.Review: ‘California Typewriter’

Tom Hanks, other celebs weigh in this ode to a beautiful machine

Tom Hanks is one of many celebs who tout the typewriter in the documentary, ‘California Typewriter.’

Doug Nichol’s friendly and ruminative documentary California Typewriter concerns a piece of analog tech that still has an alchemical power. A black and white re-enactment of a true-crime grabber starts it: artist Ed Ruscha and his buddy, the musician Mason Williams, autopsied a junked typewriter they threw from a car window at 90mph on a deserted road, per Ruscha’s conceptual piece, Royal Road Test.

From this lonesome “execution,” Nichol heads for the big money. We see the auction of the very typewriter that Cormac McCarthy used to wreak some of his run-on prose. It appears to be the most beautiful typewriter ever made, an Olivetti Lettera 22, sold to some wealthy culture vulture for $210,000.

Big names testify: the late Sam Shepard, actor Tom Hanks, historian David McCullough and musician John Mayer. Hanks insists on working with the 250 typewriters in his collection—”Get that bad boy down here!” Hanks says when he sees one displayed on a shelf. Artist Jeremy Mayer pulls discarded typewriters apart and uses the pieces to make sculptures of meta-human figures.

The Canada-based collector Martin Howard takes a Milwaukee pilgrimage to see the site of the workshop where C. Latham Shoales invented the typewriter in 1869, and stops, spellbound, to honor the inventor’s tomb.

The heart of this film are interviews with ex-IBM employee Herb Permillion III, an expert on the Selectric, the Stratocaster of typewriters. He’s run the California Typewriter shop on Berkeley’s San Pablo Avenue for many years. Business is uncertain—the question of whether the building will be sold worries Richmond’s Ken Alexander, the store’s head mechanic.

It’s a very local film, not just in the fine cityscapes; the Bay Area is an appropriate place to start the study, since Silicon Valley innovation doomed the typewriter. Nichol’s excellent sense of place expands even to the Vince Guaraldi instrumentals on the soundtrack. These were recorded a long time ago at Fantasy Studios, a block or two from Permillion’s shop.

The idea that these typewriters have souls is argued with tender persuasiveness. As John Adams’ biographer McCullough points out, we’ll never know the pentimento of the writing of today’s historical figures, erased by word processing. The beautiful machine is still craved by the top-knotted urbanite clattering away at his pensees at a local café, or people old enough to remember the satisfying punch of the type on the rubber platen.

Director Doug Nichol and artist Jeremy Mayer will be at the upcoming May 11 screening at the Computer History Museum—free with registration.

California Typewriter
May 11, 6:30pm, Free.
Computer History Museum, Mountain View

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