California Typewriter

"California Typewriter"
Directed by Doug Nichol
Gravitas Ventures
4 Stars

For generations that have grown up using a computer and printer to generate physical documents, the typewriter must seem like some sort of device once favored by cavemen; for most practical purposes it is that far gone. There are however folks that still care for typewriters to the point of adoration and you'll meet some of them in this wonderful documentary. Nichol is famed for pointing his lens at rock stars; he's done hundreds of music videos as well as films like the Madonna documentary "Truth or Dare" and U2's "Rattle and Hum." Not surprising then that he gives the rock star treatment to the typewriter here as he tracks collectors like actor Tom Hanks and musician John Mayer while also delving into the going's on at the Berkeley typewriter repair shop that gives the film its name. A glimpse inside California Typewriter shows repairmen Herbert Permillion III and Ken Alexander working a labor of love to restore disused typewriters, no mean feat considering that no one manufactures spare parts for the devices any longer. One scene shows how the guys at California Typewriter make their own platens (that's the roller) using copper piping and rubber hose. Permillion and Alexander are shown working on typewriter innards, a job that requires the tenacity and precision of a watch maker. That's all very much appreciated by typewriter collectors and fanatics who take joy in the sound and "feel" of the machines; they rattle off typewriter minutiae like a sommelier describing a fine wine. As for the celebrity collectors featured in the film, Hanks, a firm believer in typewritten thank you notes, is perhaps the most entertaining as he shows his collection. Mayer is a bit hippy-dippy but clearly sincere in his reverence for typewriters; shorter segments focus on "typewriter poet" Silvi Alcivar, who does a sort of poetry-on-demand thing where she sits at a typewriter and creates and types out a poem for fans that line up for the experience, and on the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a group that creates a comic sort of percussive music by pounding away at typewriter keyboards to achieve a sound akin to what you'd hear with "Stomp the Yard." It might be hard to think of a documentary about typewriters as riveting, but Nichol strikes a great balance here between pathos for an almost extinct technology and the unbridled joy that typewriters still bring to collectors. The story is fast and fascinating and no doubt many viewers will be inspired to head to the thrift store and start looking for the beginnings of their own collection. "California Typewriter" is currently screening at select theaters nationwide; find a list of upcoming screenings here


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