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People & Arts: Documentaries

Kenneth Alexander in the documentary film California Typewriter

IN GOOD HANDS: Repairman Ken Alexander in the film California Typewriter. (American Buffalo Pictures)

Documentary California Typewriter a Meditation on Values that Endure

As virtual versions replace things once real, we’re losing skills, pride in our work, records of achievements and our humanity

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN    Sept. 30, 2017


“EASE AND HAPPINESS ARE NOT SYNONYMOUS,” author and historian David McCullough says, referring to what we’ve lost in the digital age by no longer having to make much effort, in the thought-provoking new documentary California Typewriter. When writing on a typewriter, “Because it is more difficult, it produces a better result,” he says.

McCullough is one of several typewriter loyalists who speak on-camera in this touching film that was directed, photographed and edited by Doug Nichol. Also delivering paeans to an analog device ostensibly rendered obsolete by computers—but which might be making a comeback similar to the one enjoyed by vinyl records—is playwright and actor Sam Shepard. “I never got along with the computer screen,” says Shepard, who died July 27. When pressing a key on his typewriter, he liked to feel the resulting action of its levers and to see ink burst on the page.

Also in the film, actor Tom Hanks reveals that he collects typewriters and has more than 200 of the machines. He types letters, memos and thank-you notes and dislikes receiving thank-you emails, which he sees as lazy and disposable. In today’s throw-away society, “a Smith Corona is like a dependable Chevy,” Hanks says. The typewriter has “a pleasant tactile action … with a soundtrack to it” made by the striking of the keys and the ring of the carriage-return bell.

California Typewriter movie poster

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 by squiggly red or green lines that 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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