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Film Review: Helvetica

Helvetica (2007; Directed by Gary Hustwit)

Note that it’s not called Helvetica: A People’s History. Though Gary Hustwit’s documentary on the Walmart of typefaces does trace the development of typeface design in a manner that almost makes the world seem like an interesting one, it falls a little flat when it tries to tease out the larger meanings of the ubiquitous Swiss font.

Hustwit unspools a lot of footage of signs around the world that use Helvetica, and provides a soapbox for the discussion of globalized corporate homogeneity that the font’s ubiquity suggests, which is all well and good. But how does it really impress itself upon everyday people around the world? What is it that people who are not well-schooled graphic design experts see in the words typographically styled in this one specific way? Does its familiarity comfort them, or is there something deeper about its rounded, standardized form that appeals to the eye and, through it, to a segment of the human psyche? What do ordinary folks “see” when they see Helvetica?

It’s not really clear, because we never hear from any of them. There are plenty of bourgeois designers and pithy media critics waxing poetic on what “real people” get out of Helvetica, but none of these “real people” ever actually appear. Perhaps because they simply aren’t as interested in typefaces as people who make their living from them, or maybe they just didn’t have as many clever bon mots to toss about for Hustwit’s enraptured camera. Either way, the film comes off as a vaguely engaging look at something that, despite its widespread cultural hegemony, only a very tiny creative elite believes means anything in particular. As attractively shot and witty as it can be, Helvetica winds up being at least a little bit condescending as a result.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 10, 2013 at 1:24 am

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