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California Typewriter: An Obsession With Slow-Moving Mechanics 

Thursday 09th, November 2017 / 15:04
By Jarrett Edmund 


CALGARY – It has become a staple of the trendy apartment… perched above a brick fireplace that hasn’t seen fire in thirty years, nesting on the top rung of an old paint-chipped ladder converted into a bookshelf, or maybe resting beside a philodendron in a corner. The typewriter, a household machine that once revolutionized communication across the globe, now relegated to the realm of niche antique. A dusty flea-market find, a quirky gift.  

“I go to their houses and they have it up on a shelf somewhere like it’s an object of art,” laments celebrity sweetheart and typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks. A collector and fanatical typist himself, Hanks serves as one of the many colorful characters of the documentary California Typewriter as they interact with the small family owned store of the same namesake. 

California Typewriter, located in Berkeley, California, is one of few remaining stores dedicated to typewriter sales and repairs. (For curious locals, one such store exists in Brentwood, a neighbourbood in NW Calgary). Director Doug Nichol profiles store owner Herbert Permillion and interviews a host of artists as they rationalize their obsession with a machine that has become increasingly obsolete. From the collector, the celebrity, the musician, the novelist, the poet, the scientist, to the machinist, the logic is all the same: the process of writing is fundamentally different on a typewriter. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, David McCullough, explains that “Something goes out of the human experience when life is made easier, less complicated, less demanding of alertness, and effort.”  

The rationale deployed by the film’s narrators is a nod to the ‘slow movement’, a subcultural philosophy that emphasizes the joy in the process of creating as opposed to the end result. “For me I feel like the next step in technology is less about what you’re using and more about how you use it,” says iconic softboy John Mayer. Midway through his career, Mayer began using a typewriter to compose his lyrics, and soon found himself obsessed. “It became a confessional for me where I would sit and just type.”  

By juxtaposing passionate testimonials with the impersonal bustle of a corporate technology expo, the filmmaker creates a compelling contrast between the utilitarian typewriter and its lavish successors. “Aloneness is a condition for writing,” says the late playwright Sam Shephard. “You look at all the writers that have come up with something worth its own salt, and they’re utterly alone.” The implication being that writing with technology today, be it on a laptop or smartphone, does not allow the artist to be truly alone with the medium.

California Typewriter is not solely about artists and their mediums, nor is it about a singular store. It provides a detailed history of typewriting and manages to wrestle with the consequences of its seemingly inevitable demise. With the last manufacturing plant shutting its doors in 2011, the future of the typewriter appears bleak. Permillion’s business struggles to pay the lease, while tech companies continue to find new billion-dollar ways to reinvent the iPad.  

“No one is going to make a great typewriter ever, ever, ever again” says Hanks. But his tone does not seem to spell the end of the typewriter, rather the beginning of a cultural movement that could emerge from a now limited supply coupled with the unlimited passion of artists and collectors. “My dad believes that there are various people all over the world totally excited about typewriters,” says Carmen Permillion. Perhaps she’s correct. We just need to take them down from the shelf. 

California Typewriter will screen November 16 as part of CUFF Docs at The Globe Cinema. 

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