California Typewriter Review
California Typewriter (2016) Film Review, a movie directed by Doug Nichol, and starring Tom Hanks, John Mayer, Sam Shepard, Silvi Alcivar, Ken Alexander, Martin Howard, Jeremy Mayer, David McCullough, Herbert Permillion, Richard Plot, Darren Wershler, and Mason Williams.
Like vinyl records and VHS tapes, typewriters have been cast to the wayside as new ways of storing and communicating information have been made available. Yet also like records and tapes, a small but passionate community has started to champion the aging machines as a viable alternative to laptops and email. It’s this community that Doug Nichol’s California Typewriter takes a look into, covering the impressions and issues that arise from pursuing such a niche interest.
Opening on the unlikely sight of a couple friends tossing a typewriter out the window as they speed along a desert highway, the film gets off to a quick start and maintains this sense of momentum throughout. This is achieved in large part through the proactive editing done here, giving the impression of movement and activity during what easily could have been passive or boring scenes. Even the interview portions, which one would think might be the least cinematically compelling parts of the movie, prove to be engaging. Rather than lingering on extended takes of his interview subjects, Nichol isn’t afraid to cut away from them to action that compounds or otherwise relates to the point they’re making, letting their remarks flow seamlessly over video footage and archival photos.
Speaking of interview subjects, it’s surprising to see some of the people they rounded up for the production. Among the typewriter enthusiasts interviewed here are Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who discuss the impact of the machines on their lives with an earnest conviction that makes one think of adolescent boys going about their favorite hobby. Hanks boasts that he regularly gives typewriters to friends as gifts and Mayer argues that writing on a typewriter is superior to writing on a computer because it provides hard proof of whatever writes whereas a file on a computer could be corrupted or lost, but fellow notables Sam Shepard and David McCullough also appear to offer their praises of the typewritten word.
As interesting as it is to listen to these renowned creatives, it’s the lesser known people featured in the movie whose stories stand out the most. While typewriters are a hobby that Hanks is fortunate enough to indulge, they are the very livelihood of Herbert Permillion and a veritable obsession for Martin Howard. While Permillion has trouble drumming up business for his typewriter shop, one of the last of its kind, Howard has spent the past three decades collecting typewriters of all shapes and sizes and is fixated on acquiring a Sholes and Glidden machine, one of the earliest typewriters in existence. For these men, the typewriter elicits a sense of urgency and personal fulfillment that simply isn’t present in Hanks or Mayer’s comments about the machines, compounding our sympathy for them. Thus, it comes as a great relief when things turn around for Permillion after he opens a website for his store and a real disappointment when another collector refuses to sell Martin a Sholes and Glidden from his plentiful collection of the contraptions.
Then there’s Jeremy Mayer, whose connection to typewriters is a bit different from the film’s other participants: he destroys them. He only does so, however, so he can use their parts to create sculptures out of them, drawing inspiration from the expressionist imagery of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and foreseeing a future in which the ruling class uses mechanical parts to artificially extend their lives. Naturally, the way in which Mayer goes about to make his work has made him many enemies amongst those fascinated by them, with said individuals arguing that he is cannibalizing the past to make his art. To Mayer though, he isn’t cannibalizing the past so much as he is repurposing for the future, arguing that the world is changing and that we should be ready to change right along with it.
Whether you find yourself inclined to Mayer’s pragmatic outlook or Permillion and Martin’s nostalgia, you can bet that California Typewriter will leave you feeling like you’ve heard a series of stories you never heard before about something you probably never thought much about before.
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