It's Been Real
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"There it is, and it seems to come from nowhere. It's like air. It's like gravity."-Michael Beirut

We take a lot of things for granted, these days. Part of this is because ours is a fast paced culture; we're always doing something, always going somewhere, always planning our next course of action. And part of it is because I don't think humans are ever truly capable of taking in everything around them, of appreciating all of the little things all of the time. It's conventional wisdom that we should slow down and pay more attention to all of the beauty that we overlook every day, and that isn't inaccurate so much as unlikely. I'm not saying that the way the sunlight refracts through leaves or the little rainbow created when you use a hose aren't beautiful and worth appreciation, but I do think that opening yourself up to that level of amazement would make it difficult to make it through your day-to-day life.

So we shut most of it out, or only truly appreciate it every once in a while. The amount of time I have spent thinking about typeface over the course of my life is so negligible it hardly even counts. I've probably spent more time thinking about things so minute and pointless I can't even conjure them at the moment. Watching Helvetica, though, I was reminded that there are people who are passionately obsessed with anything you can think of (and many, many things you can't) and that passion, especially when expressed intelligently, is infectious.

Directed by Gary Hustwit, the film briefly traces the history of the world's most popular font and then spends most of its time examining the views of graphic designers on the font. If it sounds incredibly boring, it isn't (for the most part), and that is largely because of how passionate and intelligent the designers interviewed are about their craft.

The film quickly becomes a sort of debate between modernism and post-modernism, as some classic designers grouse about its glory (one even calling it, "the perfume of the city") and some of their more contemporary colleagues rail against it (one German designer, asked why Helvetica is still so popular after 50 years, blithely responds, "I don't know. Why is bad taste ubiquitous?"). Just listening to these people go back and forth makes for some fascinating segments, and the slowly revealed philosophy behind type-design was interesting to behold. Classic designer Wim Couwel, for example, discusses the appeal of Helvetica as it emerged from the clutter of "hand-written" types at the end of the "˜50s, saying "The meaning is in the content of the text, not the typeface. That's why we loved Helvetica so much." Massimo Vignelli illustrates the counter point perfectly a few minutes earlier when he says, "There are people, when they write dog, it should bark." There are so many excellent quotes in this movie, I took far more notes than I have for any other installment of this column, and I could probably string a dozen more together easily to illustrate the brilliance and wit of the designers interviewed for it. Another favorite (I promise this will be the last) comes from a woman who came up in design during the counter-culture late "˜60s. She says, "I was morally opposed to Helvetica. If you used Helvetica, you supported the Vietnam war, so how could you use it?"

Obviously the interviews are by far the best part of the film, giving instructive monologues about the use of negative space to hold the letters and long, discursive discussions of the deeper meaning behind font. Their presence in the film elevates something that would have been otherwise excruciatingly boring, and Helvetica is better than it probably should be as a result. The film that surrounds these interviews, though, is spotty at best. Hustwit is clearly a very capable director, and the film's bright colors, quick cuts and evocative, catchy minimalist score help to move things along, but these flourishes serve to cover up what is essentially an endless series of montages showing different things written in Helvetica.

At its best, the negative spaces surrounding the talking heads help their outsized personalities to pop. At worst, they can make Helvetica seem shapeless and directionless. Once you know what the typeface looks like, and once you've seen one or two montages depicting its omnipresence, the next five or six can seem like overkill, or worse, filler. The film is a scant 80 minutes, yet so much of it is taken up by these montages I can't help but wonder if there was really enough material to make a movie here.

Its true that Helvetica is better than a movie about a font should be, but that doesn't mean that it's better than it could be. I spent more time thinking about fonts during its runtime than I had during the two decades prior to my viewing of the film, which I guess is the point. But I also spent more time checking my watch than I have in most other movies I've viewed for this feature. Sometimes we need to slow down and really contemplate the little things in life that we take for granted. Yet sometimes a little contemplation goes a long way.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

5/27: The Times of Harvey Milk

6/10: Bowling for Columbine

6/24: Hellboy: In the Service of the Demon

7/8: Rockumentary Month: Don't Look Back
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