Director: Gary Hustwit

As Miss Manners would probably advise, certain controversial topics are off limits in polite dinner conversation. Politics, war and religion, yes, but typography? After watching Gary Hustwit’s surprising documentary, typography or more accurately the film’s subject of Helvetica isn’t something to be introduced lightly even over cocktails--especially when typesetters have been invited to the party. How the default font on both Apple and PC systems as well as the standard modernistic, crisp, clear and legible typeface stir up such wildly diverse opinions was beyond me but only midway through Hustwit’s film we are faced with ranging comments that call the usually benign style everything from the “most neutral typeface” to one woman who refers to it as fascistic and representative of both the Vietnam and Iraq war. Created fifty years ago in Switzerland, Helvetica was originally given the name “Neue Haas Grotesk” before they realized that marketing something with such a dark name to American audiences probably was ill-advised so it was first given Helvetia which is the Latin name of Switzerland until, not wanting to name something after a country, the compromise to Helvetica was made. Originally launched as the antidote to old-fashioned style, Helvetica’s smooth, and accessible efficiency has made it the most popular font in the world and one used for IRS tax forms, numerous car companies, and countless logos and advertisements for everything from The Gap to American Airlines. Far from my prediction that talking about Helvetica is like “dancing about architecture” to quote the old line about discussing love-- only minutes into Helvetica the movie professionals working within the field liken the font used on New York signage to bland “crap” such as off-white paint or McDonald’s. While not all of the interviewees loathe the typeface in question, Hustwit’s point about the need for discussion and options is made by the film’s halfway mark and causes his documentary (which runs less than 90 minutes) to overstay its welcome but it’s still an intriguingly eye-opening little movie sure to delight devotees of words, design and Americana. Note: just this week, director Gary Hustwit was nominated for the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit Award 2008.