Herb Permillion III, proprietor of California Typewriter in Berkeley, is featured in an appealing movie about the old-fashioned machines. (Courtesy Gravitas Ventures)

Colorful characters in striking ‘Typewriter’ doc

Dinosauric, perhaps, but far from extinct, the typewriter has some passionate advocates, including Tom Hanks, John Mayer and an unusual Boston orchestra. These and other devotees make an irresistible case for the machine’s survival in “California Typewriter,” a retro-fun salute to the analog age and a thoughtful consideration of how digital technology affects our lives.

First-time director Doug Nichol’s documentary is a collage of typewriter history and appeal, both practical and sentimental.

Its title is that of its anchor subject, a Berkeley typewriter-repair store.

Owner Herb Permillion III, a former IBM employee and the heart of the film, has operated the business since 1983, assisted by longtime repairman Ken Alexander. With computers having replaced typewriters virtually everywhere, the store is struggling but staying afloat.

Nichol also includes interviews with several typewriter-loving notables.

Hanks shows off his favorite machines from his substantial typewriter collection, enthusing over the merits of each. The actor says that he deletes e-mailed fan letters but keeps typewritten mail because it involves more time and thought.

Sam Shepard, the late playwright, discusses the satisfaction that comes from the sight and sound of keys printing inky words onto paper.

Musician John Mayer describes how typewriters assist his creative process. Word processors, with their auto-correct functions, interrupt it.

Author David McCullough explains how the typewritten page can be marked with handwritten notations that may be historically significant.

Collector Martin Howard, who is searching for a rare Sholes and Glidden typewriter, and sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who makes art from typewriter parts, complete the primary cast.

Enriching the canvas are a Howard-led history tour focusing on inventor Christopher Latham Sholes, who, in 1870s Milwaukee, invented the typewriter and QWERTY keyboard.

A performance by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra features numbers played on Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Olympias.

Frustratingly, Nichol doesn’t identity the interviewees, not all of whom are as recognizable as Hanks or Shepard, until the end of the film.

The editing, meanwhile, could be tighter. Noirish segments re-creating Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams’ 1967 “Royal Road Test” art project aren’t compatible with the rest of the doc.

But the movie shines as a loving salute to the typewriter and its enthusiasts. It also successfully uses the typewriter to represent the less rushed and less impersonal culture of analog times, and to consider the degree to which people today desire such qualities.

At the same time, Nichol wisely notes the benefits of internet technology; for example, the creation of a California Typewriter website has increased customer interest in the store.

This documentary probably won’t prompt anyone to abandon the computer and dust off the Olivetti. But as a celebration of machines, ingenuity and humanity rolled into one clacking apparatus, it triumphs.

REVIEW
California Typewriter
Three stars
Starring: Herb Permillion III, Ken Alexander, Tom Hanks, John Mayer
Directed by: Doug Nichol
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Note: Nichol is slated to appear at the 7 p.m. Sept. 30 screening at the Opera Plaza.

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