Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, John Mayer, David McCullough, Mason Williams, Jeremy Mayer, Ken Alexander, Martin Howard, Richard Polt, Anthony Rocco, Silvi Alcivar, Herbert Permillion, Darren Wershler
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Doug Nichol
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/28/2017

California Typewriter (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Courier Pigeons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When the documentary California Typewriter was over, I went to my closet and dug out my grandfather's old manual typewriter, stuck in its box for the past several years. I was struck by a new appreciation for this beautiful old Underwood, and now it sits on my desk, ready for notes or stories, or what have you. I'm not sure anyone can ask much more from a documentary, to leave the film and be moved to immediately act upon what you've seen. I do wish the film had gone a little farther in its structure, been a little bit more playful, rather than a bunch of fairly typical interviews and "B" roll, but otherwise, I love it.

Directed by Doug Nichol, California Typewriter is named for a little shop in Berkeley that still operates, repairing and selling manual typewriters. And, apparently, there's enough of a market to keep them going (perhaps similar to the current love of vinyl records in a digital age?). The film visits the shop on several occasions (even watching as the Christmas decorations go up), and we meet the family of proprietors, passing their skills from father to children. We also visit Tom Hanks, who -- surprise -- has a large collection of typewriters and uses them every day to write memos or notes to people. He talks about how much he appreciates receiving a hand-typed note, and even loves clacking out his mistakes with a bunch of x's.

Writers Sam Shepard and David McCullough talk about the virtues of writing on typewriters, as does musician John Mayer; he admits that he wrote two albums' worth of material on computers, all of which remains on hard drives that he has never looked at again. (I'm not the biggest fan of Mayer's music, and I had to laugh when director Nichol keeps a shot of Mayer unapologetically checking his phone when he receives a text.) The film also follows an obsessive collector/historian of a certain period of machines, an artist who builds sculptures out of old typewriter parts (he insists that they are already beyond repair) and more. Predictably, the movie gets into discussions about hands-on technology versus modern, disposable technology, and it more or less goes the way you'd imagine, but it's still lively and fascinating; it's a discourse that should never be dropped.

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