The movie’s title refers to a typewriter-repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III. He and Kenneth Alexander, both expert technicians and typewriter devotees, struggle to keep the shop alive as demand for the machines has shrunk to a small subculture of people who still love them. Having taken out a second mortgage and fallen deeper into debt to stay in business, Permillion considers selling the small building but decides to keep going, ever hopeful that things will turn around.
For at least one man, typewriters are no longer a means to write, but an inspiration for creating art. We meet Jeremy Mayer, an artist who takes apart discarded typewriters and uses their components to build sculptures of animals and people.
Musician John Mayer also appears, talking about the impermanent, almost phantom nature of digital writing, versus the lasting physical presence and value of something typed on paper. When banging out stream-of-consciousness song lyrics on a typewriter, he doesn’t have to worry that his muse will be interrupted when squiggly red or green lines appear under the words from a computer’s spell or grammar checks. Such technological intrusions would compel him to stop and correct the errors rather than continue exploring his thoughts, possibly blocking some insight or turn of phrase that could have gone into one of his songs.
Far from a mere exercise in nostalgia, California Typewriter makes the point that in the era of digital technology and virtual versions of things once real, we are losing skills, pride in our work, lasting records of our achievements and even our humanity, as machines stop serving us and we increasingly surrender to their control. California Typewriter is a beautiful film that will make you rethink the choices available for living your life—and most likely leave you wanting to buy an old typewriter for yourself, and to start using it.
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