What I thought would be a quaint documentary about typewriter enthusiasts is actually a deeply intimate profile of a repair and restoration store in Berkeley, Calif., that’s been in operation for nearly 40 years and the way that its head repairman, Ken Alexander, is more of a craftsman than a fix-it guy. California Typewriter (the name of the shop and the film) certainly features a great number of enthusiasts, including the most famous, Tom Hanks, who proudly walks us through his collection of 250-some machines, complete with factoids about each one.
Directed, shot and edited by first-time feature filmmaker Doug Nichol (a music video veteran), the movie allows its celebrity subjects to wax poetic about the feel, sound and visceral qualities of these office machines. Hanks explains that the very act of pushing down a key and imprinting a letter on paper makes it a creative process, and that when you’re done typing you actually have a finished product. And he makes it exceedingly clear that he prefers typewritten thank-you notes to emails.
Others, like musician John Mayer and the late playwright/actor Sam Shepard, get a bit more ethereal about the benefits and experience of using typewriters, and there’s little doubt you’ll wish you had one when the film is done. Mayer might make the best and simplest case for typing down lyrics and other random poetic lines—he’s never lost a piece of paper, but he has had hard drives with writing and music files get erased or corrupted. The tactile nature of paper with words on it has meaning to these folks, who also include author David McCullough (Seabiscuit), who says that he’s written every novel but one on a typewriter.
One subject of the film is artist Jeremy Mayer (no relation of John) who takes apart typewriters and reassembles them into various objects—animals, humans, flowers, etc. When we first meet him, he’s struggling financially, but by the end of the film, he’s being commissioned to do enormous corporate jobs. It’s a story that exists almost outside the one being told, but it’s intricately connected, much like the moving parts of any well-designed machine.
As the film takes us through the history of the typewriter to the current vinyl-like resurgence of collectors making their way through flea markets hoping to find machines that can be refurbished and sold at a premium, eventually you just take a moment to admire the design and variety of shapes, from a fire-engine red model to machines with aqua-colored keys that really pop against the dark bed, almost as if they might glow in the dark.
And then you get hypnotized by the sound of the keys popping against the paper or the tone/volume of the carriage bell. Hanks does a wonderful compare and contrast of both features that made me long for my high school and early college days using a typewriter. I’m just old enough to have entered college with what seemed like a space-age electric model; then two years later, every incoming freshman has a personal computer. I remember a lot of these beloved machines, ones that no company manufactures or makes parts for any longer.
It’s the price of the modern world. Laptops and iPads are more portable, but being able to correct what you’ve just typed means you don’t really have to think of what you’re going to say before you say it, as if words actually mattered more when the typewriter ruled the office and home. California Typewriter does feel like a bit of time travel, but in the interest of better writing, it’s a trip you’ll love taking. As one enthusiast puts it: “The Revolution will be Typewritten.”
The film opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.