Published Nov 16, 2017There's a certain amount of nostalgia you'd expect from a documentary that's essentially a love letter to the typewriter, but for the most part, California Typewriter is at its best when it veers off the beaten path into more surprising tangents rather than simply lamenting the bygone era in which the typewriter was king.
Unfortunately, the film too often devolves into earnest endorsements from various writers, while explorations of the machine's evolution become akin to taking a visit to the typewriter museum.
The title refers to a shop in Berkeley run by an elderly man named Herb, who sells and repairs typewriters with the help of his daughters and another loyal employee named Ken. They don't make a lot of money, but it's enough to keep the shop running, and they all reason that you really only require just enough to make ends meet when you're doing something you love.
One of their regular customers is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who specializes in making gorgeous sculptures that he forms from the various parts of disassembled typewriters. His remarkable work and fascinating process provide many highlights, as we watch him hunt for typewriters with Herb at a local flea market before observing him play around with its parts as he feels his way along sculpting the form of a naked woman (a passion project of his).
The other central subject in the film is Martin Howard, a collector of rare and unusual old typewriters who seeks to obtain a specific relic that remains an elusive missing piece to his collection. As we follow him to various museums and events, it serves as an opportunity for the film to trace its origins back to the invention of the typewriter, detailing its burgeoning popularity and how it eventually facilitated getting women into the workforce.
There are also a number of talking heads willing to stump for the virtues of the typewriter, including an amusingly enthusiastic Tom Hanks, the late playwright Sam Shepard, musician John Mayer and a number of other people who apparently all need no introduction — because the movie frustratingly offers none. They all present various reasons to love the antique machine, with the typewriter being credited for everything from being a remembrance of simpler times to a more personal alternative to e-mail and — in the case of the especially narcissistic Mayer — an opportunity to have some tangible evidence of his exemplary songwriting so it can one day be placed in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where it supposedly belongs.
The scattershot approach by director Doug Nichol predictably makes California Typewriter somewhat a bit of a mixed bag; the film's nimble pacing keeping some of the more dry sections from bogging things down, but you'll still wish more time could be spent on other threads.
For instance, what about the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a band that performs concerts using only typewriters as instruments? Sure, they had to cut one song out of their set list after a member insisted on going all Pete Townshend onstage and destroying a typewriter needed for the tune, but don't worry — they're now in the process of adding a Slayer song to their repertoire. More of that, please.