Film: Type Tribute

‘California Typewriter’ celebrates analog tech

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The documentary ‘California Typewriter’ examines our relationship to a machine on the brink of extinction.

Doug Nichol’s friendly and ruminative documentary concerns a piece of analog tech that still has an alchemical power. A black-and-white true-crime grabber starts California Typewriter: Artist Ed Ruscha and his buddy, the musician Mason Williams, autopsied a junked typewriter that they threw from a car window at 90 mph on a deserted road, per Ruscha’s 1967 Royal Road Test. From this lonesome “execution,” Nichol heads for the big money. We see the auction of the very typewriter that Cormac McCarthy used to wreak his run-on prose. It appears to be the most beautiful typewriter ever made, an Olivetti Lettera 22, sold to some wealthy culture-vulture for $210,000.

Big names testify: The late Sam Shepard, actor Tom Hanks, historian David McCullough and musician John Mayer. The heart of this film are interviews with ex-IBM employee Herb Permillion III, an expert on the Selectric, the Stratocaster of typewriters. He’s run the California Typewriter shop in Berkeley for many years. Business is uncertain—the question of whether the building will be sold worries Richmond’s Ken Alexander, the store’s head mechanic.

It’s a very local film, not just in the fine cityscapes; the Bay Area is an appropriate place to start the study, as Silicon Valley innovation doomed the typewriter. The idea that these typewriters have souls is argued with tender persuasiveness, as when John Adams’ biographer McCullough points out that we’ll never know the pentimento of today’s historical figures, erased by word processing. The beautiful machine is still craved by the top-knotted urbanite clattering away at his pensées at a local café, or people old enough to remember the satisfying punch of the type on the platen.

On Saturday, September 30, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center will welcome the team behind the film; 5pm; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

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