Friday, March 16, 2007

NYC Type Geeks — Denied!

I'M PISSED! THE NYC debut of Helvetica: A Documentary Film is sold out already. The feature-length film promises both a historical study of the eponymous and ubiquitous sans serif typeface, and, according to the site, "a larger conversation about the way type affects out lives." I had seen a notice about this film some months ago, before it began a round through the festival circuit, and I assumed it would have an extended run in the home of the global publishing industry, New York City.

Not to be! According to the site's schedule page, the screening at the American Institute of Graphic Arts this April will be the only one for now. The Helvetica blog mentions that they are putting together a full-fledged run, though, so I'm hoping I'll be able to see the film before the DVD release, which seems to be scheduled for the fall.

This is not my first spasm of font fandom. I geeked out on a trip to the Grolier Club back 'round the turn of the millennium when they presented an exhibition of the work of type Übermensch Hermann Zapf. I viewed Zapf's sketchbooks, type studies, calligraphy, typeface-sample posters from the foundries where he worked, and of course samples and printed uses of his classic faces: Palatino, Optima, and ITC Zapf Chancery and Dingbats. I got to see the way a craftsperson became an invisible lens through which readers view their language. It's easy enough for anyone now to drag down a menu and choose a digitized version of these faces and not realize that they didn't always exist, that someone had to create them. I gained new respect for these humble families of letters, numbers, and symbols by seeing the process that led Zapf to decide on their serif weights, the roundness of bowls and , the proper looks for the italic and bold fonts in these faces, and all of the other decisions — historically informed as well as instinctive — that guided his hand.

I look forward to seeing Helvetica. I see this face every day (though not usually in email programs, where the hated bastardization Arial is its doppelgänger), and yet I know nothing about its designer, the foundry where it was born, or how it fell out of favor with some designers. What does it say about me that the films I've most wanted to see in the past 2 years are this, 300, and the Klaus Nomi biopic The Nomi Song?


India said...

I guess this is an indicator that I'll never be a real designer: I'm just not interested in Helvetica: The Movie. I mean, I'm sure I'd enjoy it if I actually went to see it, but the seeing it? If it's under my own steam, it's not likely to happen.

Part of the issue is that I watch, like, two movies a year; it's not my favorite medium. And part of it is that I don't use Helvetica. Pretty much ever, unless I'm picking up someone else's file. I It just doesn't do anything for me; I get no pleasure from working with it.

A nicely made OpenType version would probably fix that, but it's one of the last typefaces that would be on my list to buy.

You'll let us know how the movie is, I trust.

Schizohedron said...

Sometimes I think I would benefit from a Netflix subscription, because one of the demotivating factors in not going to movies is suppressing the urge to kill cellphone users and parents of children who have been brought to hard-R movies (inexplicable). Yet I still haven't taken the plunge.

My fascination w/ this film may also stem from a desire to see the hidden life behind a ubiquitous element, a bill this typeface fits. For instance, I liked Henry Petroski's The Pencil well enough to buy it after a quick skim. Pencils are part of the landscape, but I had never examined their history, manufacture, etc. Likewise with the documentary The Nomi Song, which eulogized an obscure — but in his time sensationalized — New Wave singer who flared brightly but was cut down on the verge of success by HIV. I'd heard his few songs on WFMU, which was enough to lead me to the theater, and after I emerged, I was pleasantly surprised to see (to misquote Gertrude Stein) there was a there there.

If there is a there at Helvetica, I'll definitely record it here!

As to your not being a real designer, your articles are actually one of my guides to thinking more broadly than the limits of my current job and becoming a more well-rounded designer myself. My BIG task in the weeks ahead is which of my skill sets to pursue in the marketplace: my design area, or my editorial one. (A job in which I could exercise both would be sweet.)