Director: Doug Nichol
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 8/18/17 (limited); 9/29/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2017
A documentary about typewriters might sound like a complete bore, even with the likes of Tom Hanks singing the praises of the machine. To say that California Typewriter is about typewriters, though, would be slightly inaccurate. The film's starting point is the machine—its function, its history, its appeal, its growing obsolescence in a world dominated by computers. From there, director Doug Nichol spreads his focus. The film is only tangentially about typewriters. It's really about obsession, nostalgia, fear of what technology is doing to us, and the human desire for forms simplicity that don't sacrifice the basic parts of humanity.
It's a lot, and while Nichol may not tie all of these sometimes disparate themes together, that doesn't seem to be the point. The typewriter means something different to each of these people, obviously, since some still use the machines for work, some collect them without any desire to use them, and one guy destroys them to create sculptures. The one unifying thing is that they love the typewriter, in ways that seem passé, potentially unhealthy, or pragmatic.
This is really, then, a film about personalities, from famous ones—such as Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, and the late Sam Shepard—to ones that live on the fringes of society—a struggling artist, an obsessive collector, and the owner and employees of a typewriter shop in Berkeley, California, which is having as many problems with staying open as one might expect from a typewriter store in the 21st century. Hanks, as you might expect, turns out to be a pretty good salesman—sitting in his home office, showing off the favorite models in his collection, and saying how much more meaningful a typewritten thank-you note is than an emailed one (If it only took seven seconds to write it, it'll go in the digital trash heap, but if it took 70 seconds to craft, he'll cherish it forever). In other words, maybe that shop has found a good spokesman, now that the documentary indirectly has brought them together.
Meanwhile, the collector, named Martin, is the film's way of going through the history of the machine. Nichol is into it, presenting the story of the first commercially successful typewriter with period photos and advertisements, as well as tours of various museums where that model is kept and of the city of Milwaukee, where Christopher Latham Sholes designed various prototypes and developed the QWERTY-style keyboard that we still use today. After a while, one begins to get the impression that Nichol goes to this length of detail in a way that's somewhere between feeling obligated toward and humoring Martin's obsession.
That's fine, because the filmmaker isn't looking down on his subject. Indeed, Martin is what matters here—far more than the history lesson. If this is what it takes to understand the man, so be it. Martin has a good number of late-19th-century typewriters. When asked if his wife has an interest in the machines, he says no, but only after a pause that gives us a good sense of the unseen woman's real feelings on the subject. Martin's goal is to obtain the model that Sholes developed, but it's really to recapture a personal past long gone. Once he gets the machine he wants, Martin is convinced that he will feel a completion to his life's work. We can imagine his wife's response to that statement.
A good portion of the film is devoted to the people who run California Typewriter, the shop in Berkeley where Herb, the owner, employs his family and Ken, who has worked at the store for 15 years, is about as good at repairs and renovations as anyone, and, with the store in constant threat of closing down, is uncertain of what he would do if he lost his job. He'd find work, of course, because that's what his parents taught him and it's what he wants his sons to learn from him.
Herb and Ken have a professional relationship with Jeremy, the artist who breaks apart typewriters and creates sculptures from the pieces. He knows the days of the typewriter being used by a large enough percentage of people to justify their continued production and repair have disappeared, so he thinks his option is the best one to celebrate the machine's existence.
The famous folks here serve their own purpose. There's Hanks' comparatively mild draw to the machine. Mayer, wanting tangible evidence of the work he does, bought one after realizing that he had piles of hard drives with song lyrics that he would never look at again. McCullough still uses one to write his books and, as a historian, worries that vital parts of history will be lost with the advent of the instant editing of word processors. Presidential speeches will be preserved in complete form, for example, without the mistakes, the handwritten corrections, or the obvious signs of collaboration. Shepard, making one of this final screen appearances, talks about his craft as a playwright in a way that's illuminating and, now, melancholy—with or without mentions of a typewriter.
All of it is a bit of a hodgepodge of ideas, but it's an engaging one, nonetheless. The love of the machine is of little interest to Nichol, compared to the admiration he has for the ways in which these people show that love. California Typewriter is a little film that, surprisingly, has a lot to say and explore, and afterwards, yes, you probably will wish that typewriters weren't so impractical in this day and age.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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