Last week I watched a pretty fascinating documentary called Helvetica. I know what you’re thinking…”he watched a movie about a font?” Yes, I watched a movie about a font. But underneath the surface of the subject, this documentary, which was released in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of Helvetica’s debut, revealed a lot about the nature of graphic design and, to a lesser extent, advertising in the late 20th century through the dawn of the new millennium.

Whether you realize it or not, Helvetica is everywhere. Designed in 1957 in Switzerland (hence the name…Helvetica is the Latin word for Switzerland.), Helvetica was designed to be a “neutral” typeface for everybody. The idea was that Helvetica would be free of any particular national identity or style and that the universality of it would be clean and simple.

The American Airlines logo was designed in 1967 by Massimo Vignelli. It is the only major airline logo that has remained the same since that time.

The development of Helvetica as a font came about during (and as part of) the modernist movement in architecture and design. The designers of Helvetica saw it as the ultimate in clean, modern style. As the 1960s dawned, the trendsetters and iconoclasts in design and advertising began to employ Helvetica all over the place. Logos, letterheads, signage, print ads…you name it, and chances are Helvetica was somewhere in it. Major corporations and organizations like American Airlines, Coca-Cola, and the New York City Transit Authority chose to create logos, ads, and signage in Helvetica for its modernism and readability.

Massimo Vignelli and the late Bob Noorda designed the New York City Transit Authority in 1966, choosing Helvetica for its readability.

Fast forward to the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s. A new crop of young designers have taken hold of the graphic design world, and they see Helvetica as a sign of an antiquated, corrupt generation. Feeling burned by the Vietnam War and blistering changes in politics throughout the world, this new generation of designers view Helvetica as the official font of the people in power. (One designer in the documentary says that she purposely didn’t use Helvetica during that time because she felt like it represented the politicians she held responsible for Vietnam; she went on to take a predictable cheap shot saying that she equates it in 2007 with the Iraq War.)

QuikTrip’s logo is another one that employs Helvetica.

In the 1980s, the postmodern movement in both architecture and graphic design dawned, and many designers shied away from a font seen as plain. Today, Helvetica has its passionate admirers and vehement detractors. Some designers, especially in Europe, will work with no other font, while others refuse to use it at all. Helvetica is a default font in Apple programs like Pages (and you’ll see it on your iPod if it’s new enough); the sickly Arial font on PC is the closest approximation.

Personally, I come down somewhere in the middle. I can see why people like the clean, modern look of Helvetica, but at the same time, there are plenty of cool fonts to choose from, and none of them are as ubiquitous as Helvetica.

Helvetica the movie was fascinating because it revealed just how the attitude and politics of graphic design has changed as much as the style of design. As crazy as it sounds, one font did spark a revolution in design, not to mention the reactions and ripples that have followed in the past 50-plus years. And again, as crazy as it sounds, Helvetica was a documentary worth watching, especially for anyone who is as intrigued by graphic design as I am.

Target uses Helvetica in its logo as well as in much of its advertising.

A Classic, “Must See” Movie That Escaped Me

Sometime last year, I compiled a list of old movies that I want to see. They range in date from the 1930s to the 70s, and cover a wide variety of genres, from comedies to foreign films, to movies I’m not really sure about, only that I’m told I should see them.

I’ve been able to mark a few off the list: On The Waterfront, Days Of Wine And Roses, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner were good, and The Apartment has become one of my all time favorites. Rashomon was the first subtitled foreign film I’ve ever been able to sit the whole way through. Network was dreadful; there wasn’t a single likeable character in the whole movie.

I’m discovering the best ways to see these movies. You can rent from iTunes, usually for $2.99 or $3.99. You can check many of them out at the library; I was amazed to see that the Social Circle library had more of the ones on my list than the Covington library. Some of these movies I may never be able to find for rent or to check out.

Last week I rented The Graduate. I’ve wanted to see it for a while; it’s supposed to be the statement of the baby boom generation. I’ve read about the making of the film, and I know the pedigree: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, director Mike Nichols, and all that… Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I just couldn’t get into it. I can’t even bring myself to finish it.

Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, is supposed to represent the alienation that baby boomers experienced. As good a performance as it was, all I saw was a petulant, spoiled, and…dare I say…bratty young man. Anne Bancroft’s character, Mrs. Robinson (y’all know the line: “Mrs, Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… Aren’t you?”), is hilarious, and the awkwardness of their exchanges was the most fun I had watching what I did of the movie.

What I saw didn’t even have much of a plot. It was a series of vignettes to me: Benjamin mopes around his parents’ house; then he has a tryst with Mrs. Robinson. He reacts in exasperation at the lameness of his parents; he has another fling with Mrs. Robinson. It got too predictable by about an hour in. Granted, it could just be a slow starter, and the second half may contain all the plot, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go any further.

Basically, Anne Bancroft and the Simon & Garfunkel songs were the best things about The Graduate. I suppose I shouldn’t judge a film without seeing all of it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish the movie and see what all the fuss was about. Maybe one day I’ll find the courage (or desire…or whatever it takes) to check it out again and watch the last half.

Meanwhile, it’s back to my list…

My 007 Favorite James Bond Themes

On the heels of the announcement a couple of  weeks ago that the next James Bond film has been placed on indefinite hold due to MGM’s budget restraints, I’ve been watching a few of my DVDs. One of the things that the 007 franchise is best known for is a long list of cool theme songs and title sequences. So…being the listmaker that I am, here are my seven (Get it? 007? I crack myself up…) favorite theme songs, with a couple of honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions:

“We Have All The Time In The World,” Louis Armstrong, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) — This one isn’t exactly a theme song, and let’s face it: Louis Armstrong isn’t exactly who you’d think of to sing a song in a Bond film (about as likely as a duet between Jack White and Alicia Keys…oh wait, that happened). But “We Have All The Time In The World” is a sophisticated, sweet love song that I actually read a few years ago was used as a worship song in some churches in England.

“License To Kill,” Gladys Knight, from License To Kill (1989) — To be brutally honest, the Timothy Dalton movies were nothing short of terrible. And this song doesn’t really sound like a 007 theme, but it’s a good song, and Atlanta girl Gladys Knight gives a really solid performance on this one.

Now…on to the countdown…

007: “You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra, from You Only Live Twice (1967) — So it lacks the dynamic punch of most of the rest of the 007 theme songs. So it’s a slightly lackluster performance from the woman who brought us “These Boots Are Made For Walking.” It’s still actually a fascinating song, particularly because of the Japanese elements brought into the score, fitting the theme of the film perfectly. For a bonus, check out Coldplay’s cover version

006: Tomorrow Never Dies,” Sheryl Crow, from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) — I remember that there was a bit of controversy over this song. k d lang had written and produced a song for the film, and the producers passed it over for Sheryl Crow’s song; I remember some critics being up in arms over the choice, but I can’t help but think that the producers made the right decision. It’s a cool song, and I think it’s one of Sheryl Crow’s best performances.

005: “Thunderball,” Tom Jones, from Thunderball (1965) — In 1965, Tom Jones was the epitome of cool. His schtick looks corny today, but I think he’s a heck of a vocalist. He was probably the obvious choice for this theme song, and the song shows his vocal capabilities well. I’d say it’s a good follow-up to “Goldfinger” as far as the theme songs go, and it set the stage for even more great songs to come.

004: “You Know My Name,” Chris Cornell, from Casino Royale (2006) — After the themes from the last two Pierce Brosnan films veered sharply in a techno/dance direction, it was nice to see the first Daniel Craig theme song really ROCK! Chris Cornell was the perfect choice to write and perform this song (Why didn’t they ask him years ago?), and the song and clever title sequence went a long way to establish the gritty, realistic tone of the new films.

003: “Diamonds Are Forever,” Shirley Bassey, from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) — Shirley Bassey, arguably one of the most melodramatic vocalists of all time…but in a good way, recorded the themes to three Bond films: Goldfinger (probably her best known song), Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker. Her second time up is the best song; it’s a textbook slice of sophisticated early 70s pop, delivered with Bassey’s trademark vibrato. The song offers quite a nice vocal range for her, and the melody is both catchy and classy.

002: “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon, from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) — Even if it hadn’t been a Bond theme, it’s an incredible song, and probably Carly Simon’s finest performance. Cleverly written and perfectly produced, it’s a theme song that transcends the kitsch of a late 70s Roger Moore flick.

001: “Live And Let Die,” Paul McCartney & Wings, from Live And Let Die (1973) — I guess it would stand to reason that the Bond theme by one of the Beatles would be my favorite, but would you believe that he almost didn’t record it? Even with a McCartney-written theme song and a score by George Martin, the producers almost hired Thelma (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”) Houston to sing it! I’m sure she would’ve done a fine job, but could you imagine anything better than the amazing record that it turned out to be? The song threads the line between rock and classical/film scoring and its driving energy helps set the tone for the movie. Hands down, it’s the best.

There’s my Top 7. Let me know what you think…

My Movie Review: “Quantum Of Solace”

I eagerly await the arrival of a new James Bond movie every couple of years or so. I’ve been a fan of 007 as long as I can remember, and I’m a fan of all of the movies…except pretty much every one of the 80’s films, especially the Timothy Dalton ones…

That said, I had reasons to be wary of Quantum Of Solace. First of all, there’s that awkward title (it has nothing to do with the movie, but it was the title of an Ian Fleming short story…). Then, there’s that theme song (seriously, Jack White and Alicia Keys? More on that later…). Finally, I was concerned about the fact that the plot follows Casino Royale sequentially, taking place literally immediately after Casino Royale ends.

Here’s what happens, without giving away any spoilers… Still reeling from the death of his love, James Bond embarks on a crusade of venegance, trying to find and kill those responsible for Vesper’s death. Bond has to set his personal vendetta aside, as he and M soon discover that the organization responsible, known as Quantum, is embroiled in a coup in Bolivia. The man directly responsible for this coup is an environmentalist named Dominic Greene. Greene’s goal is to take control of a vital natural resource in South America. Of course, it’s up to Bond and a beautiful Bolivian agent to stop Greene in his tracks.

What did I like about Quantum Of Solace? First of all, Daniel Craig is finally coming into his own as 007; I’d say he’s the best Bond since Sean Connery. The script crackles with intensity and wit, and M has some of the best lines that Judi Dench has had to work with. In fact, Daniel Craig and Judi Dench have a great chemistry that is markedly better than that between Dench and Pierce Brosnan. The characterization of Greene as sort of a Eurotrash hipster baddie is inspired. Much of the cinematography made good use of the scenery and often felt like a loving nod to the classic 007 films of the 1960’s.

On a side note, when I first heard the theme song, I was a little underwhelmed. It’s a great song, but I wasn’t sure of how it would work as a Bond theme. Once the credits began, and I heard the first notes, it worked. I guess all it took was the context of the opening credits of a James Bond film…

Here’s what I didn’t like. Many of the action sequences were filmed and edited with extremely quick cuts; these sequences were often disorienting and hard to follow. At times, there was very little plot movement between action scenes, and sometimes it just felt like Bond magically moved from one location to the next. I felt like Fields, the British paper pusher played by the very beautiful Gemma Arterton, was sorely underused; I would have loved to have seen her in future Bond outings. The character of Felix Leiter was underutilized as well.

All in all, Quantum Of Solace is a fine addition to the James Bond canon. It may not win him many new fans, but I think 007 purists will be satisfied.

My quickie movie review: Indiana Jones

Admittedly, I’m not an avid moviegoer by any means; I mean the last movie saw in the theater was Casino Royale (and that’s because the only thing that would stop my going to the opening weekend of a new James Bond movie would be the rapture)..so I’m probably not really qualified to review a movie. So what? Here goes…

My brother and I went to see Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull today. I had heard quite a bid of bad and indifferent press going in, but I was surprised. It wasn’t bad; I pretty much enjoyed it. Parts of it were particularly visually stunning; in fact, the opening sequence was one of the best photographed scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Harrison Ford hasn’t lost a step, and the film didn’t play up the “older”angle too much. The chemistry between him and Shia Lebeouf was excellent; Shia looked game for the role and not as intense and super-serious as I thought he might be. Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, wasn’t that impressive, and she seemed to phone in her performance. I was happy to see Karen Allen back on the screen. Part of the ending left me a little unsatisfied, but it wasn’t the part of the plot that I thought I’d be disappointed in. All in all, I don’t regret paying matinee prices for it, and with ticket prices nowadays, that ought to be a high compliment!