California Typewriter documentary review: a qwerty little passion

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California Typerwriter green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A winsome spell of romance and nostalgia and adorably dorky passion. This is not a portrait of people with an odd hobby: it is a hymn to mechanical beauty.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So, typewriter nerds are a thing, and the gorgeous documentary California Typewriter is here to introduce you to some of them.tweet Tom Hanks (an actor of some repute) has collected hundreds of vintage machines, the virtues of which he will charmingly extol for us, and promises that he will send you a typewritten note if he really likes you. Herb Permillion runs a family-owned labor-of-love repair shop in Berkeley (also called California Typewriter) and “dream[s] that people are gonna come back to typewriters.” Martin Howard from Ontario is an ardent devotee of 19th-century typewriters, and shows off for us their steampunkish glamour. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra is exactly what it sounds like. Artist Jeremy Mayer lovingly disassembles typewriters and uses the parts to make unexpectedly organic-seeming robot-esque sculptures.

I could have watched these people geek out about typewriters for at least a few more hours…

I could have watched all these people, and the others who appear here, geek out about typewriters for at least a few more hours: with this, his documentary debut, filmmaker Doug Nichol spins a winsome spell of romance and nostalgia and adorably dorky passion.tweet This is not a portrait of people with an odd hobby: it is a hymn to a machine that revolutionized communication, to its mechanical beauty, to its power in a fast-paced world to slow down one’s thinking and to leave a trail of evidence to the creative process in a way that a word processor cannot. Playwright Sam Shepard (in what may be his last onscreen appearance) captures the robust physicality of and the deliberate forethought required in using a typewriter when he likens feeding one paper to saddling a horse.

Song in the key of QWERTY...
Song in the key of QWERTY…tweet

There may be sentimentality at work here, but never Ludditism: musician John Mayer (apparently no relation to the sculptor), after explaining why he prefers typewritten lyrics to word-processed ones, ends his comments just before his smartphone calls for his attention. It was a smart choice on Nichol’s part to not just have cut away once Mayer was done speaking: it becomes an acknowledgement of how clinging to an outmoded bit of technology, not matter how agreeable, is a way to negotiate the rapid pace of change, to put the brakes on just a little. (I think it’s safe to say that everyone with a significant presence in this film is old enough to have learned to type on typewriters, before personal computers became ubiquitous.) And it also seems like a nod to this inevitability: there will be nostalgic nerds a hundred years from now who insist upon using slow, dumb early-21st-century Samsung Galaxys and Apple iPhones for their creative rumination rather than that newfangled BrainPlug, which simply isn’t as fun or as sensual as the old toys are.

With a nicely low-key jazzy score and a delightful appreciation for how a machine can be not only an artistic but also a spiritual muse and medium, California Typewriter is thoroughly bewitching.tweet

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Fri, Aug 25, 2017 3:53pm

Ahh, manual typewriters! I am old enough to have learned to type on one myself (we didn’t get an electric one at home at all, that I recall, at least not until each of us kids went to college and got one for ourselves, but Mom never replaced the manual until she got her first PC in the mid-’90s). I think we had manual ones in my typing class in 8th grade (1979-80), and I know that I used ours at home to practice and type my reams of extra-credit pages (I enjoyed typing, and figured to get as much credit for having fun as possible, and I did–I think I ended up the semester with 110%). I got up to 59 wpm in that class (never broke the 60-word limit until I started using a computer).

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kathy_A
Tue, Aug 29, 2017 3:40pm

I learned to type on an electric typewriter. :-) I actually had to take typing tests when looking for my early jobs in publishing.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Sat, Aug 26, 2017 6:45pm

There was an interesting thread on twitter a while back regarding the large number of scientific papers and books which credited their wives with typing the documents.

A sober reminder that typing, before the era of digital corrections, was a serious and time-consuming skill. A skill which was often considered women’s work, and thus often devalued.

Tonio Kruger
Wed, Aug 30, 2017 7:36pm

I’m actually old enough to remember using manual typewriters in high school. I was never that good a typist and even when PCs came in, I was at best so-so when it came to keyboarding.

However, I did find it amusing how impressed one of my younger brothers was with my keyboarding skills the first time I used a computer in front of him. At the time, I did not have the heart to tell me that the keyboarding skills he considered to be so fast would be considered slow by my co-workers.