Smith-Coronas had this delicate touch. Rush your words and the keys would clump like gravy going wrong in the pan.
Underwoods, Royals? You could pound those behemoths with passion, forcing out angry words that threatened to punch through the page.
And IBM Selectrics would sit there, humming impatiently, waiting for you to get on with the business of creating at the keyboard.
Some people, like avid note and memo-writer turned typewriter collector Tom Hanks relish the “tactile” feel of putting fingers to keys and hearing the pop as a letter magically appears on a page of paper.
The late playwright, actor and one-time drummer Sam Shepard spoke of the “percussion” of the process.
And pop singer and hipster John Mayer refers to footage of Bob Dylan typing as Bob “sitting at the altar” of this “confessional,” recalls a visit to the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame and seeing pages of scribbled, jotted and typed first drafts of rock classics and realizing he’s never written on anything but a computer, and no — NOBODY is parking old hard drives on display at the Hall of Fame.
“California Typewriter” is a most engaging documentary about the latest wrinkle in the Return of Analog. After “Slow Food” and the revival of vinyl LPs and turntables, it’s typewriters that hipsters have taken to hunting down in flea markets, thrift stores and the shrinking number of shops that service and sell them.
Not that John Mayer will admit to that.
Doug Nichols’ film takes its title from a Berkeley (of course) family business that’s been fixing Royals, Voss, Underwoods, Smith-Coronas and the like since 1949. But as the film begins, Herb Permillion III, his daughter Carmen and his employee Ken Alexander are staring down the barrel of obsolescence. They don’t even have a website (they do now), an analog storefront in an eBay world.
Owner Herb and sculptor Jeremy Mayer prowl flea markets together — Herb, hoping to find instruments worth saving, fixing and reselling, Jeremy looking for the write-offs — typewriters Herb can’t fix, but that Jeremy can scavenge parts from for his typewriter sculptures.
Sam Shepard did all his writing on his Swiss Hermes, Hanks sings the praises of the lovely, lightweight Smith-Coronas in his 250 typewriter collection.
And serious collector Martin Howard pursues his Great White Whale — a model of the first successful typewriters marketed, a Sholes and Glidden, from the 1870s or ’80s. Howard tells the history, runs his hands across “spectacular” design and “build quality” and marvels, like John Mayer and others, than this seemingly “perfect” gadget ever went out of fashion.
Shepard and others wax philosophical about the changing relationship between humans and machines. Composer/writer Mason Williams remembers the famous 1967 art-book project he wrote for Edward Ruscha’s photographs of a Royal typewriter they tossed out of a car going 90 miles an hour — “Royal Road Test.”
And historian David McCullough relishes the sense of “making something with your own hands” that no iPad can give you. Poet Silvi Alcivar sees the entire act of typing an art form.
It’s all a little too much — the film is too long, for starters — and those of us who don’t miss the jams, ribbon changes and typos (the smell of Whiteout/Liquid Paper) aren’t likely to go back to the way words were written in Olden Days and the vast forests sacrificed for “art.” I did my earliest writing on an Underwood, using teletype rolls of paper like Jack Kerouac to punch out radio and TV news copy and essays. But typos don’t turn up on the radio.
“California Typewriter” still makes some fascinating observations about our connection to technology, about what is sometimes sacrificed in the name of efficiency and speed. And if Brother (newer models) and Smith-Coronas start turning up in every hip dorm or hipster apartment, at least they’ll keep the flea markets busy, and businesses like California Typewriter going.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, PG-worthy
Cast: Sam Shepard, Silvi Alcivar, Tom Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, Jeremy Mayer, Mason Williams
Credits: Directed by Doug Nichol. An American Buffalo release.
Running time: 1:43