Celebrating the 50th anniversary of a font.


Last night I saw Helvetica, a new documentary by Gary Hustwit — here making his first directorial effort, after producing films like the Wilco pic I Am Trying to Break Your Heart — and I saw it with the best possible audience: a crowd of graphic designers.

The fact that I saw the movie was a happy fluke. My wife happened to get home a bit earlier from the picket line than I expected, so I decided to go see a matinee. As I left the theatre, I saw a huge line-up, so I asked what it was for, and I was told that the Society of Graphic Designers had arranged a special screening of Helvetica — a film so obscure that it would almost certainly not come back to Vancouver. I had heard about the film, which was made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the invention of this font, so I was definitely interested in it — but I was told that the screening had sold out. And then, as I began to walk away, I noticed that an old high-school friend — who, like my wife, works for the public library — happened to be standing in the line-up for this film. And then, as we gabbed about life in general, he mentioned that he happened to have an extra ticket, because his wife had not been able to come to the screening — so would I be interested in seeing the film with him? (And then, after the movie itself, I bumped into someone from church at the reception. Small, small world.)

The film was fun. Some of the typographers and graphic designers who were interviewed for the film get really passionate and animated about their profession, and I find being in the presence of such enthusiasm exhilarating, even when the enthusiasm is directed at something I am only partially familiar with.

One of the more interesting issues explored by the film is the way that Helvetica, a Swiss font created in 1957 and defined by its neutrality and matter-of-factness, was conceived as an expression of post-war “idealism” but has since come to be identified with corporate culture. Is it a “capitalist” font or a “socialist” font? Personally, I think the distinction is a little pointless, inasmuch as modern capitalism and modern socialism are both rooted in a modernist tendency towards massification and conformity.

And oh, did the sequence on the short-lived “grunge design” of the early 1990s bring back memories. I remember arguing with a few people about that when I was an editor at The Ubyssey; to them, it seemed funky and edgy and hip, but to me, it reflected an utter contempt for the text, and thus for both the writer and the reader. So I was not at all surprised to learn from this film that Ray Gun designer David Carson once laid out an entire article in Zapf Dingbat, thus rendering it completely unreadable. (It’s funny when it happens to someone else, but if that ever happened to me…)

The film was followed by a Q&A; with director Gary Hustwit, a local graphic designer named Jim Rimmer, and local author Douglas Coupland — who is apparently a big fan of Helvetica and has insisted that it be used on the covers of his last several books. His first words, if memory serves, were, “I was at the Garamond documentary next door, and there were only two or three people there.” The hundreds of Helvetica viewers chuckled. And you have to love any crowd that would share a little in-joke like that.

Evan Almighty — still sinking, now overseas


Having flopped in North America, it is time for Evan Almighty to flop overseas. I mentioned earlier that the film’s Japanese release had been cancelled altogether. Now it is playing in Great Britain.

The Guardian reports that the distributor went after the religious market in England as aggressively as they did here:

Helping churches to exploit the faith-friendly content is Universal Pictures, which hired a specialist PR firm to target ministers, Christian publications and websites and promote different ways of using the film. Suggested angles are God: The Hollywood Years, charting the history of the deity on the silver screen, and Noah and 9/11, a discussion of religious extremism.

As part of this drive a dozen “priest screenings” were held around Britain so that ministers were well prepared for the film’s general release.

The Rev David Birt, of Hill House parish, Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, said: “I’ve encouraged my flock to see the film. It has interesting subjects – like whether we want a God who is judgmental – and I’ve used it in two sermons already. Films about religion, especially Christianity, are generally devoid of humour … This is a feelgood film for Christian audiences.”

Some organisations have created multimedia resources based on the film, including an internet reality gameshow in which Big Brother meets the Bible and SMS polls asking people to vote on what kind of animal God would be.

One publication, Christianity, changed its cover at the last minute after seeing a preview of the film and devoted a further 3,000 words to it inside, exploring discussion triggers and sermon themes such as salvation from impending judgment, stewardship of the Earth and spiritual discernment.

And did all the PR work in England any better than it did in North America? Apparently not, according to Variety:

In its first outing at a major Euro market, Universal’s laffer “Evan Almighty” opened in fourth spot with a modest $2.3 million at 422 screens.

“The opening was below expectations,” said one London-based exhib, adding that “it is the first summer event movie to disappoint.”

But Brit bookers remain generally upbeat about trade. “The industry was not relying on ‘Evan Almighty’ to deliver. The many other successes have more than compensated.”

“Evan Almighty” received poor reviews from the Brit crix and was dealt another blow by the severe recent flooding in England. Bookers speculate that some auds might have not had the stomach for a pic about a flood — “a bit too close to home,” said one.

Incidentally, my British friend Matt Page reviewed Evan Almighty a couple weeks ago at his Bible Films Blog. Check it out.

Star Trek XI — more casting news

The Hollywood Reporter says Leningrad-born 18-year-old Anton Yelchin has joined the cast of Star Trek XI as Pavel Chekov, who was first played by the nearly 31-year-old Walter Koenig in 1967. This is interesting, as Chekov did not join the show until its second year — though Chekov must have been on the ship somewhere during the first year, otherwise Khan would not have recognized him years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Star Trek XI — more casting rumours


Twelve days ago, it was announced that 30-year-old Zachary Quinto will play Spock in the new Star Trek movie. The role was created, of course, by Leonard Nimoy, who was 35 when the series began in 1966 — though he had played the role a couple years earlier, too, in the long-shelved first pilot ‘The Cage‘.

Now, Ain’t It Cool News claims to have the casting breakdowns for some of the movie’s other characters — including their ages:

  1. James Kirk — looking for an actor aged 23 to 29 — William Shatner was 35 when the series began

  2. Leonard (Bones) McCoy — looking for an actor aged 28 to 32 — DeForest Kelley was 46 when the series began
  3. Uhura — looking for an actress aged 25ish — Nichelle Nichols was 33 when the series began
  4. Sulu — looking for an actor aged 25 to 32 — George Takei was 29 when the series began
  5. Montgomery (Scotty) Scott — looking for an actor aged 28 to 32 — James Doohan was 46 when the series began

Assuming this information is correct, it would seem to kill those old rumours about 52-year-old Gary Sinise and 39-year-old Daniel Dae Kim being considered for McCoy and Sulu, respectively.

Meanwhile, IGN.com passes on the rumour that Tom Cruise — who has always seemed kind of Vulcan, to me — is being approached for a cameo as Christopher Pike, who was Captain of the Enterprise before Kirk. The role was originally played by Jeffrey Hunter, who may be best known for co-starring with John Wayne in The Searchers (1956) and playing an armpit-hair-free Jesus in King of Kings (1961). Hunter was 38 when he played Pike in ‘The Cage’, and according to the official chronology, that story took place 11 years before Kirk assumed command of the Enterprise; Cruise is 45.

Canadian box-office stats — August 5

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — CDN $27,790,000 — N.AM $261,027,397 — 10.6%
The Simpsons Movie — CDN $12,410,000 — N.AM $128,060,578 — 9.7%
Hairspray — CDN $7,380,000 — N.AM $78,854,798 — 9.4%
Transformers — CDN $26,340,000 — N.AM $296,379,328 — 8.9%

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry — CDN $6,920,000 — N.AM $91,795,450 — 7.5%
The Bourne Ultimatum — CDN $4,880,000 — N.AM $69,283,690 — 7.0%
Ratatouille — CDN $13,050,000 — N.AM $188,246,213 — 6.9%
Hot Rod — CDN $348,189 — N.AM $5,310,711 — 6.6%
No Reservations — CDN $1,530,000 — N.AM $24,175,203 — 6.3%
Underdog — CDN $377,407 — N.AM $11,585,121 — 3.3%

A couple of discrepancies: Ratatouille was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #11 in North America as a whole), while Bratz: The Movie was #10 on the North American chart.

Rosenbaum on the “overrated” Ingmar Bergman


John Podhoretz of the New York Post was roundly denounced this week when he dismissed Ingmar Bergman, who died on Monday, as an over-rated figure from the past whose “day had passed”.

Victor Morton at the Rightwing Film Geek blog called Podhoretz an unproductive “twit”, Gary Susman at Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch Blog called Podhoretz a “spectacular . . . philistine”, and Glenn Kenny at Premiere.com wondered if Podhoretz had any actual pro-Bergman critics in mind when he belittled the Bergman buffs of the 1950s and 1960s as people who were “embarassed by the movies” and “offended” by the medium’s “unseriousness”.

Podhoretz might very well have been wrong if he was making such sweeping assertions about film critics. But what about the critics who covered other media? Todd McCarthy of Variety makes a point not unlike the one Podhoretz made when he writes:

Certainly Bergman was the director who won over literary snobs to the idea that the cinema could be an art. Fifty years ago, the American intelligentsia was dominated by critics and academics who either never saw movies or looked down on them as formulaic diversions. Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” probably did more to begin a shift in thinking than any other film, with Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, mon amour,” Antonioni’s “L’avventura” and several other Bergman films soon following to fuel the fire.

In short, Bergman made cinema acceptable among the high-brows, who were additionally impressed by the fact that he practiced his art under unconstrained conditions in a faraway land unhampered by crass commercial considerations. But this doesn’t mean that his legacy should be limited to this rarefied view of his work. . . .

And now Jonathan Rosenbaum, the famously contrarian critic for the Chicago Reader, has a piece in today’s New York Times headlined “Scenes From an Overrated Career”:

Sometimes, though, the best indication of an artist’s continuing vitality is simply what of his work remains visible and is still talked about. The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday.

What Mr. Bergman had that those two masters lacked was the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits, as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.

The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere. . . .

The stylistic departures I saw in Mr. Bergman’s ’50s and ’60s features — the silent-movie pastiche in “Sawdust and Tinsel,” the punitive use of magic against a doctor-villain in “The Magician,” the aggressive avant-garde prologue of “Persona” — were actually more functions of his skill and experience as a theater director than a desire or capacity to change the language of cinema in order to say something new. If the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Mr. Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.

Curiously, theater is what claimed most of Mr. Bergman’s genius, but cinema is what claimed most of his reputation. He was drawn again and again to the 19th-century theater of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen — these were his real roots — and based on the testimony of friends who saw some of his stage productions when they traveled to Brooklyn, there’s good reason to believe a comprehensive account of his prodigious theater work, his métier, is long overdue.

We remember the late Michelangelo Antonioni for his mysteriously vacant pockets of time, Andrei Tarkovsky for his elaborately choreographed long takes and Orson Welles for his canted angles and staccato editing. And we remember all three for their deep, multifaceted investments in the modern world — the same world Mr. Bergman seemed perpetually in retreat from. . . .

Above all, his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film. One of the most striking aspects of the use of digital video in “Saraband,” his last feature, is his seeming contempt for the medium apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device. . . .

Despite all the compulsive superlatives offered up this week, Mr. Bergman’s star has faded, maybe because we’ve all grown up a little, as filmgoers and as socially aware adults. It doesn’t diminish his masterful use of extended close-ups or his distinctively theatrical, seemingly homemade cinema to suggest that movies can offer something more complex and challenging. And while Mr. Bergman’s films may have lost much of their pertinence, they will always remain landmarks in the history of taste.

So, in a nutshell, it would seem McCarthy and Rosenbaum are both arguing that Bergman achieved his cultural clout because of the literary and theatrical qualities he brought to his films — but not because he introduced any particularly memorable cinematic qualities to the artform. Bergman’s movies were, in other words, appreciated for something other than their movie-ness.

And ironically, it seems Rosenbaum is critiquing Bergman for not being high-brow enough — for stooping to “entertain” and for being “reluctan[t] to challenge conventional film-going habits”.

So, Rosenbaum is coming at Bergman from a very different angle than Podhoretz did, but the basic point they make is still the same: Bergman was over-rated and isn’t all that relevant any more.

It’ll be interesting to see what sort of response Rosenbaum gets!


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