Enjoy it in the theater. Be the commentator at home.
“Great art does not push aside the moral boundaries of the past, it pushes the art form forward. I do not believe that safe and status quo films, though decently acted, should garner awards. Those films which push the art form forward and add to its rich heritage should attain that distinction.”
Legacy: Worth Less
I bought a laptop once I decided to switch from a Microsoft operating system to a Macintosh system. (Best technology decision I’ve ever made, by the way. I only regret not doing it sooner.) That was 2004; it is now 2011.
On a recent Apple store visit I was clued in to the nickname of a computer that old: legacy. That means newer than vintage but older than classic — and still worth less than both. So I started thinking about the pace of technology and what things are disappearing.
The kicker for me is not that gadgets come and go, but that concepts themselves are changing. Entire categories of technological concepts will have disappeared by the time you are fluent in the technology of your day. Because of touch- and gesture-based technology, the vestige method for selecting an item — the mouse click — is currently being replaced by the more natural finger tap. The tap is more in line with what we expect should happen, but how long will the tap be around?
Let’s take the simple act of listening to music as an example. Of course it starts with an instrument, but recording that instrument and then playing it back is another matter. There was the phonograph, then the vinyl album turntable, the eight-track tape, then the cassette tape, the compact disc, and then the world of digital audio. There are a few more subcategories to each of those, but that’s the general overview.
With the phonograph and turntable, a needle had to be guided directly into a groove on a spinning disc. We had to ensure careful placement of the needle or the resulting scratches would distort the sound. Utilizing a needle also meant that the more the album was listened to, the more degraded the sound playback quality became.
Eight-track and cassette tapes had to be inserted into a playdeck certain way; the playback head needed cleaning; if the magnetic band got crinkled, the sound became warbled; to listen to an entire album we had to flip the cassette to the other side, or — crazy words here — fast-forward and rewind to the song of your choice. Of those two terms, because of digital audio, you may never truly understand what rewind means. Sure, you can skip to this song or that movie, but rewinding will be a non-concept to you. It was part of my world, but it won’t be part of yours.
We rewound everything. If we liked a song, we had to rewind it. If we liked one side and not the other, rewind it. If we watched a movie on a VHS tape, we had to rewind it if we ever wanted to watch it again. This was especially true when we went to a physical store to rent a VHS movie. It was the renter’s responsibility to rewind it before returning it or the store would charge extra to do it for you. So we bought dedicated machines with the sole job of rewinding video cassette tapes.
DVD discs and digital movie files changed this entirely.
I don’t lament newer, faster, and better technology, but it does feel odd that an entire concept will be foreign to you: Be kind, please rewind.
Watch the black and white film Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) with José Ferrer in the lead role. It’s a fantastic tale of love and wanting the best for someone else, even if it means not getting something you desire. And the final frame of a life sacrificially given — laying at the foot of a cross while his beloved weeps over him and over her realization of what she has lost — is more than poignant. It harkens to the greater story line, the greater sacrifice, the greater mediator, the greater love.
It is interesting to me how “self-sacrifice for the sake of someone else’s eternal best” is universally honored.
“I would rather deal with a tyrant any day than a committee. Committees, as a general rule, aren’t willing to take chances, which is why you have a committee in the first place — so you can share the blame.”
—Hal Riney, interview from the documentary Art & Copy (August 2009)
I don’t think “love at first sight” is a real thing because it beggars the understanding of what love truly is. I certainly understand the appeal of a meant-to-be fated romance, but that has not the depth that twenty or fifty years of loyal marriage contains. First-sighted love is shallow by comparison.
Maybe “spark at first sight” or “connection at first sight” is more accurate. But those phrases won’t catch on because they’re not romantic enough; they’re too factual and miss all the poetry of the feelings of the moment.
But isn’t that the point? Love isn’t a moment. It’s a million moments back to back. Love is the totality of what is looked back on, it’s the reminiscences by those who have always held that one relationship in higher regard than any other, even among myriad opportunities. Love is not fleeting, not temporary, not able to be had with whomever and whenever.
The spark is a welcomed and celebrated first step — an emotional doorway drug — along the path of love, but it is not love itself. The spark is the emotional high. It’s the manic part of the plot, the shallow scenes of the movie that are fun and easy to write but not where the depth of the characters is explored.
We can all recognize the universality of a story that highlights the spark, but we long to connect with the truth revealed in commitment’s depth. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not a romance, but a tragedy — if for no other reason than that they never progress past manic emotionalism and into something more mature. The spark was all they had, and even that was quickly gone.
But compare that with the excellent prelude of the computer animated film Up. The spark between the couple sets the buoyant tone and we get the sense that great love has flourished between them. Their love has matured through life’s ebb and flow, through achievements and disappointments. The movie’s silent prelude leads us through the spark of their romance, the depth of their love, and the pain of losing the same. It is this arc that moves us emotionally and prepares us to suspend disbelief when, as an older man, the main character launches into his greatest journey, all borne from the depth of his commitment. (And notice from Shakespeare that irrational sacrifice is the outcome of the spark’s immaturity, while in Up we see that love puts correct emphasis on enthralled living.)
The spark certainly has its role. It convinces you to lower your defenses, take a risk, and then take responsibility for a real relationship. It’s an invitation into something greater. The spark is an emotional promise, “There is something greater than what you feel right now, something worth the time, worth your heart.” The spark can’t take responsibility for what comes after and how the relationship unfolds, but it is truthful in its promise to open the doorway to love.
The spark says, “Carpe diem,” this is the only moment that matters, the most important moment of your life. But what comes after convinces you that every moment since has mattered, has made your life what it is. This is much more than the spark could ever have given; this is love.
There was a time when the only thing shown before movies was previews, not commercials.
My high school drama teacher once said, “The best actors are those who can step the furthest away from themselves convincingly.”
This also applies to those in the art of typography or type design: They momentarily step out of themselves and try to become something else. Yes, the “crystal goblet” theory applies here because both the actor and the typographer must not be seen. In a theatre we should be shocked by the presence of the credits because we were so engaged in the sincerity of the acting itself. We should be equally as shocked by the clarity of a sign or a paragraph that, only after we have read it, do we reflect on how effortless it was. Save for ornamentation, effortless legibility is a noble goal.
Recognizing Meaning in Movies
In a dramatic movie, the silent message conveyed in the blank stare or quick lip curl is stronger than any spoken line could. I think of a split-second in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that speaks volumes without even seeing Harrison Ford’s face. Indiana Jones has just had a startling conversation with someone seeking the cup of Christ. His team has found key clues to its location, but has been attacked and the leader taken prisoner. As we see Jones accepting the probability that the chalice can be found, he turns to the persuasive financier, Walter Donovan, and says, “You’ve got the wrong Jones, Mr. Donovan. Why don’t you try my father?”
With that brush-off, Jones picks up his hat as the scene comes to its climax. His unfocused hand clutching his hat stays in the foreground at waist height while the camera focuses on Donovan in the background. Donovan’s disheartening reply comes: “We already have. Your father is the man who’s disappeared.” The camera doesn’t swing up to reveal Jones’s reaction, it just watches his hand sink ever so slightly on hearing this news. We knew exactly what Jones was thinking in that moment.
Recognizing Meaning in Typefaces
Humans are not letters. We don’t look or act like letters. Typographers must become the characters — something completely foreign to their way of being — in order to express them as art and as containers of meaning. How is it that we can see the word serious written in one typeface and believe that it is somber, but in another typeface we understand that it is meant sarcastically? To me it seems an almost metaphysical thing for humans to get so far away from themselves as to create character shapes that engender feelings. Sure, with motion it becomes easier to convey feeling and tone, but how is it possible with a static character? The typographer has tapped into our intuition in this case and drawn out of us their true meaning. Repeat: The typographer has drawn out of us their true meaning. The forms they create tell us exactly what they were thinking without having any contact with them. Whether we are a type aficionado or not, we are feeling the letter. That’s possibly why comedies use one style of type (big, red, capitalized 3-D, apparently), serious dramas use another (Helvetica thin, Gotham, Futura, or Mrs. Eaves), and horror movies use another (um, sharpened Trajan . . . with a blood trail).
The best actors can become so absorbed by the aura of another era that they become iconic. The futility and depravity in Hotel Rwanda; the interpersonal tension, spite, and misunderstandings in Crash; the family connections and personal expectations in The Godfather; the struggle between identity, destiny, and desire in Superman.
Making Identity and Typeface Match: Tone
Words have definitions — they must, there is no doubt — and type carries feeling, but well-chosen type causes words and feeling to match. “Font design,” Rian Hughes once said in a MyFonts interview, “is a curious mix of the technical and the aesthetic, the left and right brain.” He continued, “A bad typeface is an unresolved typeface, one that doesn’t know what it’s trying to convey.” When typographers do their job with excellence, they have become absorbed by the thoughts, feelings, and aura of another time only to transfer those to the reader. The best typographers are geniuses at this. They cause us to read the word but feel the form. When rebranding, companies will often say of their rejected type choices, “It’s too friendly . . . too serious . . . we’re a vibrant, growing company and this is too boring . . . we want something historical, not futuristic.” They are intuiting the feeling of the typeface and matching it with who they believe they are. They can feel when it doesn’t match, even if they can’t explain why. They are referring to tone.
The best actors convince the public of their role. Denzel Washinton in Training Day; Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Awakenings, and One Hour Photo; Charlize Theron in Monster; Donnie Wahlberg’s character Vincent in The Sixth Sense; Jaime Foxx in Ray and Collateral; Val Kilmer in Tombstone; Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Whether they garner awards or not, they become the standard for that kind of role. And they don’t do it just once; the better they are, the more convincingly they are able to do it time and again. Those who tell the story best own it. That’s why many believe that fairy tales are no longer public domain or originated by the Brothers Grimm, but by Disney.
Type Designers Convince
The best typographers have inhabited an era and convinced the public of that role. They have told the story best. Arno, Myriad, and Minion by Robert Slimbach; Swift by Gerard Unger; Feijoa by Kris Sowersby; Mostra Nuova, Proxima Nova, and Kinescope by Mark Simonson; Parkinson and Mojo by Jim Parkinson; Amplitude and Farnham by Christian Schwartz; FF Unit and the FF Meta family by Erik Spiekermann; Cezanne by P22; the Soho and Neo families by Sebastian Lester; Bree, Karmina, Maiola, and Adelle by Veronika Burian and José Scaglione; FaceBuster by Silas Dilworth; Arnhem and FF Quadraat by Fred Smeijers; Helvetica by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman; numerous scripts by Hermann Zapf; Klavika by Eric Olson; Liza and Fakir by Underware; Verdana and Georgia by Matthew Carter. These and countless others have told the story best.
The Best Story
As with any supreme art, great typography lets us become absorbed in the unspoken feeling of the moment because the artists themselves were able to inhabit and express that aura. In this, typographers are actors. They step out of themselves and become something else: robotic, ’70s psychedelic, velvety, disinterested, amorous, fearful, regal, luscious, strong, elegant, agitated. They transfer the feeling to us — not just the letter or the word. And they do it with aplomb, convincing the public of the time and place the typeface represents.
Dictionaries may own the definition, but typographers own the meaning and the feel — yes, the sum connotation. Look throughout history and you’ll see that this is why typographers have always told the best stories.