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CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER is a Love Letter Written on an Eternal Machine (Review)

CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER is a Love Letter Written on an Eternal Machine (Review)

Typewriters are an easy object to fetishize. They’re aesthetically pleasing. Tactilely and auditorily pleasing. They’re also the midwives for millions of stories, which makes them the gateways to untold other lands. A bit of magic living in a machine.

With gorgeous object porn and incisive talking heads, Doug Nichol’s documentary California Typewriter celebrates the device both for its physical aspects and its connection to our brains. Nichols began the project as a short film focused on the California Typewriter Company run by Herbert L. Permillion, III, in Berkeley, CA, but it expanded thanks to a vinyl-esque resurgence in interest for the obsolete apparatuses.

The shining star of that renewed love is enthusiast Tom Hanks, who you can bribe to appear on your podcast with a 1934 Corona Silent. He’s beyond giddy here, sharing what is obviously a profound love for his usable antiques and the nuanced differences between the sounds their keys make. He’s pulled out the pom-poms for this film, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

California Typewriter also features ruminations on stream-of-conscious writing, connecting the The Muse, and the limitations of automatic spell check’s infernal red squigglies with John Mayer, historian David McCullough, and Sam Shepard in one of his final film appearances.

The star power is intriguing, especially since they have a lot to offer contemplating technology’s ability to support or hinder creativity and change the way we look into our past, but the heart of the movie is Kenneth Alexander, a typewriter repairman with four decades of experience under his drive belt. He’s passionate and thoughtful about his work, marrying expertise with zeal and consideration. Without question, he’s the documentary’s most interesting figure, whether he’s scouting for fixable machines at a flea market or tending to wounded soldiers with speedy dexterity. He expounds on the impact typewriters have had on culture and their individual owners while the last parts distributor closes for good.

That’s the somber duality of California Typewriter. They’re vital engines of society that no one wants to build anymore. As Hanks points out, there will never be a new, top-of-the-line typewriter. No company would manufacture them. Despite their separate interviews, Alexander echoes and expands on that sentiment–an idea clearly firm in the minds of true believers who see great value in something the world has left behind.

The film regularly uses these overlapping ideas, usually as segues that smartly introduce new segments without showing the seams. It’s an effective editing technique, but the film also gets dangerously repetitive–there’s only so much to say about how, you know, computers now exist. As some discuss the typewriter’s present and hopeful future, Canadian collector Martin Howard pilgrimages to Wisconsin to celebrate Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the first commercially viable version. More than just a design doc, California Typewriter uses its space to point out how Sholes’ hope for the machine was to bring women into meaningful roles in the workforce (something typewriters achieved) and to further discuss its place in societal change.

Between expounding on its life and the exaggerated reports of its death, the movie also offers a platform to artist Jeremy Mayer, who reincarnates typewriters by creating sculptures with their parts. There are also digressions into how the typewriter’s initial popularity coincided with America’s obsession with seances and a jamming interlude with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

It’s a beautiful film, made with consideration for the love these typewriter buffs feel. It’s a bit overlong, and sometimes coated too thickly with the artsy gloss of pretension, but the meditation and linger looks at classic design are, even in our modern throwaway culture, well worth the investment.

4 out of 5 Smith Corona Burritos

Images: American Buffalo Pictures

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