Indie Spotlight, Reviews — January 9, 2013 at 5:10 am

INDIE SPOTLIGHT: THE TYPEWRITER (IN THE 21ST CENTURY)

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I am so glad that filmmakers Christopher Lockett and Gary Nicholson contacted Man, I Love Films to review their documentary, The Typewriter (In the 21st Century). Smartly, Lockett’s direction included a choice to open on simple text, the sound of typewriter keys being struck the whole time, and so we learn: this story began in 1868, when Christopher Latham Sholes gets a US patent for the first practical type-writing device.

Lynn, the first interviewee, notes that typewriters were the technological tool that brought women into the modern workplace. This is quickly followed by the revelation that women themselves became synonymous with the machine, and in the most cheap, Mad Men-esque way: there was a running joke that a man would call home and tell his wife that he has “the typewriter on my lap,” and that “typewriter” would refer to both the device and the women who were operating it…

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Next, the typewriter is described as something that seems dead today, but has ongoing applications. In this case, it’s third world nations and certain institutions who are dedicated to its use. LA County, for example, still uses typewriters to document various things. There are key-cutters – people who use old typewriter keys to make jewelry. And, eventually, we come across various repairman who let us know that this classic machine is still alive…

Many users are people who don’t want to change the way they’ve always worked, and major prisons use these classic devices – but with clear shells that let you see that no weapons or other contraband are hidden within them. There are authors, singers, enthusiasts – even a mid-Western 16 y/o admits that he’s a collector! Hell, we even have “typecasters” and a “typosphere” to match the popular “blogcasters” and “blogosphere.” And before you ask – yes, those folks type material, and then scan and post the results online.

I may be biased – I’m a lawyer and a writer (among other things), and I love the hallmarks of both professions… Pen, ink, paper – these tools are unimaginably important and still play a huge part in day-to-day life around the world. So, yeah, less than 10 minutes in, Typewriter had me hooked.

001typewriter

Certain people have an interest in the typewriter because they get them closer to their favorite works of art. One man owns typewriters used by Earnest Hemingway, Jack London, John Lennon, the Unabomber… Sure, these devices have a practical use – addressing an envelope or filling out forms, but they also connect people with history. I was surprised to learn that Tom Hanks is an avid collector, and posts typewriter pictures regularly… Over and over, we see the names attached to this iconic innovation – Hellen Keller, Sylvia Plath, Kerouac, DiMaggio, Neuharth, Bradbury. These people leave their machines behind, and others race to snatch them up..

Typewriter users also get a own chance to explain its appeal: for most, working faster is no improvement on the ability to express themselves in the way they find most comfortable. Pulitzer Prize winners David McCullough and Robert Caro get the chance to explain that the typewriter gives them the chance to think while their material is being created – contributing, to some degree, to their entire creative process. I have a lot of experience with being both a writer and a self-editor, and I have to agree that when writing goes slowly, it lets you do more than just “think with your fingers;” that’s something you can do in mere seconds on a PC…

Then, a modern LA Times journalist talks about the time for reflection afforded by the typewriter. Others talk about how tactile it is: watching your page-count grow, unlike the simple “2/6″ notation that your computer provides – or the lack of distractions via email alerts and Facebook. A young kid explains about how she feels connected the past and to other people every time she sets up her typewriter to do high school homework.

typewriter type shot

The interview subjects also correctly note a difference between the modern computer method and the old technique: you can instantly change things that you write on your computer; the old way, though, created (and possibly sent out) words that you can’t take back. Typewriters produce a piece of paper where every insult, compliment, or comment is something that you have to have written out, looked over, and approved. By comparison, writing things for the Internet is more like being able to “climax yourself” in one second – it’s less messy, but it can lose some of the focus it would have had, because you don’t have to think everything through.

The underlying idea is that words are magical, and viewed by many to be eternal. “These truths we feel to be self-evident” or “ask not what your country can do for you” – those expressions feel important, and speak to long-standing human truths. In trying to say something *real*, we fall upon ideas that people think will be important to many, and last beyond the brief lifespan of a human being. The very idea of our words being “forever” is something that makes the typewriter into a perfect device for creating those words – and the typewriter is one of the few that pushes you to express what seems most important.

In short, when you really want to impress someone, you write it by hand. The next best alternative is typing it out so you have to make one whole page of words without errors or typos. The least impressive form of expression is the one that takes the least amount of effort – it implies that it has the least amount of thoughtfulness.

typewriter bogart john huston

The Typewriter is very smartly–constructed. Lockett chose to release the documentary as a series of interviews with people who have opinions on the subject. This isn’t uncommon, but there are only a few segments where text appears on the screen to give you some fact or reveal some piece of information. I like that there was no voiceover narration to tell you what to think or expect.

I was blown away by the later segments: one guy made a usb add-on that bridge typewriters with modern computers. It’s a nifty device that connects any usb-capable tablet to a typewriter, and I can already imagine getting this as a present for (at least) one of my relatives. The closing song is also very smart – it’s sung by an Alaskan musician who plays the typewriter as she sings…

Unlike with prior documentaries, the running time felt brief, but this film was still very satisfying. It hit on every topic and statement that it needed to, and was an intelligent piece throughout. It’s always hard to critique a movie that keeps its running time short – “there was more they could’ve added” is a typical complaint – but, really, the only things missing are (a) what the typewriter replaced, and (b) more time given to the newest innovations on the classic machine. You should never feel, however, that this picture short-changes its subject. I just had enough of an interest in the topic to want more.

When this doc moves into the modern era, we do have a quick discussion of 3-D printing as a way to create real-life objects, including some replacement parts for typewriters. And, much like my preference for shooting on film over digital, people do note the importance of having these tactile pieces result from a real, mechanical process. People seem to work best when their senses are engaged, and computers tend to latch on to a person’s eyes first, and perhaps their ears second (e.g., iTunes, Pandora, etc.). But it’s the older technologies that always seem to latch on to as many senses as possible, whereas these newer machines tend to be cold and sterile…

typewriter usb

My oldest brother might be right when he claimed that we could help save the planet by switching from paperbacks to e-books. I would cheer heartily for all the trees saved, for preserving the plant life that gives us oxygen and moisture and murder-free food (I’m an omnivore and I can still write that last sentence). But, if the world falls part, the electrical grid might die, and it’d be easier to read a book than to try to make one Kindle work…

The smartest comparison (made in the film, in fact) is that a typewriter is like a bike – you could take a car and get there faster, but it’s about the kind of journey that you want to experience before you reach your destination. I also love the people who note the amazing difference between “old” and “modern” tech: a laptop might last 9 years, chugging along slowly and working poorly in its last years of life. A typewriter, however, was meant to last at least as long as you’d be alive. I for one, love to buy things that are meant to stay with me for a long time, and I think you’ll find that this documentary, The Typewriter (in the 21st Century), will be very educational, very fun, and very worth your time.

The Typewriter (In the 21st Century) is not yet available to buy or rent, either on DVD or online. However, it should be available by these means soon, and I will either update this space or post a special entry to let you know when you can get your hands on this smart intelligent and edifying non-narrative film…

♥♥♥♥

This motion picture was submitted for review to Man, I Love Films. Any filmmaker that would like their picture to be reviewed by the site should contact Dylan Fields (dylan@manilovefilms.com) and Kai Parker (kai@manilovefilms.com) with details about their picture and how they will send in their submission.

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