The appalling documentary

How not to make a documentary – Update

The appalling documentary
How not to make a documentary
Having watched the excellent Fire in Babylon documentary on Friday night, we decided to go with another highly rated doco’. We chose Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica. This proved to be a huge mistake.

Fire in Babylon not only documents its subject – the West Indies cricket teams’ rise to dominance as a form of sporting, historical political and social interplay. It does so using facts, subjective interviews, contemporary footage and a consistently immersive soundtrack.

The interviews, with players of the time as well as local groundsmen and personalities such as Bunny Wailer, are pithy, to the point and fitted an understandable and immersive timeline.

The thesis of Helvetica, however, appears to be that ‘Helvetica is used a lot’ or possibly that ‘Helvetica is the perfect san serif font’. Its creator uses over-long sequences of footage showing vans, trucks, lorries, aeroplanes, airports, shop signs, warning signs, more shops signs and on, and on, and on behind which plays a series of ‘choons’ in a mathrock or minimalist douche 8-bit.

The history of Helvetica is explained as an afterthought. The reason for its ubiquity in a commercial sense is equally left well alone; was it well marketed? How did Linotype, Haas or Stemple ensure that it gained wide use?

One interview with Eric Spiekermann (whom we’re told nothing about, as is the case with all the other interviewees, we are you see just supposed ‘to know’) almost brings the viewer to a reason for the success of the typeface: “Most people who use Helvetica use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonalds instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner. So let’s eat crap, because it’s on the corner.”

The rest of the interviews are solipsistic and vacuous (Manuel Krebs and Dimitri Bruni of Norm, Zurich manage to get an age to say ‘If something is nice, it’s nice’). They reach their nadir both in terms of paucity of information and glut of empty words with the advertising feature (interview) with Michael C. Place “of Build in London”. Place begins disingenuously with, “I don’t know the technical terms like ligature, ascender, descender” before speaking in about how he would like to design some airplane livery. “Go on then mate! Bothy myself and my partner yelled.

What we took away from Helvetica is that:

(a) It’s a typeface created by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland or “No on really knows”… I bet they fucking well do mate.
(b) People who talk about design to documentary makers tend to be conmen well versed in the Emperor’s New Clothes.
(c) That Massimo Vignelli is an arse.
(d) That Michael Bierut (New York) is a high-pressure salesman with no knowledge of context.

I’ve just submitted the following to iTunes in an attempt to help others :)
If proof be needed that making a great documentary – or even a good one – requires an understandable thesis told in compelling manner that opens a subject up via insightful commentary and interviews, with relevant footage then this is it. Helvetica achieves none of the above mentioned criteria.

Why did Helvetica, the typeface, become so widely used? This is as much of a mystery after watching this self-regarding slab of charmless, insight-free c*nts’n’clips outing as the apparent popularity of the movie itself.

Did Linotype market it in a new way? Was the typeface different from what went before? Did the name change aid the ubiquity? Is it simply because designers are lazy? No one knows. Well, no one who made this.

Slapped in with the vacuous interviews from designers who say things as deeply helpful as, “If things look nice, they are nice looking” or “I would love to design aircraft livery” or “Don’t ask me” or “Helvetica is capitalist” or “Helvetica is socialist” are slabs of footage showing Helvetica being used on trucks, vans, sign-posts, aircraft livery, more trucks.

What isn’t there is any kind of context in the design that preceded it, the economics or logistics of its take-up, the design principles that underpin it.

What you do get are pieces of music that describe nothing nor do they add to the scraps of information that are there but merely serve to lift the viewer out of the experience.

So, if you enjoy talking heads expelling the kind of hot air that would make Emperor’s new clothing salesmen blush, in order to come away out of pocket and possibly less informed than when you went in… this is perfect.

Now, let’s watch a compelling documentary: Fire in Babylon.

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