MOVIES — California Typewriter


“I just never got along with the computer screen,” says the late playwright Sam Shepard, discussing the tangible pleasures of his Hermes 3000—feeding in paper, finger-cupping keys, ink flying pshoo! onto the page. Fellow typewriter enthusiasts in Doug Nichol’s terrific, multilayered documentary include the knowledgeable Tom Hanks, who introduces a few favorites from his collection of “250-plus” machines. Don’t even think about emailing the actor in place of sending him a typewritten thank-you note. Historian and Royal loyalist David McCullough mourns the loss of handwritten revisions on typed drafts, a record of the thought process. And musician John Mayer has been liberated from "red squiggly" spellcheck roadblocking his stream-of-consciousness flow of lyrics.

One especially intriguing devotee is an artist who creates stunning animal and human figures entirely from disassembled typewriters, angering some preservationists. Jeremy Mayer is seen early on—the film was shot over a period of five years—lugging around a deer sculpture he can’t sell. Fast forward through growing success and he’s in Mumbai, transforming a final batch produced by the world’s last large typewriter manufacturer into a 13-foot-high lotus plant with petals that open and close. Mayer told an audience at a screening that he now has so many corporate commissions he’s built only one animal lately, a friend’s dog. He also stands in for Ed Ruscha in the doc’s re-enactment of the L.A. artist’s 1967 “Royal Road Test,” which begins with a typewriter tossed from a speeding Buick.

Some of the mostly unsalvageable machines that Mayer dismantles are obtained from the titular repair shop in Berkeley, traded for rare parts needed to fix other vintage models. The owner, Herbert Permillion III, and über-craftsman Ken Alexander embody similarly old-school perseverance and hard work. There’s history, too, related by a collector seen on his quest for a rare Scholes & Glidden, the first commercially successful “Type-Writer.” Though now emblematic of servitude, typewriters actually got women out of factories and into the mainstream workforce. Analog at heart in a digital world? This bittersweet film is for you.