CIFF 41 Film Review

California Typewriter

Lisa Sanchez

March 29, 2017
‚ÄčOpening Night Gala


California Typewriter had the prestigious distinction of kicking off the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival. The typewriter documentary was shown at CIFF 41's opening night gala and, given the audience, it seemed like an appropriate film for the first night of the festival.

To be blunt, the opening night film's are usually unoffensive and don't challenge the view outside of fluffery. California Typewriter is very much that sort of feel good, niche film. As the title indicates, the documentary, directed by Doug Nichol, is based on typewriter enthusiasts and the myriad of ways that appreciation manifests in the documentary's subjects.

We meet Herbert Permillion III, the man that owns California Typewriter in Berkeley, California, the shop that the eponymous movie is loosely based around. Herbert's typewriter business is struggling because of the obvious evolution in technology, but California Typewriter chronicles the love people have for the antiquated technology and  how the typewriter becomes romanticized.

Tom Hanks, who is the unofficial spokesperson for all things wholesome, makes an appearance in California Typewriter to discuss his typewriter collection and the personality of each individual machine. Musician John Mayor and writer David McCullough also chime in throughout the documentary to offer their take on the simplicity, thoughtfulness, and tactile properties of the typewriter. As Mayer opined during his film interview, he never lost anything he wrote on his typewriter as compared to saved documents on a computer.

One of the central points the typewriter enthusiasts kept circling back to during California Typewriter was the ephemeral evolution of technology. E-mail was immediate, information was invisible, and everything was just a little too perfect to feel human. But, through the typewriter, these people achieved the perfect balance between art and machine without sacrificing the human experience.

Of course, typewriters aren't just for the rich and famous. The documentary presented Jeremy Mayer, a sculptor in Oakland that makes intricate creations out of old typewriter parts. Mayer is friends with the owner of the California Typewriter store, and the film gently intermingles the sculptor and the proprietor's stories to show how each one loves the typewriter in their own way. Mayer takes discarded typewriters and makes sculptures, drawing the ire from some typewriter enthusiasts, whereas Permillion restores the machines that he can. Although different in their approach, both men follow their appreciation for typewriters to a place that doesn't guarantee income, just lots and lots of typewriter parts.

California Typewriter touched on the stories of a few more artists, like the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a band that plays music solely on typewriters. Plus, Silvi Alcivar, a woman that writes improvisational poems for people on her beloved typewriter. All of these stories intermingle back to California Typewriter the store, but the documentary doesn't spend too much time on any one story.

My main critique of California Typewriter is that it felt like it was spread a little too thin. The film originally started out as a short, and I think they should have kept it that way. Instead, the production team took five years to capture the stories of the typewriter enthusiasts they followed, which is all well and good, but toward the end of the 104 minute documentary it started to feel like "Personal Preferences: The Movie."

Yes, typewriters are great and everyone is allowed to have their opinions, communities, or hobbies. But after a certain amount of time, if you can wrap up your message as, "Hey, these things are great, right?" I don't think it needed to be a feature film. With that said, California Typewriter definitely sold me on the appeal of the typewriter. As a person who loves antiques, old things, and doing more work than necessary, the typewriter is well within my preference zone, but the documentary did paint the contraption as having character, history, and celebrity endorsements.

California Typewriter may go on longer than necessary, but it's a great movie for sentimental saps like me who can't stand to see anything thrown away, neglected, or abandoned for the sake of the latest and greatest thing. That love for typewriters manifests in restorers, collectors, musicians, artists, and the simple antiquarian, but it also shows that we're all that person that just can't quite let go of what's no longer necessary.