Typewriters are cool again and there’s a doc to prove it

Director Doug Nichol interviews Tom Hanks and other collectors for his loving tribute to manual technology, California Typewriter

CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (Doug Nichol). 103 minutes. Opens Friday (October 27). Rating: NNN

I own two manual typewriters. One is a formidable Underwood on which I taught myself to type as a child the other, a Remington portable I inherited from my grandparents. Both machines are very old and very beautiful.

I say this up front so you’ll understand that I’m more or less the perfect audience member for California Typewriter, Doug Nichol’s charming documentary about old-school mechanical typewriters and the people who love them beyond all reason.

Some of those people are very famous: Tom Hanks has a house full of typewriters, and even has favourite ones for composing his correspondence, which he enthusiastically shows to Nichol in the movie’s best segments. (To have Hanks as an interview subject is to access a pipeline of charm and joy it’s delightful to watch the guy drop any pretense of professionalism as he rushes off-camera to grab a favourite Smith-Corona.)

Nichol also talks to biographer David McCullough, musician John Mayer, playwright and actor Sam Shepard (in one of his last interviews) and artist Jeremy Mayer (no apparent relation to John), who strips down the machines and uses their parts to make striking sculptures. He also visits Toronto collector Martin Howard, who’s obsessed with models produced around the turn of the last century.

Setting these interviews against the story of the Bay Area repair shop from which his movie takes its title – a small, family-owned business chugging along in the face of inevitable obsolescence – Nichol finds everyone connected by a reverence for the tactile, immediate experience of putting text on paper.

Hanks speaks about the presence of mind required to compose a thank-you note on a typewriter instead of dashing something off in an e-mail, and John Mayer describes the process of writing lyrics on one as “almost what thoughts look like,” which is just lovely. (Shepard and McCullough discuss typewriters as favourite tools, but no less eloquently.)

And if California Typewriter slightly overstays its welcome, as Nichol pushes past a natural end point to make the case for manual typewriters as the new vinyl… well, that seems somehow appropriate, too. Love has a way of blinding us to reality, after all.

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