Master Milton

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Milton Glaser
Directed by Wendy Keys
At Cinema Village
Runtime: 73 minutes

Milton Glaser, the designer and artist, has shaped our perception of modern New York City more than any other single individual. Yes, he’s the man behind the simple, yet effectual, I ♥ NY campaign from the 1970s, but he’s also responsible for countless other brand identities and was the co-founder of New York magazine with Clay Felker (they owe him for that iconic logo). Unfortunately, the portrait first-time director Wendy Keys paints of the 80-year-old is more about myth building than anything else.

It becomes apparent that Glaser is the man behind these omnipresent myths: The talking heads (mostly clients and people close to him: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Steve Heller, Walter Bernard) continually preach of his articulateness, populist agenda and ability to convince them of his vision. We get no naysayers, and even fewer peers. Where’s George Lois’ bombastic take on Glaser? Could we not get anyone from rival design firm Pentagram to say a few words about Glaser’s vision? As influential as he was in the ’70s and ’80s in shaping culture (Glaser is also responsible for iconic Dylan album covers and posters and other cultural touchstones), we should also see the insidious side of such pervasive ideas, like Gary Hustwit did in Helvetica, his enlightening documentary about a seemingly innocuous font.

Instead Keys, who used to be Executive Producer/Programming for the Film Society at Lincoln Center (so she knows a thing or two about powerful personalities), plays it safe and presents a hagiography of a man who is still producing but is also a wonderfully talented curator of others’ ideas. In fact, the most revealing thing is Glaser’s open admission that he’s a true post-modernist, lifting ideas from other great artists like Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse or Morandi, and then repurposing elements in public-friendly approaches. The populist gambit begins to wear thin, however, once it becomes more obvious that Glaser, who came from humble backgrounds, has been striving to join the ranks of the elite: he grew up in the Bronx, attended Cooper Union and then received a Fulbright to study in Italy before beginning to attract celeb clients. Yes, he doesn’t have a big fancy corner office; he continues to sit amongst the hoi polloi. But he rubs shoulders with influential men and women and knows the value of his own brandname.

A chink in the armor is finally revealed when Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, tells of his initial attempts to hire Glaser to design the now well-known brand logo. Turns out Glaser’s gatekeeper secretary told Hindy: “Do you know who Milton Glaser is? You can’t just call him up for an appointment.” As Hindy tells the story, Glaser’s big smile begins to crack. If he already knows the tale, it’s apparent he’s a little perturbed it’s been captured on film for posterity: Glaser is not a man of the people, he’s ensconced amongst the power elite. That’s fine, it’s just strange that he must continue to sell a populist image. It’s the only slightly critical detail ever mentioned about Glaser in the film. Perhaps if we’d been given more access to the mistakes and failures of this brilliantly talented man we wouldn’t cherish it quite so much.