Documentary: “California Typewriter”

21032751_1965785847022028_1477658988198835929_n California Typewriter (2017)

Narrated by Tom Hanks, John Mayer, Sam Shepard and David McCullough, among others, “California Typewriter” is an insightful documentary about the particular loss which technological advances are capable of causing. One small family-run business in California revolves around the selling and mending of typewriters, and still believes in the power and value of typewriters in today’s world, which has become dominated by personal computers and digital technologies. Through the interviews held with various people, we realise the particular value which typewriters can still bring into this world as well as get to know the fascinating history of typewriters.

Growing up around typewriters, this documentary resonates with me personally and makes a very persuasive argument about the value embedded in old technological processes and machines that we leave behind. “California Typewriter” opens with the crime scene of a typewriter being intentionally destroyed by a speeding car in 1963, and from that point on, as the narrator says, a typewriter stopped being one thing and became something totally different. This scene cuts to a present small Californian business that still sells typewriters – California Typewriter. The head of this business is Herbert L. Permillion, III, while their star Kenneth Alexander is a master of typewriters’ repair. Obviously, the business is not doing well, and its failure to generate enough interest in typewriters is contrasted with Apple’s new products launch events where the frenzy and long queues for new Ipads start the day before at night. Then, we meet people who are still in love with their typewriters (an avid typewriters collector, a song-writer, a book-writer and a metal sculptor), and hear why they prefer their machines to any other alternatives. And, there is even the Boston Typewriter Orchestra that performs music on old typewriters!

The audience starts to understand that there is a lot more to typewriters than first meets the eye. The staff at California Typewriter talks about the particular feel of each key of a typewriter, the tone of its sound, and the sheer beauty of machines as a whole, that later becomes compared to a woman’s body. Tom Hanks, in particular, narrates the story with passion and conviction, and it becomes evident that each typewriter (be it a Royal, SmithCorona, Olympia, Olivetti, etc.) has its own “personality” and distinct qualities to love about it. 

One of the most persuasive arguments in favour of typewriters is that these machines provide a human, tactile, direct experience for people that nowadays’ computers simply cannot match. Victor Hugo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” wrote how printing press has killed an edifice, a statement which may be interpreted as reading about things/the second-hand experience killing the direct experience of engaging with the world. Why should some people go and see a monument, if they can now read about it? Concerning the typewriter experience, as people now being removed from tangible paper, from holding volumes of books in their hands, or from engaging directly by putting ink (printed letters) on paper, they also lose touch with the actual world they live and breathe in. There is certain beauty implicit in humans engaging directly with the world, and computers undermine this beautiful experience.

A writer in the documentary says how he prefers to type his stories on an old-fashioned typewriter, recalling the typewriting experience of many great writers of the 20th century. Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and J. R. R. Tolkien famously wrote their books on typewriters, often in uncomfortable positions, and there is a certain poetic feeling in knowing that when one types, one causes ink “flying” onto paper. Near the end of the documentary, one man, who takes typewriters apart to build robots, goes to India, where the last manufacturer of typewriters has closed down, and there is a sense of loss suffered.

Typewriters have been called time-capsules or even useless relics from the past like VHS cassettes, but one song-writer disagrees in the documentary. He notes that losing digital data is commonplace and it is a mistake to believe that a person will go through his old files in a hard-drive to process his mistakes in song-writing and come up with something better. Word-processing programmes in computers force a writer to self-edit oneself after each word and sentence, and the beauty of traditional typewriting is that words, ideas appear on a page without any distractions from any programme, with ideas and mistakes then clearly being seen as on reads the paper back. There is simple power implicit in a piece of sheet and the beauty of a statement made on paper can never be compared to a file saved on a computer.

It is true that this documentary overstates its points and is probably too long for its material, but it does remain convincing overall. It could have left out some supernatural references, and some of its interviewees are maybe too eccentric for the audience to empathise with them completely. However, it is probably the quiet conviction of the premise, which is still the most memorable and admirable here.

California Typewriter” is an unpretentious, laid-back, nostalgic documentary which makes an important and persuasive statement about the simple pleasures (and added value) of doing things in a certain way that become more and more inaccessible to humans. With digital progress rapidly accelerating, this documentary becomes even more relevant as we start to look back more and more fondly on the technology left behind. As the documentary says, it s not about gathering a revolutionary typewriting movement, but just ensuring that people still have an option to go back to such outdated technology if they desire to experience the way of processing thought differently.

10 thoughts on “Documentary: “California Typewriter”

    1. That’s right. Tom Hanks is a fan of typewriters and collects them apparently. I guess he is the driving force behind “California Typewriter”.
      Probably not relevant, but seeing Hanks in this documentary also reminded me of him typing in front of a computer in “You’ve Got Mail”. That movie was also about computer/online progress, but there it looked like Internet helped the characters to meet each other and fall in love. So, Hanks – well, his character, but still – is sending the message there opposite of that in the documentary hehe

      Liked by 1 person

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