2017, NR, 103 min. Directed by Doug Nichol.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 22, 2017
The more we allow our digital contraptions to take hold of our lives, the more its seems people yearn for the good ol’ analog days. This affectionate documentary embraces the siren call of the manual typewriter and those who have always preferred to use them instead of computers, as well as those who collect them, repair them, and make art with them. Only a couple of decades ago, the typewriting machine started to become passé as computers increasingly pushed them off the desktops of homes worldwide. Now, steampunks and romantics have joined the die-hards who never relinquished their love for their old-fashioned writing machines to foster, if not a rebirth of the typewriter, then at least a deeper appreciation for the distinctive feel and capabilities of the nostalgic objects.
California Typewriter is the name of a repair shop in Oakland, Calif., and is one of the last of its kind still in business. Ostensibly, the documentary is a profile of the shop and the individuals who run it. Yet the film’s focus rambles a bit to include testimony from the likes of noted collectors like the actor Tom Hanks, as well as devoted typewriter users such as playwright Sam Shepard and historian David McCullough, and musicians John Mayer and Mason Williams. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra gives a demonstration of their unique work, and sculptor Jeremy Mayer shows how he makes lovely art pieces from disassembled and nonworking typewriters. (Nichol’s documentary would have benefited from revealing these contributors’ names as they’re introduced onscreen instead of in an end-credits scroll.) The sculptor and the owner of California Typewriters, Herbert Permillion III (a former IBM employee who bought the store in 1981), share a symbiotic relationship in their mutual flea-market hunt for old manual typewriters that are either fixable or irreparable.
The speakers argue for the slower, more deliberative pace that happens when typing with a typewriter rather than a computer. Most hail the machine’s ability to create an awareness of the process of writing. Some extol the beauty of the machine and its parts, its simplicity and detachment from the distractions of the modern world. California Typewriter wanders a bit in its curiosity, but it is hardly a piece of ephemeral nostalgia. It is an investigation into the various contraptions (in this case, typewriters) maintained and employed by people to make art tick.