The Culture Movies

Documentary ‘California Typewriter’ turns back the clock

Director Doug Nichol's film is an ode to the iconic writing instrument.

Tom Hanks appears in the film, 'California Typewriter.'
Courtesy of American Buffalo Pictures
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Caption
( Unrated )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

The overlong but charming documentary “California Typewriter” is an ode to the iconic writing instrument. I have to say I feel kind of guilty celebrating it on my word processor. 

Director Doug Nichol started out making a movie about a small repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., called California Typewriter, which opened in 1949. Owner Herbert Permillion III and his trusty master craftsman, Ken Alexander, are surrounded in the shop by hundreds of typewriters of all styles, each with its own distinct personality. Speaking admiringly of an old Smith Corona, Alexander rhapsodizes, “Like a good Chevy, it holds up.”

Typewriter apostate that I am, I nevertheless have to admit that these are my kind of people. It turns out there are quite a few of them out there. Tom Hanks, interviewed at length, is one of them. He owns 250 typewriters, 90 percent of them in working order. He’s a coolheaded fanatic, singling out his favorites as if he were selecting fine vintages from a wine cellar. 

Should you ever befriend Hanks, his missives to you will be mailed, not e-mailed. “I hate getting e-mail thank yous,” he says. He just deletes them. The written ones, the good ones, he keeps. “You can create a document that will last forever!”

Historian David McCullough, who “likes working with my hands,” is another famous talking head in “California Typewriter” who unapologetically turns back the clock. He still uses the same Royal Standard he purchased many decades ago because, he says in that casually authoritative voice familiar from so many Ken Burns documentaries, “there’s nothing wrong with it.” His regret at the passing of the typewriter era is more than mere nostalgia. As he explains, with computers, you reword and delete as you go along. Not so with typewritten drafts. (Of course, if you own a printer, you can print out multiple drafts, but I digress.) Looking back at old typed documents, he says that “there is great value in mistakes, in seeing which sentences they cut out. Future historians will have nothing to check out.” Discussing the venerable subjects of his research, he wonders, “How will we be able to know how their minds worked?” 

Of course, it’s likely that historians had the same qualms when typewriters replaced quill pens in the 1880s, but no matter. To each his own.

Given his prolificacy, I was a bit surprised to find McCullough in the anti-word processor camp. No such surprise about the late Sam Shepard, who tells us that he was never comfortable with a computer screen. He thinks computers remove us from the tactile pleasures of writing. What he loved about typing is how “you can see the ink fly into the paper.” Shepard is among those who would “rather ride a horse than drive a car, but that puts you into a different relationship with the modern world.”

This whole typewriter adoration thing can get a bit nutty, and Nichol includes several of the more prominent obsessives, including Martin Howard, a Canadian who has been collecting typewriters, many going back to the 19th century, for more than 20 years. The holy grail for him is a Sholes and Glidden, the typewriter created by Christopher Latham Sholes (who thought, rightly, that his invention would emancipate legions of women from the drudgery of menial work by creating secretarial positions). We can see Howard eyeing one of these rare, encased beauties while visiting a typewriter museum. He hints to the curator about purchasing it. The hint falls on deaf ears.

My favorite bit of nuttiness from Howard comes when he gushes about finding dead insects in the innards of very old typewriters. “A dry spider from the 1880s! Nobody has raided the tomb!” 

Equally fixated is Jeremy Mayer, who buys up old typewriters and then – horrors! – dismantles them in order to refashion the parts as sculptures. He admits that, for some typewriter fanatics, what he does is sacrilegious, but, in a way, his own fanaticism matches theirs. He wants to bring “dead” parts to life, and some of his sculptures, with keys and carriages simulating rib cages, are weirdly ingenious. 

So is the clickety-clack music created by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, performed entirely on discarded typewriters.

Aside from concerts and sculptures, there may not be much of a future for typewriters. The last factory making them, based in Mumbai, recently shut down. Then again, vinyl records are making a comeback. The slow food movement is picking up speed. Typewriters are like time machines. Maybe it’s time to go back to the future. Just make sure you know a good repairman. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

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