Official letterpressed poster for ‘Linotype: The Film’ by Doug Wilson, 2012

Linotype: The Film by Doug Wilson, 2012, documentary, 77 mins. Director of Photography and Editor: Brandon Goodwin. Audio & Sound Design: Jess Heugel. Purchase or rent a digital copy online: iTunes, Amazon Instant Video.

Linotype: The Film is a very interesting, very well crafted documentary about a machine whose exact role in the history of modern media remains somehow underestimated. In his book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) media theorist Friedrich Kittler mentioned the machine only once, while quoting from another book:

“the entire printing industry, via the Linotype, depend[s] upon the typewriter.”1

Doug Wilson’s documentary ―which was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign two years ago― is an attempt to remedy to the curse of this unsung “via”.

The film profits both from the use of a beautiful and informative selection of archive images (still photos and footage) and from an impressive cast of relevant and colorful actors of the Linotype’s past and present history. It covers the entire lifetime of the machine: from the days of manual typesetting to the slow elaboration of the innovation that would become known as “The Linotype”, all the way to its demise in favor of phototypesetting (The New York Times stopped using Linotype machines in the summer of 1978). The machine complicated mechanism (its inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, was a former watchmaker) is clearly explained in the course of the documentary, as are the delicate ―and sometimes dangerous― steps required to operate it.

Deaf operator, Eldon Meeks sharing about his life with the Linotype. © Linotype: The Film

Surely though, one of the most captivating things that constitute this documentary is the passion that runs through it. From the filmmaker to the subjects he films and interviews, everyone involves with those machines seems to be vibrating with an inexhaustible and joyful love for them (the film is full of funny moments and laughters). As one of the participant elegantly puts it, it must have something to do with craft: the happy and harmonious marriage between technic and art, the intimate bounding between a creator and its tool.

Davin Kuntze talking about the Linotype at Woodside Press in Brooklyn, New York. © Linotype: The Film

In the end, most Linotype machines have met the same fate 35 mm projectors are currently experiencing (previously here): one by one there are being condemned to the junk yard where they will be dismantled and resold for scrap metal.

But all is not lost. On one hand, we have the archive: Linotype: The Film will hopefully allow for a wider diffusion of this material (it includes, among many things, rare footage from the 16mm documentary Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu by David Weiss about the last day of the Linotype at The New York Times). On the other hand, some of those printing crafts are currently resurfacing for a second life, such as letterpress printing. It’s an opportunity for the rise of a new generation of printmakers and, in the process, for the conservation of both a set of technical knowledge and the machines that go with it (for those interested in letterpress printing, consider watching Typeface a 59 mins documentary made in 2009 by Kartemquin Films).

The last words are borrowed from an eight pages article Doug Wilson wrote for the very first issue of Codex. The Journal of Typography back in 2011. The article itself is an excellent complement to his documentary. It offers a condensed synthesis of the Linotype’s history along with rich and relevant illustrations. Here are the last two paragraphs:

Linotype: The Film seeks to answer the question: “Can this technology be passed on to the next generation, or will the Linotype and knowledge of how it operates die with the present generation?”

A growing community believes they know the answer to this question. Enthralled by the complexity of this enormous machine, the music of mechanical type at work, they are now devotees. Their eagerness to share the story of the man who —despite suffering through devastating illness, cruel deception, and heartbreaking setbacks— never relented, never lost the fire inside, will bring Mergenthaler and the Linotype the honor they rightly deserve for transforming our means of communication and our world. (“The Eight Wonder”, Spring 2011, p. 29; buy a PDF version of it online; I briefly wrote about the first issue here)

More online resources about Linotype: The Film:

  • Official website where one can learn more about the film, watch six different clips from the film, learn about upcoming film screenings and more importantly browse through various resources pertaining to the Linotype machine. There’s also a shop where one can buy the film either on DVD or Blu-ray as well as posters, t-shirts and even authentic metal slugs. The film also has its obligatory Facebook Page and Twitter account.

  • The work of Doug Wilson ―who’s also a designer and the proprietor of The Scarlet Letter Press― was featured here previously: see “Make Your Own Path” by Doug Wilson (2007). Make sure to check his official website, browse a good sample of his work, subscribe to his blog or simply learn more about him. He’s also on Twitter and Flickr.

  • Linotype Blog (unrelated website): “Interview with Doug Wilson” by Dan Reynolds, August 19, 2012.

    Six or seven years ago, I encountered a Linotype machine for the first time, and it was love at first sight. I saw it working and watched someone operating it, and I was astounded by the fact that I had not previously learned about its invention. At the time, I was studying graphic design at university. The more that I learned about the machine, the more I wondered why other people hadn’t learned about it either; it is a machine that has impacted the entire world, whether you know about it or not. The invention of the Linotype machine increased literacy and was very influential, yet its story hasn’t been told.

  • Thee Blog: “TheeBlog Q&A Sessions: Doug Wilson” July 13, 2011

    I know you’re not only a Director, but a Designer as well. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

    If you go by length of time, I am a photographer, graphic designer, letterpress printer and film director – in that order. I received my BFA in graphic design from Missouri State University and that is where I fell in love with design, type, letterpress and the Linotype.

  • Indiewire: “Under The Radar: Linotype: The Film by Leonard Maltin, October 16, 2012.

    [Doug Wilson has] done a first-rate job of introducing it to a contemporary audience in his enjoyable documentary.

  • Domus: “Machine Love” by Saundra Marcel, February 6, 2012.

    So, the movie isn’t actually about a piece of machinery. It’s about a cast of characters, each one telling their own versions of love stories for such an unusual contraption. Their adoration is palpable. Many of the characters in the movie are in their late 80s, and all of the characters are painfully the last to hold onto an expiring generation of knowledge.

  • The Readex Blog: “Etaoin and Other Shrdlu in the News” by August Imholtz Jr., March 28, 2012.

    Etaoin, sometimes found with the apparent surname of Shrdlu, was in fact the Linotype’s equivalent of the block-and-delete function in contemporary word processing programs except that the block, a block of solid type in fact, was often not deleted.

  • Codex 99: “The Paige Compositor” June 19, 2012. Incidentally related to the documentary, this short essay provides an excellent introduction to the “Paige Composer” one of the contestant to the Linotype machine in the race to create and automatic typesetter machine.

  • Moore Wood Type: “Linotype The Film comes to Cincinnati” by Scott, August 27, 2012.

    Last week I had the opportunity to print on my daughter’s Vandercook 4 proof press. We were working together on a father/daughter poster project to create a souvenir poster for the Cincinnati screening of the movie, Linotype: The Film at the Cincinnati Arts Center (CAC). […] We decided to make a poster to pass out to the first 100 attendees at the film’s showing. I decided to hand carve a 6” x 9” linoleum block with an image of a linotype machine. I had not carved linoleum in about 40 years. I did some research on the internet and then transferred the design to the block. It took three afternoons to carve the block. I also took on carving the logo for the film, and then used my small line pantograph to cut the corner blocks, inline stars, and borders for the poster.

    One can see the result below. If you like what you see, make sure to check Moore Wood Type’s official website.

Letterpressed poster created by Moore Wood Type for the Cincinnati screening of the movie ‘Linotype: The Film’ (2012) at the Cincinnati Arts Center (CAC)

• • •

1. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, tr. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford: Standford University Press, [1986]1999, p. 202. Kittler was quoting the book The Wonderful Writing Machine by Bruce Bliven jr (New York, 1954: 132).↩︎︎

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