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by William Goss

"Let's Talk About Text"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit has decided to go face-to-face with the titular typeface of his directorial debut, 'Helvetica,' and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make for a surprisingly fascinating eighty minutes of talking heads talking smack about or gushing over what is arguably the world’s most pervasive font.

Consisting of little else besides interviews with type designers intermittently interrupted by pleasant montages of Helvetica’s usage in the real world, Hustwit traces the fifty-year-old font back to its Swiss roots and its gradual evolution out of a sense of modernism and post-war idealism, then follows its cultural legacy and influence as what some claim to be the ultimate typeface, thanks to its universally appealing aesthetic, from space shuttles to storefronts and everywhere in between.

One subject claims that creating order is typography, and if said maxim holds true, then Helvetica does indeed reign supreme, or so several type designers would have you believe, from Massimo Vignelli (who brought Helvetica to the NYC subway system) to others from Boston to Berlin and beyond. That isn’t to say that Helvetica doesn’t have its share of detractors: New York’s Paula Scher deems it the fascist typeface of the Vietnam War – as well as our current conflict – while Berlin’s Erik Spiekermann finds it to be as ubiquitous as bad taste. Despite its relatively brief running time, Hustwit does manage to overdo it by about one or two designers (to be specific, it’s Zurich’s Manuel Krebs and Dimitri Bruni who struggle to contribute something fresh come the hour mark).

Thanks in no small part to director of photography Luke Geissbuhler’s crisp composition with high-definition cameras, 'Helvetica' still manages to overcome a seemingly slight subject and approach to be as unexpectedly absorbing and amusing, as enlightening and entertaining, as any decent documentary could hope to be.

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originally posted: 03/20/07 11:42:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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  12-Sep-2007 (NR)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007



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