The Pick: Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy, three docs full of hot typefaces, beautiful objects and glorious city porn
Gary Hustwit has a knack for taking seemingly mundane subject matter—an ubiquitous sans-serif typeface, for example, or a potato peeler—and using it as a lens for riveting sociological insight. We first fell for Hustwit’s delightfully nerdy brand of filmmaking in 2007 with Helvetica, his fascinating look at the passionate, pedantic world of typography. He followed that up with Objectified, a documentary on the equally specialized sphere of packaging and industrial design. This year, he completes the trilogy with Urbanized, which zooms out on city planning and infrastructure, and which will be screening along with its companion films this week at the Lightbox.
For our money, Hustwit’s best film was his first. Helvetica treats type—that seemingly benign bit of background noise—with the same reverence and focus that other directors might devote to environment degradations or political upheaval. In Hustwit’s hands, type is a battlefield, with modernists, postmodernists and utilitarians coming to near blows over kerning, say, or the flourish of a serif. What’s more, his subjects are never just talking heads—they speak in idiosyncratic asides laden with off-the-cuff humour and clear passion for their subject matter.
Urbanized isn’t quite as successful as its predecessors—by expanding his scope into the sweeping realm of urban design (with Mumbai, Cape Town and Copenhagen as case studies), Hustwit loses that magic, nitpicky touch that made his other films such delights. And while it occasionally veers a little too far toward pie-in-the-sky leftie pieties (Hustwit even tweeted at Rob Ford, pointedly inviting him to a screening of the film), it’s still a well-made film, full of lively interview subjects and, best of all, glorious city porn. Taken together, the trilogy is an immersive, captivating investigation of the thousand little ways that design saturates our world—but if you can only see one, make it Helvetica.
The details: Until Jan. 17. Various times. $12. TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., tiff.net.