Pressing On: The Letterpress Film condenses the history of letter press as a technology from Gutenberg to Weezer posters. It dutifully records that history. Although most of what we see Pressing On is how America used that technology after the war.
Some of documentary’s subjects are preservers of that rich history and even lived through it. They were once young men who loved their jobs printing newspapers and magazines.
One of letterpress’ most popular purpose is to promote concerts for country music stars like Johnny Cash. At its best it connects the visual to the aural, both being integral components of American culture.
These subjects are are now lamenting that their efforts to preserve the technology aren’t sufficient. As they create the materials to keep this hands on craft going, others are throwing them away. These men, however, are not throwing anything away.
We see these subjects, who are mostly old white men, quite the homogeneous demographic if there ever was one. And the movie doesn’t comment on it not even once. They’re in their natural habitats, in the crowded spaces where they stack papers and tools, which is unfortunately anxiety inducing.
The movie does pick up when reminding its audience that the last generation who worked on letterpress is going soon. With a deft touch it focuses on the son of one of these men. The former recounts stories of working with his dad in one of those crowded basements.
And fine, there are a few outliers to the printing culture demographic outside of urban communities within the American heartland. Some of the old holdouts teach young people who have the enthusiasm for the technology as they did. A professor is also teaching letterpress as part of a graphic design major.
Some of these younger people aren’t students but practitioners like Tammy and Adam Winn. They’re millennials who have not been able to stop themselves from collecting their share of these hefty machines. They use these machines to make prints to earn themselves some part time income.
These machines are resilient as Adam says, an truth that the other subjects echo. It’s ironic that these objects outlast mainstream American culture’s interest for them. Collecting is not an easy job for them, though. The film shows them planning to bring home one of the machines that they bought.
Preservation is a noble cause that I’ll cosign, and some of the doc helps promote that cause. One of the ways the doc tries to do that is to fetishize parts of these printing machines. It has these dark, dramatic close-ups of those parts. These segments are slightly irritating but they don’t distract from the people who love the art.