Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives. The film is an exploration of urban spaces in major cities and the type that inhabits them, and a fluid discussion with renowned designers about their work, the creative process, and the choices and aesthetics behind their use of type.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Typography isn’t exactly the sort of topic I’d expect to see dissected in an award-winning documentary. With a controversial war in Iraq, an upcoming presidential election, and a looming economic crisis, font selection is hardly the country’s biggest hot-button concern at the moment. In fact, the dusty Literature degree in my closet is probably the only thing that attracted me to ‘Helvetica,’ a buzz-laden doc that’s received a surprising amount of press, despite its seemingly dull subject matter. Font selection has always struck me as a rather superficial choice; the sort of meaningless decision corporate upstarts might fret over on the eve of a business proposal. But even I have to admit that ‘Helvetica’ made me consider how influential and pervasive fonts are in our daily lives.
First-time director Gary Hustwit opens ‘Helvetica’ with a brief history of the Swiss font, its origin in the ‘50s, and the logic behind its aesthetic appeal. Slowly but surely, the filmmaker guides the discussion to the Helvetican onslaught that has dominated shopping mall signs, magazine ads, and television commercials for decades. And just when it starts to grow a bit repetitive, Hustwit switches his focus to the influence fonts have on culture, behavior, consumer decisions, and corporate trustworthiness. I was honestly taken aback as experts and typographists discussed the effect and impact of structured and freeform fonts, not because the information was so revolutionary, but because I wasn't bored out of my mind. By the time the credits rolled, I had to admit I'd probably spend the next few days noticing every font that littered the products in my home.
The appeal of ‘Helvetica’ rests in its ability to make something as mundane as a font seem like a substantial component of modern culture. Everyone knows some fonts are more appealing than others, but I didn’t know there were competing philosophies of design that have emerged over the years. It never occurred to me to consider fonts in the same vein as art. To that end, Hustwit relies on experts in the field to convey their passion for typography, before he tries to suggest it has a profound impact on society. The documentary's participants aren’t the sorts of people you would gravitate to at a party, but in the context of the film, they’re witty, engaging, and loaded with relevant information that presents debates that, until now, I didn’t know existed.
Unfortunately, ‘Helvetica’ never quite won me over. As fascinating as I found the film’s social commentary to be, the typographists’ theories were too inclusive to satisfy my critical mind. Hustwit never sullies his documentary with Michael-Moorian embellishments, but he also doesn’t hear from anyone questioning the assertions of his experts. Sure, his subjects disagree amongst themselves, but there’s never a moment when someone calls the implied influence of typeface into question. Some of the participants make incredibly lofty suggestions grounded in myths of subliminal messaging, while others seem to suggest that corporations use fonts to subtly suggest the types of customers that are welcome in their stores.
’Helvetica’ may offer a complex examination of the way fonts influence modern culture, but the limited appeal of its subject matter and a few uneventful assertations won’t win over anyone who isn’t already interested in typography or design. While Hustwit’s documentary is concise, professional, and interesting, I can’t assign it words like “brilliant” or “revelatory” as other critics have. Perhaps I’m not a part of the film’s target audience, but the praise and buzz that accompanied its release made me believe I would be leveled by whatever the documentary had to say. Instead, it merely forced me to elevate an element of design I had previously overlooked.
Shot in high definition, ‘Helvetica’ features a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer that offers one of the most consistent documentary presentations I’ve encountered. Since the film doesn’t include any stock reels or dated news footage, the image quality remains steady and stable from beginning to end. Colors are well saturated, fleshtones are natural, and blacks are deep and healthy. Contrast is dead on as well, allowing textures and fine details to pop off the screen. I was pleased to find I could see the imperfections in the on-screen text, the grain of the paper each letter was printed on, and the stubble and pores of those being interviewed. Even photographs and magazine scans looked fantastic -- a quick tap of the pause button makes it possible to read portions of articles showcased in the film.
Unfortunately, the transfer isn’t without its problems. Noise is a regular issue as artifacting, pixilation, and banding appear to clutter the clarity of the image. It doesn’t help that shots occasionally soften as participants move in front of a static camera, or that the entire image doesn’t have the three-dimensionality of Blu-ray releases that used higher quality HD cameras. In the end, the transfer is remarkably consistent for a documentary and far sharper than the standard DVD, but it could look better with a high quality encode.
As one might expect from a chatty documentary, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track (448 kbps) featured on ‘Helvetica’ merely gets the job done, and nothing more. The best I can say about the interviews in the documentary is that they’re crystal clear and don’t suffer from extraneous noise or poor recording methodology. Otherwise, the entirety of the ‘Helvetica’ soundfield is a bore. Without a rear channel presence, the subdued musical score remains trapped in the front speakers and the occasional burst of classic rock or modern music is predictably constrained. Without any significant bass support, low-end tones sound muddled rather than booming, and voices lack the natural pop they enjoy on other high-def releases. Like the documentary itself, style is relegated to the back burner to make way for a concise and logical soundscape with very few frills.
Even so, considering the sort of documentary ‘Helvetica’ proves itself to be, I can’t say the bland audio is necessarily disappointing. It’s not as if an involving surround mix would have improved the film or enhanced its presentation. All in all, this two-channel track certainly doesn’t deserve a higher score, but it also shouldn’t deter documentary fans from checking out the Blu-ray edition of ‘Helvetica.’
Like the standard DVD, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Helvetica’ features a single, hefty collection of interviews that run longer than the film itself. The only difference you’ll notice with the BD interviews is that they’re presented in high definition. At 95 minutes, the interviews tend to be dry and tangential, but they serve to flesh out the backgrounds of the documentary participants, as well as the impact fonts have on culture, modern philosophy, and consumerism across the globe. While the feature will strike many as a boring series of deleted scenes, it offers an avalanche of additional information and interesting tidbits. Just be warned -- if you found the documentary a yawn-inducing affair, you should steer clear of this similarly paced content.
’Helvetica’ isn’t for everyone… I wouldn’t even call it a sure-fire hit for documentary fans. However, an investment of patience is the only thing required to get into this interesting exploration of typography and its impact on society and psychology. This regular edition Blu-ray release isn’t an easy sell either -- with a slightly problematic video transfer, a bland two-channel audio track, and a dry set of supplements, there isn’t a lot of value here other than the documentary itself. I would suggest you rent this one first to see it suits your tastes.
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