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A Certain Type

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 18, 2007 2:06PM

2007_6helvetica.jpg What do The Gap, American Airlines, the main titles for Little Miss Sunshine and Royal Bank of Scotland have in common? They all use the same typeface: Helvetica. Born in 1957 its clean, "neutral" look was revolutionary. 50 years later, and it's omnipresent. If you keep your eyes peeled you'll see it everywhere around you, on practically every city street, in every newspaper and magazine and, most of all, in advertising. Why? As Finlo Rohrer of the BBC writes, "Helvetica's message is this: you are going to get to your destination on time; your plane will not crash; your money is safe in our vault; we will not break the package; the paperwork has been filled in; everything is going to be OK."

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit decided to make a documentary about the font; on Friday Helvetica started a one-week run at the Siskel. We know what you're thinking. A movie about a font?! Don't laugh. Not only did it garner a four-start review in the Trib and a Critic's Choice in the Reader, but both Friday night screenings were sold out, so they added a third. Siskel programmer Barbara Scharres introduced the film by noting that it's the most-requested title in the 35-plus-year history of the organization.

Not just a film for design geeks, it's instead a fascinating examination of mass media, modern visual communication, and even a sly metaphor about the differences between "square" professionalism and "hip" amateurism. It's a beautifully shot (on hi-def video) assemblage of interviews with the likes of Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli (who designed the look of the NYC subway signage), David Carson and Paula Scher. It's accompanied by a soundtrack featuring great tracks by the Chicago Underground Quartet, Sam Prekop, Caribou and Four Tet among others.

Helvetica plays daily through this Thursday only. Advance tickets are recommended.