Okay, so when I first saw this article about the new movie Helvetica in The New York Times I was like, c’mon, this is a movie that will have a potential audience of about ten people. I mean, really, how many people are going to rush out and see a documentary about a font, especially Helvetica. (Maybe Comic Sans or Palatino Linotype or even Garamond. . . but Helvetica?!?!?!) Then again, I’ve gotten more interested after going to the film’s official Web site and reading their description:
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.
“Helvetica encompasses the worlds of design, advertising, psychology, and communication, and invites us to take a second look at the thousands of words we see every day.”
Like I said, after giving it some more thought, I think there are several reasons that would make this movie worth seeing. (Not that it is likely to come to Waco any time soon but I have put it on my Netflix queue.) The most obvious reasons are, of course, are those stated above by the filmmakers themselves. Yes, typography is one of those ubiquitous elements in our lives that almost nobody—except graphic designers and those who work with them—thinks about consciously on any kind of regular basis.
In addition, though, I think movies/books—no matter what the subject—have the potential to be highly engaging by virtue of showing the importance of that subject to the people who do find it fascinating. For example, a few weeks ago my wife and I were flipping around the five channels we get with our little rabbit ears TV antenna and absolutely the only thing on was a documentary called The Pursuit of Excellence: Lords of the Gourd, about people who raise giant—and I meant GIANT!—pumpkins for big pumpkin weigh-in competitions. I had read the blurb about it in our newspaper TV listings and thought there was no way I could get through it. Instead, it was absolutely fascinating as you watched these people whose driving obsession in life was to grow pumpkins that weigh a thousand pounds or more.
To digress even more (and make a long post endless), this all reminds me of the last few years I was teaching freshman composition classes. When I first started teaching I did the (relatively) standard thing of giving students a list of topics to write about—usually focused around demonstrating some rhetorical mode like process analysis, narrative, definition, cause and effect, and so on—but, as I discovered, the essays they produced were pretty uniformly written by rote and terribly boring. Then, it dawned on me—especially after reading Wayne C. Booth’s “Boring From Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay”—that the only thing more boring than writing a paper on a subject you had no interest in was grading that paper in which the student had no interest in writing. I finally relinquished that level of control—choosing topics for my students—and told them they had to find a subject they were interested enough in to write a three-to-five page essay about. Almost immediately the essays they produced were more engaged (and engaging) as a whole than any I had gotten up to that point.
Passion . . . that’s the name of the game. If you can really show the how’s and why’s of the passion you have for a subject, you can pull an audience in almost no matter what.
(And, certainly, if anyone out there has had the chance to see Helvetica, I’d love to hear your take on it.)