Last night I went to see the Austin premier of Justine Nagan's digital video Typeface, a documentary "on American typography and graphic design." I put that in quotes because that's the way AIGA put it in their press release, but the subject of the video is actually far less generic than the title or description suggests. The documentary's focus is on the current state of affairs at the Hamilton Woodtype Foundry in Two Rivers Wisconsin. Now a museum in a remote small town with a broken economy, the film reflects favorably on the history of the the foundry and leaves us with a pessimistic take on the future of the museum, perhaps with the hope that it will generate a call to arms among typographic aficionados and cultural historians.  

Type is inherently photogenic, and the film shows shot after shot of scores of gorgeous type sitting in cases and boxes and yes, sometimes even in heaps on the floor. Although one speaker in the film rightfully acknowledges that the subjects of the documentary will bring the secrets and stories of the trade with them to their graves unless someone documents them, the film failed (in my estimation) to offer a practical picture of where woodtype comes from, then or now. How was it designed? Distributed? What was it made out of? How was it made? 

We get glimpses of artisans at work, but the shots are not linear. The director privileges the eccentricities of the person (and there are some memorable characters in this movie!) over their contributions to the trade, while the beauty of the type and the presses overshadow the practical information that would help the next generation learn how to use the pantograph, for example. There is a time and a place for allure, for sure, and I'm not knocking the film for not being a head-on 'how-to' documentary, but there certainly could have been more of that, and less redundancy when it comes to peripheral letterpress activity and ambient Wisconsin scenery.  

All that aside, it's still a 'must'.



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