California Typewriter (NR)

Documentary 103 min. August 18, 2017
By Daphne Howland
Swiftly evolving technology has made mincemeat of plenty of economic models and machines, but few have been displaced so thoroughly as the typewriter. In California Typewriter (also the name of a retail and repair shop in Oakland that is ostensibly this film's focus), documentary maker Doug Nichol makes a strong if meandering case that the American invention, in its day a paradigm-smasher in its own right, facilitates a connection to the subconscious that no other device can.

Pulitzer Prize winners David McCullough and Sam Shepard, along with Grammy-winning musician John Mayer, testify. "I realized the reason that I was able to come alive on a typewriter, where I wasn't using a computer or even a pen, was that you're at sort of a safe distance, where you can express yourself openly without having to edit yourself at the same time," Mayer says.

Tom Hanks, a collector, weighs in, as does sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who takes apart defunct typewriters from all eras to create steampunk sculptures of animals, people, mandalas and lotus flowers. The artist enjoys a symbiotic relationship with California Typewriter, the shop opened in 1981 by former IBM Selectric serviceman Herbert L. Permillion, which trades its excess machines for his rare parts.

Nichol covers a lot of ground — the machine's history is seen mostly through collectors' obsessive travels — and the film rambles a bit. But it's a compelling look at a valuable contraption that's slipping through our grasp, and will send many viewers to flea markets and eBay for one of their own.
Doug Nichol Silvi Alcivar, Ken Alexander, Tom Hanks, Martin Howard, Jeremy Mayer, John Mayer, David McCullough Gravitas Ventures


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