Arts Listings

Fonts, Facades, And Frolicking Femme Fatales

Friday March 21, 2008

Helvetica—a Greek tragedy? No, a typeface. Who would think of making a documentary film about a typeface? And who would attribute political significance to a font? Well, the writers of this 80-minute film did.  

The film was originally released in September for the font’s 50th anniversary. In the aftermath of World War II and the dull 1950s, two Swiss typographers decided that big corporations needed a shot in the arm to fit their efficient, go-getter, modern hype, and what better way than a typeface that represented all of those characteristics, a typeface that every consumer would glom on to without even knowing that they were being hypnotized to consume all those major products that have used Helvetica—3M, American Airlines, American Apparel, Crate & Barrel, Energizer batteries, Greyhound Lines, Jeep, Lufthansa, Marks & Spencer, Microsoft, National Car Rental, Panasonic, and Target Corporation, and many more. 

For example, Apple’s Mac OS X uses Helvetica as its default font for numerous applications, and the interface for the iPhone and newer iPods uses Helvetica almost exclusively. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) uses Helvetica for all of its subway signs. And versions exist for the Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Greek alphabets. There are even special characters and accents for Hindi, Urdu, Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. 

Canada’s federal government uses Helvetica as its identifying typographic voice, and encourages its use in all federal agencies and websites. Helvetica is also used in the U.S. television rating system, in federal income tax forms, and even on the Space Shuttle. 

Until the ’60s and ’70s, that is, when a new generation of post-modernist designers and other counterculture people grew to detest Helvetica as a symbol of corporate and government power, the Vietnam War, etc. They wanted something more humane and emotional, more individual, in other words, more postmodern—wild. Thus, we get irregular typefaces, even handwriting “type.” 

I found the film engaging both because it was framed in this political context, but also because it was fascinating to catch up on all this manipulation that managed to pass me by. 

By the way, Helvetica is part of the Latin name for Confoederatio Helvetica, that spawned the two co-creators of this ubiquitous advertising fascism. 

Helvetica is currently available on DVD. A Blu-Ray edition will be released May 6.  

—E.C. Jeline  



Antonio Gaudi 

Antonio Gaudi is a cinematic poem, a patient, hushed appreciation of a visionary architect. Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara glides his camera around the sensuous curves of Gaudi’s structures, wanders throughout the asymmetric interiors, traces the spiraling spires of his churches and roams across each textured surface of his elaborate facades.  

The film is interrupted on a few occasions by spoken word, by the voices of Gaudi connoisseurs and historians. These intrusions may be useful in explaining some of the principles and facts behind these unique buildings, including his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, but they interfere with our languorous absorption of Gaudi’s sculptural art.  

The two-disc set from Criterion includes a new transfer of the film and a wealth of bonus material, including the director’s own 16mm footage from his first encounter with Gaudi’s work as a young man on a trip to Spain with his father, as well as documentaries about the filmmaker and the architect.  


—Justin DeFreitas 



Forbidden Hollywood, Volume II 

Warner Bros. has released the second in its Forbidden Hollywood DVD series, an collection of Pre-Code films from the early 1930s. The first set included Baby Face, perhaps the most outrageous film of the era, while the new collection includes some of the most influential Pre-Code films and certainly its most influential actress, Norma Shearer.  

The set starts off with two Shearer vehicles. The first, The Divorceé (1930), tells the story of a woman who responds to her husband’s infidelity with a pledge to live as a man lives, and thus begins a string of extramarital dalliances that the enforcement of the Code would crack down on in just a few years. Not for decades would women on screen be able to live and love as freely. Also featured is Shearer’s follow-up, A Free Soul (1931) 

Ruth Chatterton runs an automobile factory in Female (1933), taking and casting aside lovers from her stable of employees at will and transferring them to a Canadian subsidiary if they get too attached. Eventually she meets her match, and from there things go down hill a bit in the feminism department until finally crashlanding in the end with a severe cop-out in which she transfers control of the firm to her husband while setting out on her new goal of producing as many as nine children.  

Three on a Match (1933) shows Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak as they grow from children to adults, Dvorak along the way slipping into a life of drug addiction. Humphrey Bogart plays a small role as a gangster thug. 

Last is Night Nurse (1931), a strange story in which Barbara Stanwyck and Blondell do battle with an evil chauffeur (Clark Gable) in an effort to prevent a case of child abuse. The film is a mix of brash comedy, torrid melodrama and frolicking cheesecake as numerous pretenses are found for Stanwyck and Blondell to repeatedly strip off their clothing. 

Also included is a documentary, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, that puts these films in historical context, sketching out the scandals that led to Hollywood’s first tepid and later strident efforts at self-censorship.  


—Justin DeFreitas 






80 minutes. $34.99. 



72 minutes. $39.95.