The line-up for Helvetica at South by Southwest this year became its own joke. It's a documentary about a font; what better place for its debut than an audience of computer nerds (for SXSW Interactive) who dig visual design and film nerds (for SXSW Film) needing a break from torrents of either earnestness or blood? But you don't have to be a nerd to like Helvetica -- well, scratch that; you do, a little bit, but you are, so it's okay. And frankly, by the standards of film-festival documentary (which can often be wrenchingly grim or navel-gazingly narcissistic), Helvetica's the feel-good, high-concept movie of the year.
Written and directed by Gary Hustwit, Helvetica seems like a pretty narrow-focus idea; but, then again, you could also argue that one of the best things documentary film can do is go from the micro to the macro -- looking at one story to see where it connects with all stories. And with Helvetica, thanks to Hustwit's clean lines of narrative and intellectually playful style, we get a great look at the universality of Helvetica as a typeface and how, after it was unveiled in 1957 and hailed as a miracle of modernism, it became the unofficial font of official activities. Hustwit's camera noses through a variety of urban landscapes and shows you just how omnipresent Helvetica is -- traffic signs, logos, official notices, storefronts. Hustwit also shows us type designers at work -- there's a fascinating sequence where we see a designer explain that in making any typeface, you start with h, o and p -- and how those letter-shapes can pretty much lead to a definition of what every other letter in the alphabet will look like. We also go to the type factor where Helvetica was crafted and named -- and down to the storage area to take the original designs out of the vault. As you'd hope for a movie about visual design, Helvetica is remarkable cleanly-shot, veering between talking heads and busy, buzzy street scenes. The soundtrack -- soaring, abstract art-rock pieces or noodly post-rock compositions -- is also excellent.
We also hear from Helvetica's critics -- like Erik Spiekermann: "Why is Helvetica ubiquitous? Well, why is bad taste ubiquitous?" Or Paula Scher, who finds Helvetica smoothly, boringly fascist. Scher relates how when she was just beginning as a designer, Helvetica -- used by the IRS, the EPA and NASA in their official documents -- was, to her, the font of the people who brought us the Vietnam war. Or the designer with a series of words posted on a cube wall in Helvetica -- 'caffeinated,' 'extramarital', 'rocketcar' -- to demonstrate how Helvetica can't really convey the sense of those words and phrases at all.
Admittedly, Helvetica goes on one or two designers too long -- if you like smart white dudes with glasses, you'll nave a nerd-gasm over Helvetica. But we also get a great sense of what happens with any revolutionary idea, as the avant-garde becomes the old guard, through young turks railing against Helvitica's dullness and old lions railing against post-modernism's crazy-talk and lunacy. At its best, Helvetica makes us actually look at the world around us, and actually think about how the medium is the message, how much art is in the things our eyes gloss over every day, how much common ground there is between Europe and America, how the designated impartial messengers of official power may not be impartial at all. Helvetica looks at the link between lower case and upper class, between the shape of capitals and the orders from our Capitols. One of the most intellectually exciting, stimulating, warm-hearted and best-made independent documentaries I've seen in a long time, Helvetica turns 26 letters into a whole new perspective on the world.