In my experience, many of the best filmgoing experiences are often not actively sought out, but rather stumbled upon. I recently watched a trio of fascinating films that not only challenged my perception of the everyday world, but also sharpened my awareness to these careful, complex constructions of non-fiction we call documentary. And the best part was that I never had to leave the sofa. All three of them were available for instant viewing on Netflix. =)
Between the Folds (2008, Vanessa Gould)
Sure, we’ve all folded a paper airplane, a paper crane, or a little paper pinwheel that tells your fortune. In this manner, we’re all acquainted at an early age with the Japanese art of paper folding known as origami. But as with so many grade school endeavors, we quickly dispense of them to develop more ‘practical’ skills. Well, what if origami could offer new insight into advanced mathematical theorems? could save drivers’ lives on the highway? could aid in the development of custom drugs to combat mutating viruses and even cancer? Newsflash: it’s doing all these things now.
In Between the Folds, director Vanessa Gould explores the origins of the art form, its contemporary masters, and its fascinating intersections with cutting-edge math, science and technology. Through a series of vignettes, she introduces paper-folders who create animals, abstract figures, kinetic sculpture, guerilla public art, and even make the very paper they fold. She also incorporates footage and discussion with the Japanese grandmaster of origami, Akira Yoshizawa. From here she moves into the scientific manifestations of origami, from its use in the classroom to explore abstract and linear algebras, to mapping DNA with origami. Scientists are even incorporating origami technique into compact, expandable technologies like automobile air bags or solar panels and satellite dishes for planetary rovers. Spellbinding.
Objectified (2009, Gary Hustwit)
The objects we surround ourselves with on a daily basis can often become invisible to us. The chairs we sit in, the computers we work on, the coffee cups we sip from; they don’t often command our attention as much as they accommodate our activities. In this film, interviews with several of today’s top designers draw attention to what has become a new paradigm in product development: the alienation between form and function. In the digital age, the form of cell phones, computers, and other mobile devices have less and less to do with their function, and director Gary Hustwit illustrates this in deft fashion.
The film contains rock stars of modern design, like Jonathan Ive of Apple and Dieter Rams of Braun, as well as innovators of days past, including the designer of the first laptop computer. The cumulative effect is a magnification of and a new awareness toward the way every day objects work. The film also addresses a lot of current debates as to the future of design, like sustainability in production, quality vs. cost, and the motivations of companies vs. the motivations of designers. Aesthetic and intellectual stimulation pair like fine wine and cheese in Objectified.
Helvetica (2007, Gary Hustwit)
Though I didn’t realize it until I began composing this post, this film, along with Objectified, is part of a trilogy of films on design by Gary Hustwit. And where that film explored the realm of industrial design, Helvetica delves into modern typography and print design through the history, development, and evolution in use of what may be the world’s most ubiquitous font: Neue Haas Grotesk, now known as Helvetica. Hustwit moves from its invention in 1957 in Switzerland, to its initial popularity in corporate re-branding during the late 60s, to the backlash against the font in the 80s, and its resurgence in the 21st century. He ties the film together brilliantly with footage from all over the world demonstrating the font’s omnipresence: in advertisement, branding and logos, government signage…everywhere!
Between the Folds works so wonderfully as a primer on folding due to its breadth of subjects. Like a giant work of origami, each of the film’s vignettes (with austere labels like “The Artisan,” “The Choreographer,” and “The Postmodernist”) adds new technical, aesthetic, and intellectual complexities to the fold (wink). And all within a lean 57 minutes. Hustwit makes print and industrial design relatable and appreciable in by conveying both the passions of the people who do it, and by revealing the artistry, craftsmanship, and philosophy involved throughout.
For anyone who’s rekindling a love for documentary, design, or even Netflix, give these films a spin. Er, stream. Instant streaming.