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The Allure of Old-School Typing

The rom-com 'Ruby Sparks' celebrates the noise and joys of the manual typewriter

By Leah Rozen

As I type this, my laptop is emitting sounds I haven’t heard since I traded in my trusty and much beloved Underwood for a computer keyboard back in early 1980s.
Click, click, clack. Ding! Ah, the glorious sound of a manual typewriter.
Inspired by Ruby Sparks, a new romantic comedy about a writer who still uses an old-school typewriter, I’m hearing these sounds again thanks to Noisy Typewriter, a free app that you can install on a computer. (Sorry, right now it only works on Macs.) Once installed, it runs underneath your other applications, so that as you peck out a document or email, voila, you have the audio accompaniment of a manual or electric typewriter. It’s as if you were simultaneously typing both the new and the old-fashioned way.
For those of us old enough to have learned to type on a typewriter, the click-click of keys and the whirr of a carriage return are comforting. This was the soundtrack of my adolescence — I worked at my hometown newspaper in high school — and early twenties.
Installing Noisy Typewriter on your laptop is the eqivalent of opting for an old-fashioned ringtone on your cell phone or loading up your iPod with vintage Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman tunes, or the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Ditto for buying DVDs only of movies made before 1980 or watching black-and-white films from Hollywood’s Golden Age on Turner Classic Movies and your big screen HDTV.
In each case, you’re enjoying old-school pleasures using the latest gadgetry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Technology is a tool; make it work for you.
As I began to make like a modern-day Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), hammering away on my now noisy laptop, I got to thinking about how the evolution of technology is reflected in popular film. Consider my favorite film ever, Shop Around the Corner, a glorious romantic comedy from 1940 that was remade as You’ve Got Mail in 1998 by the late Nora Ephron. In the original film, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are bickering sales clerks in a gift shop, unaware that as pseudonymous pen pals they’re carrying on an epistolary courtship. In Ephron’s updated version, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan snipe at each other as proprietors of rival bookstores, even as they flirt shamelessly, and anonymously, online via their computer screens.
In movies about journalists, characters have gone from using typewriters (1931’s The Front Page through 1975’s All the President’s Men) to computers (2009’s State of Play) and TV cameras (1987’s Broadcast News and last year’s Morning Glory). Any up-to-date depiction of a halfway competent journalist today would have to show him or her juggling reporting, writing, shooting and filing stories via laptop, smart phone video, Skype and more.
Don’t even get me started on cell phones. There would be no Home Alone (1990) if wee Macaulay Culkin had been able to call his parents to alert them they were headed to the airport without him. In movies these days, if a plot is to turn on a character not being able to ring for help, a screenwriter is forced to pave the way early on with expository excuses. Hence, someone loudly proclaims that he has forgotten his cell phone, dropped it in the toilet, has a low battery or, gosh darn, just can’t get a signal out here. In To Rome With Love, one main character dropped it through a grate.
(And where, pray tell, now that phone booths have disappeared, is Superman supposed to change from Clark Kent to Man of Steel?)
All of which brings me back to the charming Ruby Sparks, opening Friday (July 27). The movie’s hero is a young novelist (played by Paul Dano) who suffers from writer’s block and emotional stasis. Symbolically, he still pecks out his manuscripts on a manual typewriter. When, near the movie’s end, he takes major steps to shift his life into forward gear and put the past behind him, the movie discreetly signals the change by showing him at work, writing on a laptop.
Of course, if he installed the Noisy Typer app he could have the best of both worlds.

Click, click. Ding!

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade. Read More
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