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7 Dumpsters, A Corpse, 4 Protagonists, and a Typeface


My interest in semiotics–or the study of signs and their meanings–is what drew me to Helvetica.

It is interesting to me to learn just what I am conveying (consciously or not) when I choose to use the typeface Helvetica. Which I’m doing right now, in case you didn’t realize (your fugbox may not be set up to display it that way but, hey, I’ve done my part)…

But there seems to be some disagreement about just what meaning is couched in Helvetica’s firm verticals, smooth curves, and the white spaces between them.

Many of the world’s top graphic designers are interviewed by American director Gary Hustwit on the subject and opinions about this particular sans serif typeface run the gamut from giddy love to sneering hate. Some suggest that its simplicity and clean lines suggest universality, unity, openness, and humanity while others turn up their noses and declare it utterly bereft of meaning because of that same simplicity and clean lines. Lots of opinions are expressed–some with considerable emotion–but none takes precedence. What is notable about this film to me is how fascinating, articulate, and witty these designers are. Their enthusiasm is palpable and I have to marvel at how entertaining this little film about a font is.

And I’ll bet that if you look up from your computer screen right now and gaze around you, you’ll find Helvetica all over the place.  

and I can only hope that when you look up from your screen in search of Helvetica, your place doesn't look like THIS!

While preparing a big party for his 40th birthday, German filmmaker Thomas Haemmerli learns that his estranged mother has died. In Seven Dumpsters and a Corpse, his mother is the Corpse. And it takes a month and Seven Dumpsters for Thomas and his little brother Erik to clean out her apartment. Nobody’s been in the place to visit Mom for the past 10 years, and she has lived the crazyass packrat lifestyle there–along with her 40 (!) cats. In teetering piles and smelly heaps and on shelves and counters and in drawers and sinks, from floor to perilously close to the ceiling, mother Bruna built a little world that she never let anyone see. Thomas and Erik have to weed through the junk and the garbage to find the actual familial memorabilia that’s somewhere in there.

First thing they hafta do, though, is find somebody who will clean up what’s left of their mother’s remains, seeped into and baked on the tiles of the heated floor. I’ll tell you that a paint scraper is used. And that’s all I’m gonna say ’bout that.

This is a blackly funny revelation of the Haemmerli family history, told as the brothers unearth artifacts (some as old as 120 years) from the lunatic mess they’ve found left in their mother’s life’s wake.



Protagonist is one of the more unusual–and beautiful and compelling–films I saw at Hot Docs. It was made by American filmmaker Jessica Yu, who also made the unusual–and delightful–In The Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about artist Henry Darger.

I’ll let her describe her idea behind Protagonist:

In reading Euripides, I was struck by how relevant his themes were, how contemporary the mindset of his characters. The concept behind the film I wanted to make was to find people whose real lives mirrored the dramatic arc of a certain Euripidean tragedy – the tragedy of the extremist. I was interested in the character that embarks on a journey for valid reasons, only to find himself so deeply embedded in the cause that he becomes the opposite of what he had intended to become. He is blind to this fact, though, until the forces of fate and character boil and distill to a single moment of dark clarity.

The film features interviews with four men who, over the course of their lives, become the opposite of what they ever intended to be. While, on the surface, these guys don’t seem to have much in common (a former German terrorist, an “ex-gay” evangelist, a bank robber, and a martial arts student), as they tell their stories, Yu finds the common ground in their narratives and structures the film so that each man tells of his “doubt” or “epiphany” or “catharsis” parallel to the others. Bracing each section of the film are scenes from Greek tragedy, performed by beautifully delicate rod puppets designed to represent each protagonist.

This is one of the neatest examples I’ve seen in a long time of a film being as beautiful in terms of form as it is in terms of content.

→ originally published 2007-05-08


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