Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Independent Pictures.
Typography is an unlikely subject for newspaper reporters, but when it does make news, it's perhaps worthy of a closer look. And in yesterday's premier 2006 edition of The New York Times, the paper featured not one, but two stories in which type was not only cited, but cited incorrectly.
It's a vexing start to the new year a harbinger, I fear, of even more typographic doom.
The first story was a piece by Peter Edidin on the Directions page (Good Film, Shame About the Helvetica), an interesting spin on the jarring typographic anachronisms that routinely mar historical films which, by the way, only seem to be noticed by type obsessives like myself and perhaps a few others (fellow Design Observer Michael Bierut comes to mind.) For starters, the picture accompanying the piece a still from Good Night, and Good Luck, is a visual oxymoron: clearly, whoever was responsible for putting that Helvetica behind George Clooney either (A) ignored the fact that CBS had a perfectly adequate logo back in the Edward R. Murrow era (a logo that would have been pretty easy to locate and lift for the film) or worse, (B) said person, convinced that certain things like Helvetica are timeless, decided that this did not oblige the poster to adhere to principles of historical accuracy.
Let me quickly add here that CBS Creative Director William Golden's famous "Eye" logo made its television debut on October 20, 1951. See it Now, (the Edward R. Murrow program dramatized in GNAGL) premiered less than a month later on November 18 of that same year. (Times journalists take note: this act of labor-intensive research took .38 seconds on Google.)
Sadly, the person responsible for this act of typographic malfeasance remains a complete mystery to the reader: he or she is, instead, protected by the reporter who somehow never manages to identify a production designer, set decorator, property master or design consultant any number of individuals (depending upon the production) who might be responsible for the use of graphic design in a film. Though the critics of these anachronisms are named, none of the guilty parties are leaving it up to those of us who sit patiently through the high-speed scrolling at the end of the film to concoct our own Halls of Shame, our own imaginary perp walks for the typographically unenlightened (if well-paid) hacks who somehow manage to avoid fact-checking that includes even the slightest debt to design history (another term, by the way, completely left out of Edidn's piece.)
Not to be outdone, Christian Moerk's essay on current film posters (Not Just Another Half-Dozen Pretty, Floating Faces) examines recent deviations from the contractually mandated convention of celebrity portraiture. By way of example, Moerk illustrates this not-entirely-new phenomenon with the poster for a new horror film, Hostel, that features an image of a surgical clamp by the photographer Mark Kessell. (The even creepier German poster can be found here.) The photographer clearly describes a detached relationship to the use of his image on the poster (reproduced along with the article) which he, evidently, did not design: in fact, a few pages later there's an ad for the very same movie using the same logotype minus Kessell's clamp image. Hostel's poster designer is not consulted, but various heads of marketing for movie studios are available for comment (even an independent producer is quoted by the author) and all of them conflate the idea of conceptually-driven movie posters with fine art. The word design, in fact, never actually appears in this essay on poster design: Andrzej Pagowski's poster for the 1968 Polish release of Rosemary's Baby a true masterpiece of this genre is, for example, labeled as art rather than the truly stunning piece of illustration design that it is. Pagowski is, infact, nowhere credited as the designer of this poster: and once again, design history is mangled in the service of inflated Hollywood egos eager to lay claim to a higher rung of ill-perceived artistic achievement.
As a resident of Los Angeles, none of this is news to me. "The industry," as it is commonly known, does not, in general, respect the work of designers: such work is seen as instrumental in pursuit of a larger end product that is ultimately controlled by producers. (Read backers.) Thus, it has come to be a fact of life that the dignity of authorship (and all that it implies) is not afforded to those working behind the scenes those anonymous visionaries whose names appear, in Hollywood contract parlance, below the line. Is it too much to hope that The New York Times, in covering such topics with the skilled objectivity we have come to expect from the "newspaper of record" might adopt a more articulate, informed, and independent stance when reviewing the work of designers connected with this medium? Designers deserve better, and so do the movies they help make possible. As for those innocent fonts, visual markers of cultural history that they can, and should be perhaps the time has come to start a Typographic War Crimes Tribunal. Or at the very least: a witness protection program for Helvetica.
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