California Typewriter — Film Review

California Typewriter

Directed by Doug Nichol




There is pushback.  There is dissent.  I thought I was the only one, but I found I am not alone.  We don’t all have to be digital zombies.   There are still people out there using typewriters and loving it, even championing it.  For example, Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard (recently deceased), David McCullough, Mason Williams, John Mayer, and many others.  There are people out there collecting manual typewriters.  And there is one place left in Berkeley, California that fixes them:  California Typewriter on San Pablo Avenue.

I used to have an IBM electric typewriter, which I had had since my mid-twenties.  I donated it to Goodwill some years ago in a downsizing, with painful regret.  I hadn’t used it in years and didn’t intend to, but I still liked it, and I liked having it.  It was a perfectly good, working typewriter.  I am not nostalgic for manual typewriters, but I stand in league with people who are resisting the digitization of every aspect of our lives.  Vinyl records are making a comeback as well.  I saw vinyl record players for sale in a Target recently.  Many people like the sound of vinyl records better than the remastered CDs.  Digital may be more efficient, but it is not necessarily better.  The film points out some of what is being lost with our increased dependence on digital devices.  I wouldn’t call this film an indulgence in nostalgia.  There is some nostalgia expressed, but there is a meaningful protest and a mobilization of resistance going on here to an increasingly imposing culture of dependence on digital devices and a domination of our time and attention by online demands.  The typewriter is a symbol of respite, a reassertion of the tactile.

I have long worried about the fact that so much of our society and our communication and our record keeping depends on digital technology.  In order to access and use this information one needs very sophisticated machines that depend on a very complex, technologically advanced society to produce, and they require electricity to operate.  Batteries for these machines are also very sophisticated and depend on very advanced production methods, as well as advanced materials.  If our infrastructure were to collapse for any length of time, all of the information, knowledge, and know-how of civilization would be inaccessible — except for what is written on well preserved paper or books.  I especially dislike that libraries are digitizing their holdings and disposing of books and paper.  True, it takes up less room, but if the lights go out, we’re back in the Stone Age.

The people in this film who use typewriters instead of computers for writing do it for a wide range of reasons.  It does not represent a wholesale rejection of the digital age.  It has more to do with personal preferences, aesthetics.  Most of these people are over fifty.  The friend who accompanied me to the film thought they were all crazy.  But I happen to like weird people with quirky interests.  I’m one of them.  My friend is normal.  However, there are many within Silicon Valley itself, including some prominent engineers and designers, who are renouncing the digital domination of life and raising alarms against its overwhelming intrusion and envelopment of our time and attention.

The typewriter was part of a massive technological revolution at the end of the nineteenth century that made the twentieth century very different from the nineteenth, just as the computer and the cell phone are making life in the twenty-first century very different from what it was in the twentieth.   The film draws these parallels very effectively, tracing the history and development of the typewriter from the late 1800s, and focuses on a series of people who all have some special interest in typewriters.  One is a collector of vintage typewriters from the 1800s, Tom Hanks we all know, David McCullough is a prominent historian, Richard Polt is a writer and blogger, Jeremy Mayer is an artist who makes sculptures from the parts of discarded typewriters, the playwright Sam Shepard, Grammy award winning singer John Mayer, as well as other typewriter enthusiasts.  Each has an interesting, unique personal perspective on the typewriter and its application in their daily lives.  However, the center of gravity of the film is the California Typewriter Company of Berkeley, California, owned by Martin Howard.   The film explores the lives of all of these people and delves into the origins of their interest in typewriters and examines the persistence of their use despite the overwhelming onslaught of digital word processing and printing.

This film had special relevance for me because I lived through all of these developments.  My father had a manual typewriter from the World War 2 era whose keys were so stiff I could hardly depress them as a kid.  I always hated that typewriter.  That might be why I never remained attached to typewriters and was so ready to embrace the computer for composing documents.  As a graduate student I bought an IBM electric, which was an advanced modern wonder at the time.  My girlfriend at that time used to make fun of me because I was so proud of it.  This is the one I regretfully gave away several years ago.  But I was the first graduate student in my department to use the university’s computer for word processing.  I typed it my thesis myself and printed it on the advanced printer connected to the computer system.  When the professors saw the results they made the secretaries learn how to use the new technology and had computer terminals installed in our department.  I spearheaded the digital revolution in writing and document printing.  I’ve never had any inclination to go back to a typewriter, but after seeing this film I feel I would like to have one.  I can see some uses for it and I have become increasingly resistant to the digital invasion of our lives.

I still use a landline phone and do not use a cell phone (but I do use one while traveling).  I don’t own a television set, and haven’t for many years, but I can watch videos on the internet.  I do almost all of my shopping online and believe was the best thing that ever happened to retail shopping.  I carry a pocketwatch that you wind up (no battery).  I’ve been using pocketwatches since I was about twelve years old.  I don’t like wristwatches and I don’t like clocks with batteries that run down and LED screens that go bad that you can’t read.  I bought a new bathroom scale recently that is analog.  No batteries to replace, no digital screen.  It replaced one that was about 50 years old and was inaccurate by about 7 or 8 pounds in my favor.  I gained weight just by replacing the scale.  I drive a manual transmission car, and always have.  I never use a GPS, always depend on paper maps.   I am learning wood engraving, which is an art form that went out of style about a hundred years ago.  I bind my own books, and have taken numerous workshops in book binding at the Center for the Book in San Francisco.  I was a dark room photographer for many years, but have gone completely digital.  I love Photoshop and my digital photo printer.  I have no desire to go back into a darkroom, but darkroom photographic prints have a special look and feel that digital papers do not replicate.  I have numerous fountain pens and mechanical pencils, and have taken workshops in calligraphy.  I disagree intensely with the removal of cursive writing from the curriculum of school children.  Raising children to be completely dependent on digital devices is a huge mistake and a great lament.

This film could become a cult favorite among a certain subgroup of retros in our society.  They are more numerous that I might have imagined.  I was glad to see it and hope it will be a coalescing point and an inspiration for other digital refuseniks.  I am not a relic after all;  I am part of a nascent counterculture.  This well constructed documentary helped me see my true place in an awakening community.