FILM / The Last Detail

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The Independent Culture
THERE is, in the contemporary American cinema, an artefact which has been invested with a fetishistic aura, a post-modern prominence it certainly never had in the past: the typewriter.

It used to be that the act of writing was visualised by filmmakers in an immutably stereotyped fashion. The writer in question would pound the keys of his Remington for a dizzying moment or two. He would stare morosely at whatever it was he had produced (it was a text to which the spectator was seldom made privy). Then - infallibly - he would yank out the offending page, disgustedly crumple it into a ball, hurl it into an already brimming wastebasket and start again.

The typewriter and the wastebasket: these were, in Hollywood's symbology, the two essential props of the writer's block, the twin terminals of his creative agony. But a prop ceases to be a prop when it looms at us in hallucinatory close-up, filling the entire screen like one of Magritte's outlandishly outsized apples. And it was Wim Wenders in Hammett who made writing for the first time a source of filmic spectacle - by contriving to get so close to the experience that the very grain of the paper became tangible and the typewriter keys would strike the page with the impact of rifle shots on a firing range. (Spectacle in the cinema derives less from the objective size of what is being filmed than from its size relative to the outer limits of the frame: which is to say, it depends on how massive any given object looks on the screen.)

Thus has one cliche replaced another, to the point where it's now virtually impossible for an American director to film a character typing, even merely composing a letter, without, as it were, having his camera inside the typewriter looking out - as witness such recent movies as the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch and, just the other week, Tom Kalin's Swoon (by virtue of the scene in which its protagonists, the neo-Nietzschean child murderers Leopold and Loeb, type out their ransom note). Cronenberg, indeed, extended the cliche one radical stage further by bringing his (or his hero William Burroughs's) typewriter to garrulous life, as a peevish, gabby rectum, a sphincter without a secret.

So does this exaltation of the typewriter intimate some new respect in Hollywood for the formerly despised writer? Perhaps. But it might be worth noting that each of the films cited above is set in the recent past, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. In life the typewriter is all but obsolete; on screen it has therefore become an object of nostalgic scrutiny, yet another period signifier; and, for the American cinema, it would seem even now that the only good writer is a dead writer.