Analog Rhapsody: An Essay on the Film California Typewriter

My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.

California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.

The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.

Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)

My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.

At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.

California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.

David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.

The original Sholes and Gliddens typewriter, manufactured by Remington.

We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.

We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)

But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.

I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.

A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.

 

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