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Movie Review

Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight

Drawing out the career of a graphic design icon

Milton Glaser, pictured in 1974 with one of his designs, in a scene from the documentary. Milton Glaser, pictured in 1974 with one of his designs, in a scene from the documentary. (Cosmos Sarchiapone/Art House Films)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 2, 2009
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‘What I like is working on all levels of the culture,’’ the graphic designer Milton Glaser says at one point in Wendy Keys’s documentary about him, “Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight.’’

How many levels? Glaser, who’s still going strong at 80, has designed posters, restaurants, dust jackets, album covers, brand logos, newspapers, magazines, typefaces, even supermarkets (the Grand Union chain).

Even if you don’t recognize Glaser’s name, you know his work. His “I NY’’ slogan/logo and his Bob Dylan poster, which shows the singer’s head in silhouetted profile topped with a tangle of psychedelic colors, are among the most famous images in the history of graphic design.

Glaser, deservedly, is the closest thing there is to a superstar in graphic design, and Keys treats him accordingly. We hear him talk at great and interesting length about his achievements, about his life, about his life in design. We also hear from various colleagues and admirers. Among them are The Nation’s Katrina van den Heuvel, restaurauteur George Lang, and design guru Steven Heller.

The documentary is, in effect, a lovefest and goes on a bit too long. Glaser’s so articulate, and his designs so charming, Keys’s erring on the side of excess is understandable.

Also, it’s not as if graphic design is the most filmic of subjects.

Or is it? Think of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 typeface documentary, “Helvetica.’’ The sense of curiosity and intellectual vitality which animated that film (and which Glaser embodies) is little evident behind the camera. “Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight’’ puts its subject up on a pedestal for us all to admire, and that’s pretty much that. Keys responds to Glaser with an enthusiasm that’s not to be doubted; but that response is also lazy and underinformative. (We don’t find out until the last five minutes how old Glaser is!)

The best, least characteristic, thing in the documentary is its opening. As Glaser talks, we see his hand in close-up execute a drawing of a rooster in pencil and crayon. Diverting as Glaser is being retrospective, it’s so much more interesting - not to mention truer to his achievement - watching him being creative.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

MILTON GLASER: To Inform & Delight

Directed by: Wendy Keys

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through July 11

Running time: 73 minutes

Unrated

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