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California Typewriter

The most wonderful thing was sitting to watch this documentary in the comfortable seats at the Angelika Film Center, and being surprised to see Tom Hanks speak so eloquently about his love of typewriters. It was also a pleasant surprise to see the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard talk about the machine he typed his plays on. It’s from the ‘60s, and his son bought it at a flea market. Something about knowing this will be the last performance we see of Shepard, instead of him playing some redneck with a shotgun in a B movie. This is his — Write Stuff.

Now, documentaries are a hard enough sell, and one about typewriters seems to make that even tougher. Yet it’s not just the history of the machine they delve into. You hear those two acting legends talk about it, as well as singer John Mayer. He provides some unintentional laughs. For my wife, it was the way he was looking all around. She said, “He’s talking like a blind man.”

It’s also funny when he goes on and on about how much better it is to write lyrics on a typewriter, and after he’s done, he looks down at his cell phone. Yep, computers and iphones made the typewriter go the way of the dodo bird.

You totally get what Mayer means, though. He was at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and looked at all the handwritten lyrics for some of the greatest songs in rock history. He realized he writes his stuff on computer. Not only do you not have anything tangible, but as you’re writing stream of conscious stuff, and that red, squiggly line informs you you’ve spelled something wrong…you’re more worried about correcting it then powering through and continuing to write new lyrics.

Hanks smiles as he talks about how the best typewriter in the world could be created, and there’d be no market for it anymore. He often talks about giving people typewriters, or finding it’s a lot more personal to type a letter to someone instead of just jotting off an email that will quickly be deleted. Although I’d like to tell Hanks that, I’d prefer an even more personal letter — one he had handwritten on his personal stationary, instead of one I have to wonder if his personal assistant typed up and he merely signed — but I digress.

Hanks talks about being at someone’s house years ago and seeing a “thank you” letter typed by Noel Coward in the ‘30s, and how it’s now framed, and saved. He said, “You save letters. These are documents that last. The ideas on those pieces of paper may last forever.”

And just as Hanks can appreciate somebody saving a letter from a famous person, most of us either collect, or have collected, something in our lifetime. We get to meet a few people that collect vintage typewriters, and they’re characters. It reminded me of the documentary King of King (which dealt with video game nerds).

One character we meet doesn’t collect typewriters, but makes sculptures out of them. He talks about the Queen video using clips from the movie Metropolis, combined with staring at the mechanics as his mom typed, to him wanting to take the machines apart. That lead to the fascination with wanting to make naked women out of the various pieces. I mean…who doesn’t look at an old Smith-Corona and think that? Especially when that sexy bell rings at the end of the line.   

At one point, Hanks excitedly takes a few different typewriters and talks about the various sounds they make, before deciding which one is his favorite. Which also leads to something I didn’t see coming. A group of guys called the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. They create music using nothing but typewriters, and one member often finishes shows like Pete Townshend with an electric guitar — smashing and stomping his typewriter on the stage.

The jazz score for this was perfect, as I’ve always felt the sound of fast typing reminded me of a tight jazz trio (although I did wonder why the ‘50s song “The Typewriter” wasn’t included). I also wonder why they didn’t do the credits in the film in a typing font.

The documentary starts off with a typewriter Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, No Country For Old Men) wrote all his books on, being sold at auction for $210,000 [side note: Landmark is having a contest where one of Hanks’ typewriters, with a signed, typed note from him, can be yours].

A big part of the film is devoted to a repair shop (California Typewriter) in Berkeley where Herbert Permillion III buys, sells, and repairs typewriters. As you can imagine, business isn’t as big as it once was. Just as we laughed at Mayer looking at his cell phone, we smile as Permillion finally decides to create a website and advertise a bit online.

My wife thought the movie was cute, but didn’t like it as much as I did. That might be because of my history with the typewriter. In my 8th grade typing class in 1983, the teacher made a big production about the fact that I was the only student he ever had that could type 120 words per minute. At a time when I had braces and wore glasses, that attention he gave me certainly helped build my confidence with the girls in the class. And it was at a time when manual typewriters were still used, but the IBM Selectric was the greenish colored electric that was becoming popular.

About 10 years ago, I was meeting my parents for dinner in Escondido, and I got there a bit early and went into an antique shop. I saw an old Remington typewriter from the early 1900s (there’s a segment in the documentary on how they went from making guns to typewriters). I bought it for a few hundred bucks, and as I was walking outside to put it in my car, my mom walked up. She said, “Why’d you buy that typewriter? Don’t you just write your stories and reviews on computer now?”

I don’t think she really understands what it’s like for people that are collectors, and those types will obviously like this movie more; yet this is an enjoyable documentary for anyone.

I’m giving it 4 stars out of 5.