Sunday 22 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/21/07 - Scott Walker and Helvetica

Saw 2 films Saturday night at Hot Docs...

Scott Walker: 30th Century Man

I know that describing an artist's music by comparing it to others is a somewhat "lazy" critical method, but I'm not a critic (and I am lazy). When it comes to Scott Walker, I'm not really sure there's any way to truly give an impression of his music in any written form, but I'll give it a shot:

Nick Drake, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen get drunk and put together a band using home made instruments found in a junkyard to play songs by Laurie Anderson with arrangements done by Tom Waits.

Hmmm, probably not quite accurate. But not having heard Scott Walker's music before going into this film, that will have to suffice as my untrained initial impression. Even so, it's not fair. From his early days doing folky pop songs with The Walker Brothers (not really brothers) to the more grandiose orchestral arrangements that followed and moving into more experimental music as time went on, he has covered a wide range. As the film went on you could see how his influence (particularly in the U.K. where the Walker Brothers had some huge hits) was very widespread. His deep baritone, bordering on tuneless occasionally, can be found in David Bowie, Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and others, while his restless experimentation is all over the late Punk and New Wave artists (in particular it seems he was inspired by and then further re-inspired folks like Brian Eno).

My personal tastes kick in more around the time of a 1978 Walker Brothers album (they reunited in the mid-70s) called Nite Flights. The Scott Walker penned tracks that were sampled in the movie sound quite startling in comparison to the earlier pop sound and any 'twee' leanings have been scrubbed away with steel wool. This seems to nicely set up the darker and darker sounding songs that the rest of the film focuses on which are culled from 1984's Climate Of Hunter, 1995's Tilt and last year's The Drift.

The film jumps around between a straight chronological history of Walker with recent interview footage. For all the mystery that surrounded him during his earlier days and articles that described his reclusive nature, he comes across as a very well-spoken and rather normal person. Though he admits he can't really ever simply be happy. And if there's a common trait in his music, that would be it. It's dark, depressing and kinda scary. But it's incredibly intriguing.

Other sections of the film show him in the studio recording "The Drift" using pieces of raw meat, empty wooden crates and other objects to bring specific sounds from his mind to life. It's not just gimmickery - it truly feels like he is trying to recreate what only he can hear in his head. Since we hear a lot of his music in the film, there has to be something on screen while we're listening. In some cases the filmmakers simply leave the camera on the face of an interview subject and we watch their reactions to the music. In others, specially created patterns and morphing visuals float across the screen - probably the closest he'll come to a real music video. Neither are perfect, but both convey a good deal of the feeling of the music.

It's not a perfect documentary or even always entertaining, but it's made me very curious about Scott Walker's music. I can't imagine the makers of this film could really hope for more than that.


"I wish every non-designer I know could be forced to watch this." (single line summation heard on the way out of the theatre).

It's an odd topic for a feature length film, but this look at the typeface extensively used across the world managed to completely sell out its initial showing at Hot Docs. And though it was slightly dry in some of the early going, you could understand why it was so popular. With gentle humour, a couple of very interesting and even cranky interview subjects and some really great scenic examples of Helvetica (in all its marketing glory), this doc perfectly mixed information and entertainment.

Let's start with those scenic examples which break up the talking heads in the rest of the film. Via city scenes filmed at interesting angles and complimented by well-selected music (I've had the band El Ten Eleven on my "check them out" list for awhile and they've now moved higher up), you not only get a really strong feeling for how pervasive this particular font is, but are treated to an artistic approach to how these signs and messages are incorporated into our daily lives.

Now I have to admit that the job title of a typeface designer has made me previously think "well yeah, but what do you do the other 364 days of the year?" But the film does a fine job in showing considerations into which a designer must delve such as the relationships between each character in a typeface, height versus width ratios, blank spaces within characters (that little teardrop shape inside a lower case 'a') and different creative design approaches. The Swiss seemed to hit upon a goldmine with the efficiently designed Helvetica.

Even more interesting though is the direct and indirect impact a font can have on segments of our lives and our environment. A number of the people on camera wax a bit too poetically about how a font can breathe life into a billboard or capture the spirit of an entire nation, but at least they aren't dull in their attempts. Two of the best segments: 1) the comparison between a 1957 Life magazine and its myriad of styles of lettering in the advertisements and a more recent modern Helvetica inspired direct approach and 2) the cranky typeface designer who bemoans the usage of Helvetica and its even worse clone 'Arial'.

By the time you walk out of the theatre, you'll be spotting Helvetica everywhere. To reinforce this, every single subtitle or screen description in the film is also rendered in Helvetica.

And of course, so was this post.


Unknown said...

No, you’re using Trebuchet in this post. You might want to tweak your CSS.

Bob Turnbull said...

Nuts...Well, I used span style="font-family:helvetica;" so I thought it would show up properly. Any tips?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your review of the Scott Walker doc. I really enjoy his music but he's a very reclusive guy so I hope the doc offers more insight into his work and creative process. I know David Bowie helped produce the film because he's a Walker fan and Walker was a huge influence on his own music, so I look forward to seeing the interview he did for the film.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi cinebeats...I think you'll enjoy it. Walker comes across as very thoughtful and well-spoken. In the Q&A afterwards, the director actually addressed the 'reclusive' question - he said Scott wasn't a reclusive guy, he just doesn't want fame or recognition. When asked "What have you been doing?" by an interviewer years ago about his long absence from the scene, he answered simply "Living."