August 25, 2017
Revisiting old technologies can be fun. The analog warmth of vinyl records sounds better than the harsh digital compression of CDs. The feeling of flipping the pages of a good book in your hands beats the hell out of scrolling through that same book on a tablet. And, as any avid movie collector will tell you, VHS tapes often have way cooler artwork than their DVD/Blu-ray counterparts. But no one ever thinks about that other lost form of communication – the typewriter. No one, that is, until music video director-turned-documentarian Doug Nichol made California Typewriter.
Taking its name from a typewriter shop in Berkeley, California, California Typewriter follows the stories and exploits of a handful of people who still covet and worship the mechanical typewriter. Nichol spends time with the owners/operators of the brock-and-mortar shop who struggle to keep the doors open and the lights on in an exceedingly digital age. There are interviews with a number of collectors, one of whom is hunting down the holy grail of manual typewriters – a genuine Sholes and Glidden. The film also hangs out with an artist named Jeremy Mayer who uses old typewriter parts to create new and exciting avant-garde sculptures. A short segment is devoted to a young woman who uses her typewriter to write poetry for random customers on the street. There’s even a segment about the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, which is exactly what it sounds like it would be: a group of musicians who play music on old typewriters.
The most fascinating aspect of California Typewriter is how each different subject views the piece of machinery. The repair people at California Typewriter see it as a functional tool for writing. The collectors view typewriters as precious works of art from a bygone era. The artist also sees art, but sees it in the destruction and reconstruction of the different elements. The BTO sees a whole new way to use the typewriter, making music instead of words. And it’s all symbiotic; the artist will provide parts that the repair shop may need, and they in turn will provide him with irreparable machines for his works.
And then, there are the celebrity interviews. Superstar actor Tom Hanks shows off his collection and talks about why a typewriter is one of his favorite gifts to give. Musician John Mayer explains how he uses a typewriter during his lyric writing process to just pound out stream of consciousness ideas (he’s the fastest two-finger typist ever). Writer David McCullough and the late actor/writer Sam Shepard also make brief appearances. The celebs provide some star power, but their appearances don’t feel inorganic at all; they’re big typewriter fans, just like the other subjects. And as such, they are put on equal footing in the doc. Heck, with the exception of (maybe) John Mayer, the celebs get less screen time than any of the everymen.
But the real stars of California Typewriter are the typewriters themselves. From the private collections to the store’s stock, it’s really fun to see all of the old and classic typewriters, especially ones that have been so painstakingly restored and cared for so lovingly. Some of these shiny machines are over fifty years old. And the owners still use them! Beautiful and functional.
Ok, so, truth be told, the premise behind California Typewriter isn’t quite engaging enough to warrant a feature length movie. Once the different people in the film are introduced and their interests explained, some of the stories get a bit bland. The two notable exceptions are the collector looking for his dream typewriter and the artist who tries to make a living off of his commissions. Luckily, those two stories (along with that of the store itself) comprise most of the running time of the film. California Typewriter was made for a very specific audience. Those who are into old typewriters, or even into retro-kitsch technology in general, will love it. The rest will find it interesting enough, but may wonder why the others love it. Either way, it’s worth a look, if only to see John Mayer hunt-and-peck out lyrics as fast as he plays the guitar.