Of the things we take for granted, the written word is possibly the highest on the list. Before Johannes Gutenberg devised the printing press in 1440, there was little focus on or desire for the common person to read, which left a small contingent of individuals responsible for reading and interpreting the materials. In the wrong hands, that interpretation could lead to enormous destruction; in the right ones, prosperity for all. In their feature debut, writer/director team Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn explore the lost art of typography through the eyes of its protectors – the men and women who strive to preserve the machinery, the art form, and love of typesetting – in their surprisingly charming and incredibly funky documentary Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.
There’s something really wonderful about a documentary that not only informs you about a subject, but is clearly in awe of the subject matter and just nerds out all over it. Beckloff and Quinn assemble several letterpress masters, hobbyists, and collectors to tell their stories of devout devotion to what first seems like antiquated machinery. Sure, you can use your computer to draft documents and you can go to Kinko’s to print banners within minutes, but what we gain in convenience we lose in craftsmanship. Perhaps it’s something that most audience members are ok with, it may even be something that the audience won’t have even thought about prior to watching Pressing On, but afterwards, it’ll be all they think about.
Beckloff and Quinn ensure this by using the camera to glide over the top of various printed work so that we can see each imprint, each impression from the machine on the paper to create each print. By zooming in to see the detail, we get a real sense of the delicate work the press is capable of. It also highlights the tactile nature of the work, something that Stephanie Carpenter, a graphic designer by schooling who works for Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, discusses as a draw for many away from the digital side of design work as letterpress offers the chance to get their hands into the work. To highlight Stephanie’s words, the directors present the audience with a split-screen – on top is the start of a typeset, while on the bottom is a computer with an open document. Shifting to a side-by-side split, setting the typeset is compared to the click of a mouse before the whole image is integrated with the physical typeset being worked over while a computer screen is overlaid atop the typeset. Combined with Stephanie’s explanation of digital design being born from the letterpress – down to the jargon – the directors not only make her comparison easier to follow, but make it feel playful.
But don’t mistake playfulness as an opening for disrespect, as the directors make it clear that none of individuals they interview nor the craft they spend their waking hours obsessing over are any less than protectors of an art form on the verge of dying out. These are gatekeepers and warriors, digging through garage sales, foreclosures, and people’s basements just for the chance to preserve a piece of history. You wouldn’t expect it from the documentary’s topical focus, but Beckloff and Quinn infuse every interview, every scene of machinery at work with a rock n’ roll vibe that makes every aspect feel epic.
Amidst all the spectacular work Beckloff and Quinn do to make the exploration of the letterpress interesting, it’s not all precision directing and smart editing. At 99-minutes, it does begin to drag, especially when the focus shifts on couple Adam and Tammy Winn. They’re a delightful couple who funnel all their free-time energy into their business The Red Door Press by attending farmer’s markets and making custom orders. At first, by virtue of being the first to tell her story, Tammy seems the natural instigator of their letterpress work and can be seen talking to the other professionals, collectors, and hobbyists featured within the documentary. However, Adam casts a larger shadow, telling more stories and frequently attempting jokes. While he may be more gregarious, Tammy seems to be more passionate, so focusing on Adam is far less engaging over time. Especially after having spent so much time observing each of the interviewees in their respective shops or community outreach, to then spend time watching the Winns salvage a letterpress from someone’s basement feels like just more screentime for Adam. Again, a delightful, funny guy, but Tammy’s expression of passion and emotion for the art form is far more compelling. The fact that it becomes noticeable how much less she gets to share compared to his experience, amid so many other fantastic, compelling stories, demonstrates the need to scale that aspect back.
Whether you’re a machinist, artist, art-lover, nerd, or none-of-the-above, you can’t helped but be charmed by Beckloff and Quinn’s Pressing On: The Letterpress Film. From the obviously staged dramatic recreations of memory from several of the interviewees to the use of stock footage and newsreels, Pressing On glides from one engaging exploration of the letterpress to another, regaling the audience with story after story of experiences both personally and historically significant. If the interviewees don’t keep you engaged through their passion, then Beckloff and Quinn’s editing and direction will suck you right in. It’s a story of the machine that gave rise to humanity’s freedom from illiteracy, how we used it to empower ourselves, and the stalwart individuals who keep it from dying out in the digital age. You will not regret a moment of the experience.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD June 19, 2018.
For more information on the cast and crew, head to the official Pressing On website.