a found audio message on an answering machine. Seeming to begin in a realistic world, a well-ordered and somewhat sterile apartment and its surroundings get more and more beautifully bizarre as the reasoned ravings of someone who seems to be saying he's near death and trying to express the idea of a "neural economy" continue on. The animation is sure watchable–it reminded me of all that interesting work Jim Blashfield was doing back in the 80's with photocopies in animated shorts and that video he did for the Talking Heads song "And She Was."

I felt exhilarated by all these films.

But we really want to do is own Helvetica when it becomes available for home video. It's a hell of a good film, yo.

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