February 7, 2012
Last week I enjoyed the chance to see the premiere of Linotype, Doug Wilson's new documentary about the automated typecasting machine that revolutionized the twentieth-century printing industry.
I have been fascinated with the Linotype for years, ever since I had the chance to use one briefly at the Firefly Press (whose proprietor John Kristensen makes an appearance in the film). When I first got wind of this film, however, I couldn't help but wonder how they would a) find a market for it, and b) make an interesting story out of an antiquated machine that has long since outlived its usefulness.
As to the first question, I was pleased to see a full house for the screening at SVA, including host Steven Heller who conducted a Q&A with the filmmakers afterwards. A roomful of type geeks may not a blockbuster make, but at least these guys found enough of a following out there to get the film made (apparently with a substantial boost from Kickstarter). Here's hoping that momentum continues to build for them.
As to the question of interestingness, the film more than surpassed my admittedly modest expectations. Wilson wisely avoided the stultifying conventions of traditional historical documentary, focusing instead on interviewing a handful of living, often gloriously eccentric modern Linotype enthusiasts: the 85 year-old deaf typecaster in Iowa, the hipster typecaster in Brooklyn, and the self-taught son of a junkman turned founder of the only Linotype school in the country. The film makes a compelling case for these artisans as artists, toiling in noble anonymity just as their predecessors did for the better part of a century, bringing the printed word to life for generations of readers.
The breakout star of the film may just be Carl Schlesinger, the retired New York Times Linotype operator who had the foresight to shoot some footage of the last day of the Times' Linotype, ultimately released in the late 1970s as a documentary called Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu (and the source of some invaluable footage for this one). Carl attended the screening, and afterwards joined with the other retired Linotype operators in attendance to receive a long-deserved standing ovation.
Previously: Crazy Wisdom
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“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times