'California Typewriter' documentary a nostalgic valentine

  • Tom Hanks reveals he owns more than 250 typewriters in the new documentary "California Typewriter."

    Tom Hanks reveals he owns more than 250 typewriters in the new documentary "California Typewriter." Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Updated 9/28/2017 7:53 AM

Doug Nichol's handsomely packaged, if slightly myopic, documentary "California Typewriter" waxes poetic, romantic and nostalgic about that once ubiquitous office staple, the typewriter.

Tom Hanks owns more than 250 of them. He loves them. He'll even give you one if you look interested, he says, but you have to get that "bad boy" off the shelf and work it.


The late playwright/actor Sam Shepard gives us writing tips while reeling with affection for the typewriter, describing how the ink splats on the paper, how the texture of the sheet feels, and how the coldly efficient word processor has erased the human connection with the words and the creative process.

But before we get too swept up in this unbridled appreciation for these marvelous little machines. we should ask the question that it never gets around to: Aren't these the same criticisms and lofty observations launched by handwriting advocates when faced with the mechanization of their words by the creation of typewriters?

Nichol, a documentary maker and music video creator, started "California Typewriter" as a simple report on a dinky, struggling typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, California, where the owners behave like fine-tuned master artists restoring Underwoods and Smith Coronas to their former beauty and mechanical good health.

Poets, musicians, collectors and writers hurl hyperbole at their typewriters with abandon, sometimes producing head-scratching comments such as "The typewriter has to be ready just before the thinking starts!"

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A poet minces no words: "My typewriter is the truest love of my life!"

Sculptor Jeremy Mayer doesn't mince words, either, but he sure minces machines.

A modern-day Victor Frankenstein, Mayer raids typewriter graveyards in search of mechanical organs that he can use to create new life: human and animal figures configured of typewriter components, down to alluring cover panels that resemble sensual facial features.

Mayer is such a fascinating, complex and articulate artist (and TED speaker), he deserves his own documentary. But a guy who loves to dissect typewriters the way a butcher treats a side of beef? Does he even thematically fit into this love letter to the typewriter?

Nichol introduces us to super typewriter collector and historian Martin Howard, who credits 19th century typewriter inventor Christopher Latham Sholes for designing the first mass-produced model (and QWERTY keyboard still in use).


Consequently, Sholes boosted women in the workforce by providing them with new office opportunities as typists, good-paying jobs not commandeered by men.

Then we have the haunted typewriter.

But does "California Typewriter" really need to go there?

And how could Nichol not use Leroy Anderson's classic instrumental composition "The Typewriter"?

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