Typeface is independent documentary film, produced by Kartemquin Films – a not-for-profit organisation – and released in 2009. The sixty-minute film was produced and directed by Justine Nagan on a modest $100,000 budget.
Centred around the rural Midwestern Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the film explores the history of the Hamilton wood type factory and the town, and examines the people who made the type and those who wish to use it nowadays.
The Museum is a central character as it is the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. It has 1.5 million pieces of wood type and more than 1,000 styles and sizes of patterns, making the collection the largest in the world.
After an exuberate start where Chicago-based creatives literally dash to the museum to caress the type and hang off every titbit of information shared by the Director during their tour, the veil is soon lifted to reveal the despair.
Grey in tone and filled with shaky hand-held shots, it’s as if the depression of the rather dull and bumbling museum director and the crumbling building affected the film crew. Although this treatment did not allow the full beauty of both the printing process and the prints to come through, it did drive home the failing state of the Museum and the country in its failing to protect its heritage.
The desire to care about wood type came from the plethora of knowledgable historians, artists, designers, printers, and typographers who shared their personal connections with the craft, its importance, and the key role of the Museum.
There has been minimum critical reviews or writing on the film, but readers of Fine Books & Collection Magazine were urged to go view it. “The film does a wonderful job weaving together many strands — from townsfolk sharing memories of working at Hamilton, to board members trying to keep the museum afloat, to young graphic designers discussing the importance of typography and art, and letterpress operators demonstrating how it all works. As designer and professor Dennis Y. Ichiyama of Purdue University put it: “Great characters, both wood and human.” http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2010/06/film-review-typeface.phtml
Eye Magazine was more scathing, calling it a ‘Rust Belt elegy’. It also calls into question the marketing copy for the film “But here’s the convergence: Norb Brylski the pantograph operator is still there too, cutting letters, and Bernice Schwahert trimming them, both in their eighties. Designers come from the Twin Cities and New York to work with them, and we see a moment when the router on the pantograph has stopped halfway along an edge, leaving a stepped line. Hold it there says the designer, that’s what I want. Norb disagrees; that’s not how it ought to be. Conjunction perhaps, more than convergence.” http://www.eyemagazine.com/blog/post/typeface-the-movie
The film does not do what it says one the cover – where international artists meet retired craftsmen and together navigate the convergence of modern design and traditional technique. It is the separation that stands out more than anything. The older generation being formulaic about the use of wood type and target driven, for example Norb cutting three new letters a minute, but also being the oracles for its use but quickly losing vitality needed to share these skills. And the younger generation looking at form and colour and ignoring the practical application of the craft.
Nevertheless the symbiotic relationship between old and new is clear and brought the future into question.
To gather opinions on the impact of Typeface, the film was screened to a group of six Visual Communication students. After the film all felt that letterpress printing was something they would like to try, and there was concern over potential loss of related skills on both a local and international level due to the apprentice-trained a final generation of craft people dying out.
In a review for the Font Bureau, Inc blog, Dyana Weissman (2011) writes ‘It must be difficult to capture the absolute pleasure of letterpress without seeing one in person…The enjoyment is as much tactile as it is visual. There was one instance in the film that came close: someone was squeezing ink onto a palette and the sound picked up the gooey lusciousness. I could feel my fingers wanting to get dirty. But then I’d find myself distracted that a documentary lamenting the demise of an antiquated art form was shot with a digital video camera.’ The surveyed group seconded this notion, feeling that the shots were about recording activity and were too wide to capture the tactility of the process. The film did not fully express the joy of letterpress printing beyond the intrigue of it to a bunch of city-folk tried of their digital life.
Despite a lack of satisfaction with the filming choices, it appears that the documentary did succeed in rescuing the Museum, which has recently moved in to brand new and much larger premises….
Part of a new wave of documentary films released of the past six years including, Helvetica (2007), Linotype (2012), Objectified (2009), Lemonade (2009) and Sign Painters (2014), that explores visual cultural and the people involved in it, Typeface is part of the current zeitgeist known as ‘hipster’.