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Monday, 28 February 2011

Typewriters and Masters

Quite apart from  Glengarry Glen Ross and Wag the Dog being among my favourite movies, what stands David Mamet in such good stead with me is that he still, apparently, uses a manual portable typewriter.

I’m not 100 per cent sure yet what model of typewriter, but by the end of the day I’ll know.  One clue was in Mamet’s State and Main, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman played a screenwriter called Joseph Turner White, who used an Olivetti. Yet Santa Monica screenwriter Todd Alcott, a victim of the little green-eyed monster when it comes to the master, calls Mamet "Mr ‘I only write on a portable Smith-Corona in a cabin heated with a wood fire’ Mamet". And columnist John Baker claims that in the making of Spartan, “Mamet rewrites the movie [on top of a cardboard box], taking cues from his daughters and Val Kilmer, and does so on his Smith-Corona typewriter!”

Mamet says he sometimes also uses an IMB Selectric, the same model Hunter S. Thompson occasionally took out into the Colorado snow and shot in loathing with a high-powered rifle. When John Steinbeck graduated from Canary Row to Hollywood, he somewhat incongruously moved from one of the tiniest and prettiest typewriters ever made, the Hermes Baby, to one of the heaviest and ugliest, an IBM Executive.

I find it hard to believe Mamet could stoop to such a thing. In a 2000 profile for The Guardian, Stephen Moss wrote, “Mamet continues to write on a typewriter; his office does not have e-mail; ‘it's Victorian here’, says his assistant.” Richard von Busack, reviewing State and Main for metroactive movies, said the Hoffman character was “a man of old-fashioned leanings, dependent on his manual typewriter (a quirk of Mamet's, no doubt-it must be hard to get that rat-a-tat-tat dialogue on a computer)”.

Actually, it’s not. All my home computers sound exactly like typewriters, because I use the “home typist” program from This way I don’t feel at all guilty about not using a typewriter for such things as this. As for State and Main, Matt Heffernan on pointed out that “several films from 2000 were about writers. Generally, the act of writing isn't very cinematic [but] looking at most films about writers, there is a common element: typewriters. Even in the age of word processing, modern characters prefer the good old-fashioned clickety-click of the venerable contraption. From Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys to … State and Main, writers have absolutely insisted on typewriters. From a cinematic standpoint, the action of a mechanical typewriter is far more interesting than a static computer, so screenwriters have made the old machines significant plot points. Mamet practically centred his film around a typewriter.”

Many of Mamet’s stage and screenplays feature typewriters. I believe he used to get his own serviced at Osner Business Machines on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where, allegedly, among other notable customers was Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe was among the great typewriter traditionalists. He disdainfully recounted a single failed venture into the world of word processing. What he intended was a single word, "this". What his fingers wrought, instead, appeared quite differently: "tttttttthhhhiiiisssss.” "I had a typewriter touch, not a computer touch," he said. "I have a very fast typewriter, a 1966 Underwood - like a 1958 Thunderbird." Mary Adelman of Osners explained the typewriter's enduring allure: "Firstly, it doesn't hiss at you. It's quiet. It doesn't say anything until you put your hands on it and make it - click! - go along. They never crash. They never run out of memory.” Mamet, like Wolfe, shunned the computer, calling it an "hermaphrodite typewriter-cum-filing cabinet". He said, “I have no doubt that using a computer would affect my style. Just the scrolling. You do something 10 hours a day. Over the years you get used to the sound, the rhythm of the keys, the rhythm of the line, and all of a sudden there is no sound of the keys, there’s no resistance or rhythm of the line.” Another playwright, studying the Mamet style, adopted the same implement and came to the conclusion: “The great thing about writing on a typewriter is that you don't tend to get bogged down the way you do when you word process. With a typewriter, you maintain a certain amount of forward momentum, rather than endlessly chewing over your work until the spirit and spontaneity of what made you sit down and start writing in the first place is no longer recognisable.”

Mamet and Wolfe, of course, are just two of a number of great living American writers who used manual typewriters. Larry McMurtry famously thanked his Hermes 3000 when he received a Golden Globe for his work on the screenplay of Brokeback Mountain. He should really have spoken in the plural, since I understand he has at least seven of them waiting for his tender touch in various parts of the US.

Jimmy Breslin, author of I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir, says a floppy disk doesn't give a writer that feeling of accomplishment. "All the charm is out of it. Maybe it's more reliable, I don't know. Maybe it's quicker. Sometimes, you know, I just want to hold the finished thing." Paul Auster wrote a book, The Story of My Typewriter, about his Olympia SM9.  Auster refers to it as “one of the last surviving artefacts of 20th century homo scriptorus”. As I typed those words, Word Document turned “homo” into “home”. When I end a line and start a new one, Word automatically gives me a capital letter. Ee (see, it’s done it again!) cummings would have hated these things. Sometimes I think I do, too.

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