Meditations on the beautiful

I am enjoying the absolute gratification of doing nothing this Labor Day weekend. Well, I’m not exactly doing nothing. I am just doing the quiet things at home that do not really constitute as major affairs but bring pleasure and satisfaction nonetheless. When I have this sort of free time, especially after a long week such as the past one, I often watch films. I’ve done a bit of this over the past three days. There has been a theme to them this weekend, however.

Friday night I was speaking with my parents over Skype and my father was lamenting the fact that there is nothing of value to watch on Netflix’s instant streaming service (I strongly beg to differ, but I’m a bit more cinematically adventurous than he). I, having watched a broad gamut of the available selections, offered to suggest a few. I did, and he was lukewarm, but then Mom and I got on the subject of documentaries. I love documentaries about anything and everything, really, and Netflix has a great selection. I then recommended a title that promptly had me lightly ridiculed. It was Gary Hustwit’s 2007 release, Helvetica. Yes, as in the font. Granted, at first glance this probably sounds supremely boring. I assure you, it’s not.

On a side note, interestingly enough, NPR ran an article about typography today. Read that after you read this, if you are still interested.

Helvetica, examines the importance of the typeface in its (at that point) fifty year existence, and its impact globally. It’s really an ode to the simultaneously subtle and overt beauty of Helvetica. It also showcases the hidden stories, aesthetic implications, and even emotional ties behind the creation and use of typefaces. It very effectively takes the viewer into the world of typography, one that is not hidden, just overlooked or unrealized by those outside of it. We fail to realize how much is behind the creation and use of something so seemingly ordinary and insignificant, and really, as Helvetica demonstrates, typefaces are neither ordinary nor unimportant. There’s also a surprising Helvetica vs. anti-Helvetica debate which the film addresses. It seems that, for those who are aware of and care about typography, one either loves or hates Helvetica. Love it or hate it or just don’t care about, it is EVERYWHERE. For me personally, I like it. It represents  everything visually pleasing about modernist design, clean, direct, and bold. It looks good practically everywhere, especially on book covers.

Photo by liikennevalo

I really love its use on the NYC Subway signage as well.

Photo by tracktwentynine

Helvetica is the first in a trilogy of documentaries by Hustwit, which focus on design and its importance in our world. After speaking with my Mom, and convincing her that Helvetica was really worth watching, I rewatched it. Then I decided to watch Hustwit’s second documentary in the trilogy, Objectified (2009), which focuses on design and the role, both realized and unrealized, it plays in our day-to-day existence. It really showcases, at least the way I viewed it, the legacy of the birth of the modernist age in which mass production became a reality and a very real problem was also born: how can visual appeal be preserved without the personal touch of the craftsperson and how can the mass-produced object appeal personally to the consumer and the human need for individuality. Although, modernism has arguably come and gone and been replaced by a number of other movements, this problem is still one that plagues designers just as much today as nearly a hundred years ago, thus making design a relevant and vital part of our world. Objectified, unabashedly conveys that sentiment.

Watching those two documentaries got me thinking. Design truly is an important part of our daily life. The sense of sight, for most of us, is arguably the most dominant. So much is conveyed within the visual appearance of something. Our brains, upon viewing something, instantly begin processing its appearance and almost instantly begin processing information about the object just from its visual attributes. Assumptions are tacked on to the object via our visual perception. Emotional responses are elicited, just within the first few seconds of visual contact, a large percentage of what we need to know about the object has already been conveyed. In short then, all those who say looks don’t matter, are incorrect. The way something looks matters immensely, proven just by examining the way our brains respond to visual stimuli. This then renders the job of the designer a necessary one. As humans, we naturally gravitate to what we find visually appealing. The designer’s job is to anticipate this and create objects that invite this appeal. A large portion of the identities we attribute to ourselves are based upon how we make ourselves look and the objects with which we surround ourselves. In short, design helps form the way we see ourselves, each other, and the world around us. This is also completely ignoring the other important factor in the work of the designer: creating useable objects. This post is about the visual, though, so I won’t get into that.

The third film in Hustwit’s trilogy, Urbanized, comes out later this year, and I can’t wait to see it. Since this was not available for viewing, I decided to complete my visual triptych, by rewatching what is the most beautiful and possibly the most disturbing film I have ever seen, Antichrist. I love Lars von Trier’s work as a filmmaker. I’m not such a big fan of his recent comments at Cannes (Lars, it’s never cool to say you sympathize with Hitler-ever), but I do think he is a brilliant director, and I am looking forward to seeing his latest work Melancholia.

Antichrist is what I like to refer to as a “deliciously fucked up” film. It is not particularly graphic in a gory sense, which I appreciate. I think gore, 99.9% of the time is unnecessary when it is used in most films and actually detracts from the film’s effectiveness. There are a few scenes which are slightly bloody, but not in a gratuitous way. I think von Trier has enough confidence in his story-telling abilities to convey disturbance without resulting to cheap tricks and buckets of blood.

I cannot say enough for the cinematography of this film. It is sumptuous, luxurious even. Everything-camera angles, lighting, scenery- is gorgeous and perfect, but an amazing contradiction is paired with the film’s visual beauty. The film’s subject matter is so disturbing that watching it is like putting on a mink coat only to find the inside is riddled with straight pins.

The opening sequence, or “Prologue” is the most exquisite piece of film I have ever watched, but also the most horrifying. It was watching this again, and having watched Hustwit’s two documentaries on design earlier, that I began to think again. The visual is so important to us, and we seek out the beautiful, this is true. How then do we reconcile the simultaneously beautiful and terrible? *Spoiler alert*  Antichrist opens with the death of a child, probably one of the most horrific events imaginable. Unimaginable to watch in real life, and very difficult to watch in the imitation of reality that is film. However, as I said, this opening sequence is the most visually stunning I have ever watched. But it is such a mindfuck, if you’ll pardon the phrase. It creates a disconnect in the brain: while appealing to me aesthetically but repulsing me emotionally creating a jam in the cognitive process thus rendering me  intensely uneasy but entirely captivated. Beautiful is supposed to be good, ugly is supposed to be bad, that’s how we’ve been conditioned. Turning that way of think on its head, challenges and fascinates, and I think that is amazing. Von Trier is ace with that, which is why I love his films so much.

I don’t know if I should recommend watching Antichrist. It’s not for everyone. Unless you are a sociopath, you will be extremely disturbed and made uneasy throughout the entire watching experience. I also debated whether or not I wanted to post the opening sequence I’ve now spent a great deal discussing. I decided that I would, but with a major caveat.


This clip contains images that are not for the faint of heart. A kid dies. That’s pretty hard to watch. There is also very graphic sexual material in the clip, which is definitely not appropriate for children or those offended by genitalia. If you do watch this after reading my post and all I have said about this scene and are offended to the point of shock or outrage, DO NOT BLAME ME. You have been warned, and it’s not my fault you are not aware of the extent of your sensitivity. 

With that said, here it is:

Most of what we make of the world is based largely on how we see it. Beauty is relative, but everywhere. Really look, and you can appreciate the elegance of a vacuum or the exquisiteness of a subway sign. Pay attention. Know why you like things. See.

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3 Comments

Filed under Art, Film

3 responses to “Meditations on the beautiful

  1. Ben Seitelman

    CHAOS REIGNS

  2. Half the battle by now is that everyone is staring into their cellphone. People barely look up anymore just to walk safely, let alone really look at, and appreciate, their surroundings. It takes time and attention. These have become precious resources.

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