“California Typewriter” Documentary Shows Why We Hold Onto the Past

A meditation told in a minor key on technology at a crossroads, mild obsessions with antiquity and the art of physical creation, cinematographer Doug Nichol’s debut documentary California Typewriter (B) is a thoughtful glimpse at the history of and current appropriation of a classic and seemingly obsolete invention: the typewriter. This quirky, QWERTY topic opens up a home row of great conversations with the likes of Tom Hanks, songwriter John Mayer and the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard, among an array of enthusiasts and iconoclasts who find a muse in the artifact with crunchy keys to peck, ink ribbons flowing black and red and a carriage return gliding with sheer powertrain force. A central narrative thread is the titular family-run business owned by patriarch Herbert Permillion, located in Berkeley, which is ostensibly a repair shop but also sometimes a blend of triage unit and curiosity cabinet for the bygone devices. Congregated less for requiem than celebration, these real people display a quiet fascination with a tactile tradition and carry the water for real-time output that pre-dated the computer era. John Mayer in particular provides some compelling commentary about lyric writing on a typewriter, free of squiggly digital lines admonishing misspellings and full of rich, pulpy texture that makes you feel amazingly alive as an analog being in a digital world. Among the series of obscure enthusiasts showcased, sculptor Jeremy Mayer (no relation to the singer) is one of the few whose obsession leaves the antique apparatus completely transformed. He breaks down his collection of contraptions into component parts to reconfigure them into anatomically correct human figures, many inspired by the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; his is an intriguing take on the societal transition between the pre- and post-internet world and stands in contrast with many of the other fanboys (I guess if they’re older, they’d be fan-men) who troll museums, flea markets, swap shops and even foreign countries to purchase and preserve the classic machines. Others wax poetic with nostalgia, wit and downright fetishism about the dandy devices. Hanks prefers the Silent Smith Corona, while others rave about the virtues of a Hermes, Olympia or other company lines as if they were regaling in a car show in full glory. There have been more exciting movies featuring a typewriter at the helm (Misery, The Shining and Naked Lunch come to mind) but few make such a compelling case for a charged object at the center of a lowkey comeback. This movie about magnificent men and their typing machines makes this beast of iron giant again.

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