I feel like I just spent 76 minutes in the basement of my grandparent's old house. They lived in that house for over 40 years before finally moving out more than a decade ago, but I remember it well, especially the basement: The 1970s-style wood paneling, the brown shag carpeting, the gun cases, the stuffed marlin and sailfish above the mantle and, of course, the bar, all of it punctuated by a musty odor that included hints of smoke from that distant time when cigars and cigarettes were still acceptable indoors.
Artist Milton Glaser would feel right at home in that room, though he'd probably make a comment or two about the lack of any memorable artwork. He'd regale guests with stories about his legendary career in the graphic design world while drinking a vodka gimlet, talk about all the famous people he's worked with, throw in a line about the "important" pro-bono work he's doing and then invariably return to all the legendary things he's done. At some point he would light up a cigar and probably tell a dirty joke or two.
I don't mean to be too harsh here. Glaser seems like a nice enough man, and his influence in the graphic design field over the last half century is obviously immense. But Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight, which documents his 60-year career, fails on a number of levels to effectively tell his story. I can't decide whether it's a monumental act of hubris gone awry, or just an artistic and creative failure, which, given that the subject is an artist, would be both sad and ironic.
I think it's more the latter, though it's unclear how much Glaser was behind the making of his own documentary. He's not listed in any of the credits, but it's still hard to shake the feeling that the film is something of a retirement gift to the man who is most famous for giving us the "I (heart) New York" slogan. It's as if Glaser flipped through the rolodex (and this is a man who definitely still uses a rolodex), picked out all the former clients and colleagues who owe him a favor or two and asked them to be in the documentary and say something nice.
The result, unfortunately, is a sycophantic puff piece in which the worst thing anyone utters about the star subject is a former co-worker who rolls his eyes and says, "Milton loves to do lunch." Even Glaser, who co-founded New York Magazine in 1968, can't help himself. We hear from him about how well known he became in Europe and South America, about how wonderful it is that he takes time to mentor young artists, and about how he's a real man of the people for his refusal to work in an enclosed office, but rather at a desk among all his employees.
Despite this, To Inform and Delight still could have been salvaged were it even a marginally technically adept documentary. The film was released last year, but everything about it feels so out-of-date that I would have believed it if told it came out in 1988—and I still would have criticized the amateurish feel to it all. Between the horrendous elevator jazz soundtrack, the choreographed "chance" meetings between Glaser and various friends and co-workers, and the B-roll footage of Milton strolling around New York City in a white fedora, To Inform and Delight strays dangerously close to mockumentary territory for almost the entirety of the film.
Plus, just what restaurant in Manhattan do Glaser and his old pals hang out in where they are still allowed to smoke at the table? Everything here feels like a time warp.
But worse than that, the paint-by-numbers style of pacing and editing does a serious disservice to a man who was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama last year. While much of Glaser's work feels outdated in 2010, including the several fonts he invented for various marketing campaigns and other logos that look straight out of 1982, the man was an undisputed visionary of his time. The insert poster for Bob Dylan's 1967 Greatest Hits album is iconic for good reason.
So why then, do we get a film about Glaser that unfolds so conventionally? There isn't an artistic risk anywhere in site. Where, as the 81-year-old Glaser himself might ask, is the inspiration? The directorial debut of Wendy Keys is, unfortunately, a lazy one. Milton Glaser might be of a different era, but there's no good reason why the film about him should be as well.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight screens at the Wilma Theatre as part of the Big Sky Film Series Friday, Nov. 5, at 7:30 PM. Free.