CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER

Producer: John Benet and Doug Nichol
Director: Doug Nichol
Writer: 
Stars: Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, John Mayer, David McCullough, Herbert Permillion III, Ken Alexander, Silvi Alcivar, Martin Howard, Jeremy Mayer, Richard Polt and Darren Wershler
Studio: Gravitas Ventures

B

In an address to the jury in “Inherit the Wind,” Henry Drummond—the Clarence Darrow figure—observes that progress always entails losses as well as gains. “Mister, you may conquer the air,” he says, “but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” It’s that sentiment that permeates Doug Nichol’s documentary, which on the surface is just a genial survey of people who love typewriters—some of them writers who prefer the clattering machines to word processors but also collectors of one sort or another. In a larger sense, however, the film suggests that something important has been lost by abandoning typewriters for more advanced writing devices—which, to be sure, have obvious advantages but perhaps also disadvantages.

Some of those disadvantages are practical. Take the observations of popular historian David McCullough, who still uses a typewriter to compose his huge bestsellers on the American past but also points out that future scholars will no longer have as evidence the typewritten copies of speeches and documents, often filled with handwritten alterations, that allow us to chart the changes that presidents, for examples, made in the addresses they gave up to the very moment of delivery.

Less concrete but equally telling are the comments of the late actor-playwright Sam Shepard and singer-songwriter John Mayer. Both rhapsodize about the tactile experience of typing the words they fashion into plays and lyrics, but also about the permanence of the result. Shepard is filmed sitting at his favorite machine—a Swiss-made Hermes 3000—whose keys he caresses while speaking, in his customarily gruff but evocative style, about how pecking at them differs from using a computer keyboard and observing that he and a computer screen never got along. Mayer, a more recent convert, decided to try a typewriter after watching the young Bob Dylan composing on one, and has become a devoted fan.

Others revere typewriters more as collectors than authors. The best-known is certainly Tom Hanks, pictured among the some two hundred machines he owns. He becomes a celebrity linchpin for Nichol, who encourages him at one point to pick out his “desert island” typewriter, but he waxes eloquent about how impersonal e-mail thank-you notes are, compared to ones you actually type. (One could, of course, note that handwritten notes are even more personal, but that’s another movie.) Hanks’ enthusiasm is, as usual, infectious.

The film also moves in other directions, though. One person who reappears periodically is Martin Howard, a collector of machines from the late nineteenth century. Through him we learn of the invention of the device by Christopher Latham Sholes (as well as about its effect on the workforce, especially for women), meet other collectors and visit museums where typewriters have become exhibits—while watching him search for a rare machine he’s itching to have but probably couldn’t afford if he found it (we briefly observe an auction where a machine used by Cormac McCarthy is sold for over $200,000—though there it’s the human connection that makes it so valuable). Then there is artist Jeremy Mayer, whose sculptures are composed of bits and pieces of old typewriters that he has rescued from the trash heap and taken apart. And the so-called Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a six-person group that bangs out tunes on their machines (and sometimes destroys one onstage, as a rocker might his guitar).

Nichol keeps returning, however, to the typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, California that gives his film its title, where we watch Herbert Permillion III, who’s owned the place for decades, carefully practicing his skill for people who bring in their beloved machines for some tender care. Business isn’t all that good, though, and he might have to sell—threatening the job of long-time repairman Ken Alexander. Ironically, what could save the operation is some of the technological change it otherwise challenges.

This is one of those documentaries that at first seems like just an enjoyable lark about some eccentric people but winds up raising deeper issues about human needs and the creative process. Even if you were never introduced to the wonders of Liquid Paper or Wite-Out, it will probably make you appreciate, to some degree, the passion of the various folk interviewed here. It might even encourage you to try out a typewriter, the way John Mayer did.

“California Typewriter” leaves one nagging question hanging in the air, however: why was Leroy Anderson’s catchy orchestral novelty piece “The Typewriter” not included somewhere along the way? A copyright issue?