Helvetica is a 2007 documentary about the Helvetica typeface that is brutally honest about its subject. After half an hour drooling over its simplicity and how it took over the world in just a couple of minutes after its introduction in the 1950s, the font comes in for a beating that includes being called fascist – fascist because it is ubiquitous and because suddenly it symbolizes the corporate mentality that most typographers (inventers of fonts) seem to find hateful, though it is mother’s milk to them. That practically everyone in the film has a German accent doesn’t help!
A documentary I saw the other day, and posted about here, did the same thing, though Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman ripped its subject a new asshole with a minimum of conscious self-criticism. Same with Herb and Dorothy, a 2008 documentary about two doddering New York collectors of contemporary art. A while back I saw My Architect, a 2003 documentary about the modernist architect Louis Kahn by his son Nathaniel, in which not only was the father’s poor treatment of the women in his life exposed but so was the difficulty of finding the entrance to his buildings. Lou Kahn is revered by all right-thinking architects, so naturally his buildings are abominable. I can’t recall, aside from the bit about finding the door, whether the son found his father’s work off-putting. I don’t recall that he liked the way his mother was treated. Mies van der Rohe treated his wife badly, too, though I’ve never seen a documentary about him. I’m sure it’s out there.
Honesty is, of course, a very large virtue in a documentary, and Helvetica certainly indulges. But these films all seem to feature in high degree an unconscious recognition of how ugly and stupid their subject (not the purveyors of various forms of modernism but modernism itself) comes off to anyone who has not already drunk the Kool-Aid. Or maybe I’ve just drunk a different flavor of Kool-Aid that predisposes me to think movies about modernism are filled with unconscious self-loathing.
But how can you fill an entire documentary about Helvetica fonts without any but the slightest pictorial reference to the serif fonts that dominated typography in the decades, nay the centuries, leading up to the advent of Helvetica? There are many references to the supposedly staid serif fonts that were designed with little cues – the caps and feet on ascenders and descenders – to help guide the mind’s eye to more easily grasp word and meaning. And there is no discussion of how removing those little helpers makes type easier to read. It is merely assumed to be the case. Indeed, in all the clips of typefaces unrolling before the eyes of the viewer, only twice do fonts resembling, say, Times Roman show their face. It’s almost as if the producers were afraid that if a serif font were seen by the viewer, the claims made for Helvetica would be immediately exposed as frauds.
And they would indeed, so the producers of Helvetica are at least adept propagandists for their fascist subject. There are so many parallels between Helvetica and modern architecture that it makes your head spin. I wonder whether the producers of films like this even begin to realize how much comfort they give to the enemy!