Typefaces

I remember somebody once making an analogy about singing the national anthem at the beginning of a Cubs game: it is a brief formality everyone observes before “all breaks loose”. Which is how I’ve always viewed choosing a font before I type up a document or design my website.

At least until I saw the documentary film “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit and read the book “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield. Good designers create and select typefaces with tremendous care; they are not just accidents or afterthoughts. For some important projects, like developing the signage for the London Underground, the designer was in on the plans from the beginning and created the Underground font when no other seemed perfect for the job.

In the film and the book, there is some discussion about whether a font should be “invisible”; if you don’t notice it then it must be doing its job. In “Just My Type”, Garfield uses Comic Sans as a counterexample, a typeface despised by professionals and laypersons alike:

Comic Sans is a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing, much less end up (as it has) on the side of an ambulance or gravestone. It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be a typeface at all.

I hate Comic Sans. Hate it. I think it looks unprofessional or unserious, and Garfield agrees, but he points out that it is misuse or overuse that makes it the wrong font, not that the font itself is badly designed. And if I saw it on a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper it would probably make me smile with affection.

Both the filmmaker and the author argue that the font ought not be totally invisible, that it should contribute something besides legibility and readability, like beauty or meaning, to the text. Many consider Helvetica dated, trite, corporate, and establishment. But there is something clean and concise and strong about it that I like. Or at least the film and my design-minded wife have gotten me to appreciate it, and with my new Mac I get to see it in action more (I’m typing in Helvetica now). Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, but offers its ugly stepsister Arial as a substitute. I couldn’t describe to you the graphical differences (like with many fonts the differences are so subtle) but it’s a like a Kardashian sister that is not named Kim; if you weren’t aware of her pedigree you probably would not turn your head for another look.

I didn’t agonize over my selections of fonts for my blog. WordPress’s present default theme fonts are Helvetica and Georgia, but I don’t use them. Georgia I find a bit blocky-looking, though it and its sans-serif counterpart Verdana (another I don’t care for) are designed for readability on the Web. Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, so it would appear to their users as Arial or another of the browser’s default sans-serif fonts. I’ve used Trebuchet (for headers) and Palatino (for long texts) on this website for a few years. Both are “Web safe” (compatible with different operating systems) and highly readable, which are important to my accessibility goals for this site. And they’re pretty. Palatino has a classy, warm, old style charm and Trebuchet is quirky but compact and fluid.

Some books

Here’s a rundown of some books I’ve read lately, besides “Moneyball”, all worthwhile:

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. Though most of the book doesn’t seem to take itself very seriously, it has perhaps one of the most chilling endings I’ve ever read.

“Why is Sex Fun?” by Jared Diamond. Why indeed? It turns out we humans have rather peculiar sexual behavior in comparison with the rest of the animal kingdom. If you happen to like reading about human evolution as much as I do, then I recommend Diamond’s later book “The Third Chimpanzee”, which covers the same ground and more.

Speaking of human evolution, I re-read “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel a couple of weekends ago while I was sick. I read it and re-read it when I was a teenager but haven’t read it since then. Auel provides so much rich detail about the hypothetical lives of Neanderthals and yet manages to make those same lives so soap opera-like. I’ve read some of the sequels and they’re not as good; without the Neaderthal melodrama they’re just Cro-Magnon porn.

And I just finished “Nerd Do Well” a rambly memoir by actor Simon Pegg. If you think he seems a little young for a memoir, you’re right. It’s mostly about his childhood until the last few short chapters which sketch out his professional career in the name-dropping manner of a DVD featurette before an abrupt ending in which he sort of apologizes for not wanting to write more about (besides mentioning their names) the luminous people with whom he presently consorts. The main thing to take away from it is how he transformed his boyhood infatuation with “Star Wars” and other pop culture installations into a personal creative engine. Unlike other more workmanlike actors, he actually likes the movies he appears in. It’s not a good book but if you like Pegg’s movies there is some fun stuff in it.

Moneyball the book

Having had an opinion on “Moneyball” the movie, I checked out “Moneyball” the book by Michael Lewis. I was not surprised that the movie took a lot of liberty with the particulars of the story. The movie also doesn’t reveal that Michael Lewis was actually there in the scenes depicting general manager Billy Beane as he shapes the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season. Apparently he was hanging out with Beane all year gathering material for the book. How he picked such an interesting year to shadow the team is a mystery.

Lewis makes scouting meetings and trade deadline phone calls seem really exciting. The book has some quirks: awkward metaphors, imprecise language, and an overestimation of the literary value of baseball writer Bill James. Lewis refers to the Oakland Athletics as poor because of their anemic player payroll when they were really just cheap. Like the movie, the book seems to ignore that the 2002 Oakland Athletics had a really good team, and were not really built around the handful of undervalued role players Billy Beane had scavenged from other teams.

For all the differences in opinion over its management practices, professional baseball delivers pretty clear results. You either win or you lose, succeed or fail. Lewis barely mentions Oakland’s first round playoff loss to the equally low-budget Minnesota Twins, dismissing the postseason as statistically insignificant, as if it winning in the postseason wasn’t the entire point of the season. Scientific management by the Oakland Athletics has yielded diminishing returns as the team’s performance has steadily declined since 2002. Their top amateur draft choices in 2002, which get a lot of attention in the book as examples of Beane’s objective approach prevailing over conventional wisdom, have had ordinary results in the intervening years.

But “Moneyball” ends with the 2002 season and doesn’t track the long term effects of Beane’s scientific management beyond that year or that team, though his methods have been adopted in greater or lesser measures by most others. In 2011 most baseball owners, managers, players, fans, and observers have still not been completely converted. Lewis notes the symptoms of baseball’s conservatism but misses the cause: that as a nationally-protected cultural monopoly, Major League Baseball operates in a insulated environment without external competition and will be very, very slow to change.

Moneyball

Detroit and Texas were rained out tonight so we saw a movie about baseball instead.

I’m not sure what made it so, but “Moneyball” is a pretty good movie. It didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, though. The movie made it seem like the 2002 Oakland Athletics were like the Cleveland Indians in “Major League”. Far from it. They had a very good team (one of the best starting rotations in the league, strong hitters, and some very good defensive players), they just had to plug a few holes. They were also far from the poorest team or the smallest market; perhaps they were just stingier. At any rate, they had built a good team without the “Moneyball” approach, and “Moneyball” didn’t stop them from being eclipsed in their division during the rest of the decade by their big-money rivals, the Los Angeles Angels.

The moment in the film where the Red Sox offer Beane an unprecedented salary to be their general manager undermines the whole concept of the movie. And there is a ridiculous epilogue at the end that says the Red Sox won the World Series a couple of years later by implementing Beane’s strategy. Total baloney. Just like there was no other way for the Athletics to compete with teams like the New York Yankees by spending money, there was no way the Red Sox could compete with the Yankees without spending money. Just the fact that John Henry was willing to throw ridiculous amounts of money at a general manager proves it. Beane was right to upend baseball’s archaic wisdom on player value, but until the financial playing field among teams is leveled, it won’t tip the balance.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

So many plot spoilers below…

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was fun. I’ve read some criticisms of it, mostly from reviewers who took it way too seriously. Even with some good actors like James Franco and Brian Cox, the humans are the least interesting characters in the movie.

I have the original “Planet of the Apes” movie on DVD here at home. It has perhaps the most spoiled movie plot on… the future Planet of the Apes. Long before I first saw it in college, a clip from the end had appeared in a television documentary about the Statue of Liberty. Mel Brooks also spoofed its ending in “Spaceballs”.

Ape #1: Dear me. What are these things coming out of her nose?
Ape #2: Spaceballs!
Ape #1: Oh, shit. There goes the planet.

“Spaceballs”, 1987

But the worst plot spoiler for “Planet of the Apes” was the cover illustration on the old VHS box which included a picture of the Statue of Liberty. That’s like putting LUKE I AM YOUR FATHER in 48-point Helvetica on the cover of “The Empire Strikes Back”. I saw it a few years ago in the video store and couldn’t contain my disgust. I complained to a nearby stranger and probably ruined it for him too. If I had never seen the movie I would have watched it wondering whole the whole time why there was a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the cover, and then finally at the end… well, I would have demanded my $2.50 back from the video store.

For that matter, the mere existence of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a massive plot spoiler for the original. This madness must stop. Please everybody stop talking and writing about “Planet of the Apes” and quit making other movies about it. You’re ruining it for everyone else.

The fast runner

Cool stuff in “The Fast Runner”, an Inuktitut-language Canadian film about an Eskimo legend, includes igloos, sealskin clothing, dog sleds, and the complete absence of anything green. The actors are mostly amateurs but they’re not a talkative bunch anyway, like the beleaguered grandmother who looks askance at every ominous turn of events and only speaks when she has something important to say.

It’s refreshing to see a movie that is very basic and good. The story of Atanarjuat is more of a subplot to the illustration of ancient Inuit life. It is set in blinding white snow, steely blue waters, gravely gray beaches, and brown bogs. The characters live on the edge of the livable world making campfires out of lichen and burning seal blubber for light. They don’t keep a lot of stuff around, making things like drums and party igloos when they need them. They eat seals, fish, birds, and caribou, but I don’t think a vegetable appears on-screen, unless seaweed counts.

WarGames

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

“WarGames”, 1983

“WarGames” was on my list of top films for a while. Then I dropped it and now I’m wondering why. It was among the flurry of nukesploitation films of the mid 1980s. There’s a scene toward the end, when the two teenagers are talking about all the things they wouldn’t be able to do because of an imminent nuclear war. I remember having conversations like this when I was kid. It was a ridiculous thing for kids to talk about but we thought the world could end at any moment in an exchange of atomic fury. Thanks, President Reagan.

Looking at it from today’s perspective, the creepiest thing is about “WarGames” not the anxiety about nuclear war but the rather too familiar methods of the main character trying to crack the military computer’s password. I can’t get the idea of phishing scam e-mails from Ferris Bueller out of my head.

Also looking back on it, the Defense Department sure had a lot of people whose job it was to announce out loud every increment of the way to certain doom.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Caution! Could spoil a movie for you.

Lore recommended to me documentary film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. It’s well-summarized and reviewed by Roger Ebert so I’ll skip that part.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” was pretty provocative stuff. Commenting on the controversy around the artist Mr. Brainwash, another artist muses,

“I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”

This is almost a throwaway moment in the film even though it captures its central point, which may have been more obvious to the filmmakers than to me. What was acceptable about a street artist pasting Space Invaders around Paris or Andy Warhol’s mass-produced Marilyn Monroes but not acceptable about Mr. Brainwash’s even more derivative art? Where is this line drawn and who draws it? I wish they had pursued that discussion a little further.

For her part, Lore thinks Mr. Brainwash “is an idiot”.

Annie versus Scarface

Who would win? Annie or Scarface?

It might be hard to take Annie seriously with her frizzy red hair and cute smile. But being raised in an orphanage by a drunk woman who wants to step on your freckles is a great character-builder. When Annie’s in trouble she can also draw upon the vast resources of Daddy Warbucks Industries and the New Deal. I would not mess with this girl.

Scarface (the Paul Muni Scarface), on the other hand, is a sociopath who does his own killing. He appears to lack an impulse control, going on a months-long murder and racketeering bender until he flames out in a hailstorm of bullets. He’s his own Miss Hannigan, slapping his cheeky sister around (Miss Hannigan at least managed to preserve Annie’s life). I would stay away from this person as well.

“Annie” has a whacked-out dance scene with floor-scrubbing, pillow-fighting orphans. “Scarface” has a gangster being gunned down as he bowls a strike. “Annie” has a magic Sikh. “Scarface” has an illiterate secretary. “Annie” has an auto-copter that can land in the president’s backyard. “Scarface” shoots the pages off his wall calendar each day.

We’ll call it a draw.

Falling Down

“Falling Down” immediately got my attention with the opening scene: a hot day, traffic stopped dead in its tracks, contemptible people all around. This all heaped on top of what we later find out to be a disappointing and troubled personal life. Who wouldn’t go nuts? Well, Robert Duvall’s character for one.

Anybody can find something heroic in D-FENS’s (Michael Douglas’s character) lashing out at the decaying mores of post-Cold War Los Angeles. When I first saw it in 1993 I was taken aback by his taking a baseball bat to a Korean man’s wares of overpriced snacks, but I liked the part (the theater audience applauded, as I recall) where he punched out the rude driver. There’s an opportunity here for self-reflection: while at times he may happen to be your favorite flavor of obnoxious creep, he’s just one more in a movie populated by them.

I remember this movie was controversial for its ethnic stereotyping. That was part of the movie’s point, though. It wouldn’t have made sense if Los Angeles was only inhabited sensible white people. How would living in 1950s version of Los Angeles fill an old-fashioned white guy with rage? I thought “Falling Down” was more about the end of an era. The Cold War had ended and the time when white male technocrats sat at the social apex was long gone.

I always liked Michael Douglas. It’s inevitable that I too will become a middle-aged white man, so I might as well do it with the twisted flair of some of his characters.

I like it but why?

The A.V. Club, The Onion’s pop culture website, posts humorous “inventories” of film (like films with creepy babies, films with horrible aging makeup, etc.). In the videos I see that the writers are all about my age. I wonder if there’s something about being thirty-something that makes one want to make inventories.

The A.V. Club’s writers can be a little artsy-fartsy sometimes but here’s what I admire about them: they can articulate why they like a movie, television show, album, or book. Something I would like to be better at.

A few years ago I updated my “Top Films of the Past Seven Centuries” list and as I did so I wondered, why do I like these films? And what’s a top film? Are these my favorite films or are they the best films I’ve seen? I think they are neither or perhaps a little of both.

For example, I’ve seen “Independence Day” a gazillion times. It’s a fun movie to watch, but I don’t think it’s great. You might say I could have lived my life without ever seeing it and be better off for it. My favorite film (“Seven Samurai”), on the other hand, I’ve seen only a few times. “The Godfather”, for which a friend once gave me grief for leaving off my list, is both excellent and enjoyable but I can’t quite bring myself to put it there.

I guess my top films have to say something about me. So… I’m going to watch all my top films again plus a few others and see just what that something is. This might take a while.

The King’s Peach

“The King’s Peach” was a wonderful movie about a king and his peach. The king’s peach wasn’t quite right and gave him diarrhea, but with help from a kindly Australian he was cured and led the resistance against National Socialism. The end.

In other news, “The King’s Speech” was also a very good movie. It told a lot of different stories: the king’s stuggle with his speech impediment, his personal isolation, and his reluctance to assume the throne. The actors turned in fine performances, but I thought the guy playing Churchill camped it up a little too much.

Bad movie, good movie

I recall reading a good review for Despicable Me somewhere. I wish I could remember what the reviewer thought was so redeeming about it. Animation studios ought to take a closer look at Pixar films and see how technically excellent movies can also be fun and interesting.

Then, we saw The Fighter. If you are like me you were probably thinking, “Finally, a movie about Massachusetts white trash,” or “Finally, a movie about boxing.” And yet it is a very good movie, mostly because of the strong performance by just about everyone with a speaking role (especially Christian Bale but especially Melissa Leo).

Cedar Rapids (the movie)

We’ve heard a lot of good things about “The King’s Speech”. It got great reviews, my friend recommended it to me, plus it won all those awards. So naturally we went to see “Cedar Rapids” tonight.

I admit I just wanted to see it out of curiosity, and to see what it made out of our local metropolis. “Cedar Rapids” is showing on two screens at our sleepy neighborhood multiplex (“The King’s Speech” on just one, sorry). The theater was about as close to full as I’ve ever seen it and the audience was—dare I say—excited.

Maybe the buoyant crowd offered some synergy, but it turns out “Cedar Rapids” is a lot of fun. The main character is so naive and unworldly that at first he’s almost not funny. Then John C. Reilly bursts on the scene and gives him an excuse to color outside the lines. Reilly’s made a name for himself in comic roles, but he is a very good actor.

Anyone who has ever gone to an out-of-town conference for a few days and had a good time with some new friends can appreciate “Cedar Rapids” (though I’ve never had quite that much excitement). And the performers got the precariously repressed demeanor of Midwesterners right enough that they weren’t too far into the territory of the “Hollywood Midwest”.

I say make another. How about “King of Iowa City”, about a drug lord building his empire right here in the UNESCO City of Literature? Maybe I’ll write it if somebody dares me.