Review: ‘California Typewriter,’ a documentary by Doug Nichol

As someone who prefers to write everything down on an old school pad and paper before I have to translate my chicken scratch into a digital word dump for the web, I can understand where typewriter aficionados are coming from. For his documentary California Typewriter (the first Hot Docs Doc Soup selection in 2017), filmmaker Doug Nichol begins by looking at the titular Berkeley, California repair shop – one of the last of its kind in the world – and sprawls out from there to look at the history and resurgence of typewriter culture.

There’s something undeniably romantic about an old school typewriter that scribes can’t get from clacking away on a laptop. The metallic sound of keys triggering other keys into motion creates a symphony of clicks and clangs in the hands of virtuoso that’s in “the zone.” Just as the folks in The Boston Typewriter Orchestra if you don’t believe me. There’s that satisfying ding of a bell when you reach the end of a line, the hands on approach to typography that forces you to reset after every line, advancing the paper up and down, embracing mistakes as part of the process. It’s antiquated in many respects, but Nichol and his subjects are able to show just how satisfying the small details of a typewriter can be.

Nichol follows around and talks to plenty of old school fans who continue their quixotic typewriting endeavours for the majority of California Typewriter. Enthusiasts Tom Hanks, David McCullough, and Sam Shepard wax eloquent on their love for these writing machines. Canadian typewriter collector Martin Howard continues his quest to acquire some of the rarest machines in the world, while looking into the history of inventor Christopher Latham Sholes’ struggles to make typewriting the next major technological advance. Singer-songwriter John Mayer expresses how he recently converted to writing lyrics on a typewriter for a variety of reasons. Visual artist Jeremy Mayer makes elaborately detailed sculptures out of recycled typewriter parts, but also helps out the people at the titular shop in getting hard to find bits and bobs that manufacturers stopped making a long time ago.

There are a lot of these asides, but curiously little about the shop at the heart of the story, leading to California Typewriter often feeling aimless and listless. It’s quite genuine in its aims to convey the joys of giving, receiving, and creating typewritten material, but any time Nichol tries to document the financial woes surrounding the future of the titular shop, the film comes up short and tacks on a lot of unnecessary padding as a sort of distraction.

There’s a great personal story in California Typewriter about the shop’s almost lifelong chief technician and manager, Ken Alexander, but only cursory mentions of the shop’s owner and former IBM employee Herb Permillion and his family, who have leveraged almost every last penny they have to keep the store and repair shop open. It’s quite understandable why Nichol would want to follow Anderson. He’s a likable subject, and if the shop finally does go under he’ll be a man of a certain age forced into looking for a job in a harsh economic climate where the skills he staked his career on will no longer be useful to the world at large. That’s great human drama, and Alexander is quite open and gregarious about his job, but everyone else at the shop seems like they’re deliberately keeping Nichol’s project at an arm’s length, only popping up here and there and acting reticent towards the presence of a camera. It sours what should be the main throughline of the film upon which this plethora of anecdotes is being hung.

To compensate for the shop’s lack of cooperation or possibly because he just found the celebrity testimonials that he got to be more endearing and commercially viable, Nichol stuffs the film beyond the bursting point with sentiments that grow repetitive and redundant the longer California Typewriter drones on. It’s all in good fun and there’s nothing bad about the interview segments included in the film, but there are only so many times one can hear the same platitudes reworded and trotted out over and over again. At about the forty minute mark of the film I felt like things should be wrapping up, and I hate to say this about a film this well meaning and genial, but I cringed at the realization that there was a full hour of the film left to go.

There’s almost a slight uptick in dramatic value just after the halfway point where it looks like California Typewriter will be put up for sale by its owners, but that’s resolved quickly, with little intrigue, and prior to an unnecessary, almost fifteen minute long epilogue packed with the same sentiments and ideas that Nichol beat into the ground long before his patience testing climax.

California Typewriter is the perfect example of a documentary I wanted to like more than I did. On a personal level, the subject matter speaks to me, but on a professional level I find the film to be a bit of an overlong mess that would work better as an hour long television special and not as a nearly two hour long film that feels twice the length. I feel almost bad panning California Typewriter because a subject that I enjoy looking at has left me feeling like more of my time was wasted than was put to good use. I know that sounds harsh, but it is what it is. This is a film in need of some serious editorial work and explanations for some of the obvious gaps that have been left in what looks to have been a major part of the story.

California Typewriter screens as part of Doc Soup at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Wednesday, January 11 at 6:30 and 9:15 pm and Thursday, January 12 at 6:45 pm. Director Doug Nichol and subject Martin Howard will be on hand at all screenings for Q&As.

Check out the trailer for California Typewriter:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.