Film Review: ‘California Typewriter’

Doug Nichol's documentary about typewriter mania is a piece of analog nostalgia that's in thrall to what digital culture has lost.

California Typewriter
Courtesy of California Typewriter

Vinyl made a comeback, and so did slow food and long beards. So why not the typewriter? Actually, there’s a good reason why not: If you’re composing on a typewriter — a letter, say — and you change your mind about a word or a sentence you’ve just written, then you have to white it out or x it out. It’s an added task, and the result will likely be a tad smudgy. On the typewriter, every single keystroke is a tiny punch of commitment. (The seamless clickety-clack of a computer keyboard, with its instant erasability…not so much.) But according to “California Typewriter,” a lively and appealing analog-nostalgia documentary, it’s that very physicality that makes the typewriter a machine of the past that deserves to have a place in the future. As the movie sees it, the typewriter isn’t just for saying things. It’s for saying them and meaning them.

Directed, photographed, and edited by Doug Nichol, “California Typewriter” isn’t a dry and dutiful history-of-the-typewriter movie. It’s a playful piece of Luddite fetishism, in thrall to the fuddy-duddy designer chic of old typewriters, most of them manual. It’s sort of like a documentary about people obsessed with custom cars — though in this case the models that get them going are ’60s Smith Coronas that glide and ping with seductive precision, or bulky old Royals, with keys like chopping blades, that might have come out of a ’40s newspaper comedy. Why does a clunky Imperial now seem sexier than an IBM Selectric? That’s part of the film’s antique mystique.

Nichol talks to self-avowed typewriter obsessives like Tom Hanks, who owns 250 vintage typewriters and writes on at least one of a them a day. “I hate getting e-mail thank yous,” says Hanks, because those e-mails take people “seven seconds” to write. “Now if they take 70 seconds to type me out something on a piece of paper and send it to me — well, I’ll keep that forever.” The actor’s wryly antiquated fixation on typewriters is infectious, even as you watch him tap-tap-tapping away and realize that Hanks — unlike, say, you or me — probably has someone on hand to deliver his hand-made thank-you notes.

There will always be people who cling to outdated technologies, but the theme of “California Typewriter” isn’t archaic. The movie is a quaintly ingenious meditation on what the digital era is doing to us — how it has taken us a step away from reality, even as it’s made everything easier. The typewriter, in this movie, is at once a simple writing tool and a totem of the 20th-century mind.

The film takes its title from a typewriter renovation and repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., that has been owned and operated, for 38 years, by Herbert Permillion III, an African-American former IBM employee who bought the store just as the personal-computer revolution was kicking in. He and his long-time chief repairman, Ken Alexander, now work on typewriters for which the original companies no longer exist. They sometimes have to create spare parts, like the roller the paper leans against; they’re mechanical magicians operating out of an ingenuity borne of love. At one point, it looks as if Herb is going to have to sell the shop, putting Ken out of work, and what they’re fighting for isn’t just a business but a dream of life without the delete key.

Typewriters, in the words of one observer, have become “time machines” that operate according to a different pace and metaphysic. The movie features an interview with the late Sam Shepard, conducted in 2012, in which he sits in his study in front of his 1960s Hermes 3000 (made in Switzerland), with its luscious aqua-green keys, and describes writing on it in terms that are almost poetic. “I just never got along with the computer screen,” he says. “It’s somehow removed from the tactile experience. When you go to ride a horse, you have to saddle it. When you use a typewriter, you have to feed it paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. But that puts you into a very different relationship to the modern world.”

Nichol also talks to the pop star John Mayer, who at 40 is too young to have grown up with the typewriter. He came to it, he says, when he realized that the hard drive on which he was storing his lyrics had become a glorified trash can — and also that he didn’t want his stream of consciousness interrupted by spellcheck. Then there’s Jeremy Mayer (no relation), a Bay Area sculptor who builds faces, heads, bodies, and animals out of parts culled entirely from the innards of old typewriters. He’s a one-man chop shop, and his sculptures are constructed out of the extraordinary anatomy of the typewriter (bone, muscle, ligament). For a while, Mayer just seems like a scavenger (he has taken heat for tearing up typewriters in a world with a finite supply of them), but then his work catches on and he becomes a darling of Silicon Valley. The irony is that it took computer culture to make a typewriter’s mechanical guts seem so…organic.

“California Typewriter” goes down other fascinating byways: a Christie’s auction where the Olivetti manual typewriter on which Cormac McCarthy wrote all but one of his novels is sold for $210,000; an Ontario collector’s search for the Holy Grail of vintage typewriters — one of the 175 remaining Sholes & Glidden models from the 1880s and ’90s (he finds one here and there, but none for sale); the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, which kicks up a percussive racket catchy enough to be rock ‘n’ roll. In each case, the obsession hinges on the seductive mystery of analog reverence.

If you were born too late for typewriters, then “California Typewriter” will probably seem a cracked curiosity, like a movie about a convention of horse-and-buggy enthusiasts. But as someone who started writing on a typewriter (a mid-1970s electric Smith Corona knockoff), then switched over to the computer in the early ’80s and never looked back, I can testify that I’m still grateful I started that way, because the lesson of the typewriter really is one of commitment: each word planted on the page. You could always take a word back, of course, but the typewriter made that task just pesky enough to nudge you into going forward. The machine it got you to heed was yourself.

Film Review: ‘California Typewriter’

Reviewed on-line, New York, August 17, 2017. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: <strong>104 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An American Buffalo Pictures production. Producers: John Benet, Doug Nichol. Executive producers: Charlotte Chatton, Nion McEvoy, James Redford, Dana Schwartz.
  • Crew: Director: Doug Nichol. Camera (color, widescreen): Doug Nichol. Editor: Doug Nichol.
  • With: Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, John Mayer, Herbert Permillion III, Silvi Alcivar, Ken Alexander, Martin Howard, Jeremy Mayer, David McCullough, Richard Polt, Darren Wershler.