“California Typewriter” gets its title by way of a Berkeley, Calif., sales and repair shop. The fate of that establishment, and the very nice and able people who run it, provide the documentary with its narrative spine — or carriage, if you will. But “California Typewriter” is about a lot more.
Smith Corona, Underwood
There are collectors. One is Tom Hanks. He owns 250 typewriters. Another has the license plate QWERTY1. There’s also Jeremy Mayer, a sculptor who makes assemblages out of typewriter parts. He likens the machines’ innards to Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic “Metropolis.” That’s not as crazy as it sounds. We also hear from such user-devotees as singer-songwriter John Mayer, historian David McCullough, and the late Sam Shepard. “So simple and complex,” Shepard marvels of the typewriter.
“Marvels”? Yes, as in marvelous. By the time “California Typewriter” is over, you might find yourself thinking the shop belongs near Ollivander’s Wands, on Diagon Alley, rather than across from Chaucer Street (itself a pretty magical location name, too). As the poet Darren Wershler says in the documentary, “In a weird kind of way, typewriting is haunted. There’s this sense the wiring comes to you through the machine. Someone, or something, gives you something to type, and the machine kind of mediates it. Is the typewriter pulling the strings and making the author do the work? The typewriter has to be working even almost before thinking starts happening.” Anyone who’s worked a return lever and heard the ring of the margin bell — as stern as Falstaff’s chimes at midnight — knows Wershler’s on to something.
Olympia, Woodstock (Alger Hiss’s undoing)
Mayer, the sculptor, makes a related point about the typewriter: “It’s such an emotional machine. A lot of memories and a lot of real people put themselves on a piece of paper through a machine, and I understand all that. This is how I choose to appreciate the typewriter, by dissecting it and bringing out the little pieces that are us in it.”
Olivetti, Burroughs (yup, same company as the adding machine)
Along the way, director Doug Nichol offers a brief history. Typewriters were invented in 1869, in Milwaukee. Originally, the word “typewriter” referred not to the machine but those who used one. We see a clip of the novelist Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti going at auction for $210,000. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra performs. The inspiration for Ed Ruscha’s artist book “Royal Road Test” is somewhat confusingly reenacted — that’s “Royal” as in space bar and platen, not scepter and crown.
Adler, IBM Selectric (though strict constructionists might object)
Most of all, “California Typewriter” is an elegy. “The truth is, no good typewriters are going to be made again,” Hanks laments. There’s a reason that the title of the first tune on the fine musical soundtrack is “Stolen Moments.” Suffusing the documentary is an almost religious reverence for this mundane and obsolete mechanical apparatus. Not that it’s undeserved. As Mayer, the musician, says of the moment in “Don’t Look Back” when the most recent Nobel Prizewinner in Literature is seen to touch-type — not hunt and peck — “Even if you’re Bob Dylan you still have to sit at an altar.”
Hermes, Sholes & Glidden (the daddy of them all)
Unlikely to be in the Bay Area any time soon? Head to Arlington and check out Cambridge Typewriter. Hey, it has the same initials and almost the same number of letters as California Typewriter. Same sort of altars, too.
The 8 p.m. screening on Saturday, Sept. 23, at West Newton Cinema will feature a live performance by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.