Tucked away from the roar of the Super Bowl, a rather more unassuming event is taking place on New York's 23rd Street - the world premiere of Linotype: The Film. This narrative may be comparatively modest, but its subject was world-changing
It’s Friday night in the Big Apple and Super Bowl weekend is underway. Local heroes the New York Giants are preparing for battle against perennial foes the New England Patriots in Sunday’s big showdown and the whole place is buzzing
Meanwhile, down on 23rd Street, a much smaller crowd, of maybe 250 hardcore fans, is assembling for a very different occasion. But their enthusiasm, passion, loyalty and commitment is no less intense. If any of them gives a damn about the Super Bowl at all, they don’t show it.
Tonight, the School of Visual Arts Theatre is hosting the world premiere of Linotype: The Film and, in the first of the evening’s many thrills, Steven Heller takes the stage for the opening remarks. Author, curator, lecturer and an art director of The New York Times for 33 years, Heller is something of a typographical cult hero in these parts. They lap him up.
Just five words in and, already, I am out of my depth. "Is Etaoin Shrdlu here tonight?" Heller asks. Immediately, around a third of the audience squeals with delight and – just like that – the tone is set for the rest of the evening.
Etaoin Shrdlu spells out the first two rows, or rather columns, of keys on a Linotype machine. They represent the most common 12 letters of the English language, in approximate order of popularity. Apparently, one of the more common outcomes of the "90 or so things that can go wrong with a linotype machine" was the rogue appearance of these two words in a row of printed type. Mr Shrdlu, it seems, has long been a part of typesetting folklore, and don’t this lot just know it.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that we’re here to see a movie about a machine. Don’t worry – as terrible as that might sound, turns out it’s brilliant.
There are really only three things you need to know about the Linotype machine. One, it’s pretty much the most complicated thing ever invented. Two, it completely transformed our society. And three, few folks outside of SVA Theatre tonight are aware of that. Or, as the film’s director and producer Doug Wilson put it in the Q&A session following the film, "The more I learned how it impacted the world, the more I was surprised that none of us knew about it."
But once you do know about it, it becomes a source of frustration. The story goes like this: in 1886, Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German watchmaker, invented a machine that enabled lines of type to be set six times faster than by handsetters. Printers went from talking "minutes-per-line to lines-per-minute," says one of the film’s subjects.
Guess what? It revolutionized mass media communication, generating huge demand for print, driving down the cost of newspapers and spawning a gigantic leap in literacy. So how is it that Mergenthaler is barely even acknowledged for such a gargantuan contribution to society? Heck, he even died tragically young, aged 44 from tuberculosis. What more did he have to do to become an international hero?
Wilson's movie does, of course, pay homage to Mergenthaler’s greatness, but it’s not really about him. In fact, for much of it, even the machine takes a back seat. Like you couldn’t see this coming, it turns out it’s all about people.
Linotype: The Film somehow manages to reconstruct history in the most gripping fashion, without ever calling on a narrator. Essentially, it’s one glorious piece of footage after another of the most naturally gifted, genuinely interesting, passionately crazy storytellers — and they are mostly very funny, too. All are operators, but forget any preconceptions of this job title for a moment.
"Operators were the artists who created this wonderful typography that we try to emulate digitally," says one of the movie’s stars. "They are artistic people posing as industrial types in dirty overalls."
And so Wilson takes us on an unforgettable journey, from character to character, each blissfully unaware that their performances are superb. "We would just show up at people’s doors and invade their lives for a day and they would let us do it," he tells tonight's audience. "People just opened up their lives and told a story to us."
Wilson himself was amazed at how the human stories took over. "I started out just loving the machine; I thought it was an amazing machine," he says. "But I realized what you need is these operators. They worked with these machines for 60 years. The machines were the hearts of these people. So I think that’s when we realized we had a film."
Perhaps the fact it takes years and years to get any good at operating a Linotype that makes these folks so unique. "It’s one of the most complicated machines I’ve ever seen, and it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever been around," says one subject. "It’s a cacophony of sounds, but in itself a symphony." In fact, Wilson pointed out that many of the operators he interviewed were musically gifted in some way. It’s this synergy, this love affair between man and machine, that really comes through, time and time again.
One of the film’s biggest stars, Carl Schlesinger, spent 35 years operating Linotypes at the New York Times. He recalls a visit from Marilyn Monroe one day while he was at his workstation. She asked him to print something for her, so he wrote her name in bold because he thought she’d like it in bold (Monroe’s favorite font was Garamond, according to Heller in the Q&A). She then kissed him on the top of his head for his troubles. "There goes the day," he says in the movie. "All I’m going to think about now is my head."
The New York Times was produced with Linotypes for 80 years, until they were decommissioned in July 1978. Schlesinger, a VIP guest at tonight’s premiere, had the foresight to document that final day on film, some of which was used in the movie. "We poured some glasses and said: ‘To yesterday—goodbye to the past, hello to the future,’" he recalls.
Despite its historical context, Linotype: The Film is not meant to be nostalgia trip. "The last thing we wanted was for the whole thing to be narrated by honky-tonk music and old blues," explained audio and sound man Jess Heugel in the Q&A. "We wanted it to feel clean, fresh, and we didn’t want it to be overly dramatic."
The majority of the soundtrack comes from friends’ bands Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and Cornbelt Chorus, along with three original cuts from Heugel’s own group The Preservation Society.
The film’s finest moment comes right at the end when another of its stars, Joel, has little choice but to get rid of his Linotype machine. After a fruitless search to find a museum that will take it, reluctantly he calls a salvage guy to take it away. The cameras follow him to the scrap yard where a quite brilliant scene ensues, in which Joel cannot bear to turn around and watch as a giant claw attempts to smash his beloved Linotype into the piles of already-twisted metal on the ground.
This should be a tear-jerking scene but somehow it becomes as funny as hell. The machine refuses to break up at first and we all start laughing. Joel eventually turns around and, with a mixture of pride and genius comic timing, declares: "This is pretty devastating… but it shows you the durability of the thing!"
Wilson is just 29 years old and, on the face of it, had no business making a film about Linotype machines. He was introduced to it at university and a fascination set in, but while he’d had the idea for a film in his head for a while, it was several years before an accidental opportunity arose.
"I was set to go to grad school in Switzerland and they wouldn’t give my wife a visa," he says tonight, "So, I said ‘screw it, I’m making a film.’" Wilson had never made a film before, but is hugely proud of what he has achieved (and extremely grateful to Kickstarter for two rounds of fundraising).
"Sadly, a lot of operators are passing away and five years from now probably 30% of the people in our film won’t be around any more," he continues. "We thought someone had to tell the story."
At the end of the evening, Heller summarises the movie as "a major contribution to the history of communications".
While the triumphant trio of Wilson, Heugel and director of photography Brandon Goodwin have clearly shown a relentless passion and commitment to both the movie and subject over the past couple of years, you get the feeling they could use a break from Linotype machines for a while.
"I think the next film would be about something that’s happening now, not something that already happened," declares Wilson as he wraps up the event. "It’s so hard to reconstruct history in an entertaining way. Oh, and we’d shoot it in one week. With an $8M budget. Not some obscure thing, but something that I could explain at the airport. Like Justin Bieber or something. But not type-related."
Talking of big bucks and celebrities, later that weekend, the New York Giants would go on to create history of their own in the Super Bowl. But that's not world-changing history on the scale of Mergenthaler’s contribution. And while Linotype: The Film is a hugely engaging wake-up to the importance of his invention to society, you don’t need a penchant for history and machines to appreciate its brilliance. If you’re interested in human beings at all, then you’re going to love it.
Below are some stills from Linotype: The Film to whet your appetite further
For more information about the film, visit its website