Magic in the Keys

By Tim Winterstein

A couple years ago at the Newport Beach Film Festival, when my brother said I needed to watch a film called California Typewriter, I laughed. I didn’t care about typewriters; I certainly didn’t want to watch a whole movie about them. Maybe you would share that reaction. What could possibly be so interesting about an obsolete machine that would appeal to more than a few collectors and those who feed off nostalgia for obscurities? And that nostalgia itself might be limited, since those who grew up learning to type on typewriters might have been happy to move on to word processors and computers, happy to leave behind correction fluid and replacement ink ribbons.

If you are like me in my hesitation to watch a movie about typewriters, do not trust that instinct. California Typewriter (streaming on Amazon Video) is in—at least—my top three favorite documentaries ever. (Part of the evidence is the five typewriters I’ve gathered in the last two years.) The editing, music, and pacing, to my mind, are seamless. The very first scene is not at all what you might expect, and it’s the perfect introduction. The multiple stories, centered around the film’s eponymous typewriter store, never feel like they are going to pull the documentary apart into unconnected strands. This is a single and skillfully woven narrative.

But, obviously, a well-made documentary can’t, in itself, do much if the story it tells isn’t inherently compelling. And this one is. For me, the most effective documentaries are the ones that tell a largely unknown story and help us see why the subject is important, both to our lives as well as in the larger cultural context. California Typewriter does both.

Besides bringing in celebrities such as Tom Hanks (known—though not primarily, of course—for his extensive typewriter collection), John Mayer, David McCullough, and Sam Shepard, the real arc of the story is from the death (murder!) of the typewriter to its resilience post-personal-computer and even its resurgence. After all, how is it possible for the typewriter to be pronounced dead in 1967 with the book Royal Road Test, but 42 years later Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter could sell for $260,000+? (And I just read that Hugh Hefner’s typewriter—which would need to be pressure washed and sanitized for me to ever touch—sold for $162,500.)

So is the typewriter, in the early 21st century, just a fad? Is a person’s use of a typewriter akin to some sort of hipster reaction against the cool and the pervasiveness of the now? Is it simply nostalgia for a bygone age or for a person’s own childhood or young adult memories? No doubt, there’s some of all of that. California Typewriter has its share of typewriter nerds, hipsters, and nostalgiacs.

But is there anything more? Listen to David McCullough talk about the historical importance of corrections actually made on a sheet of paper; listen to Tom Hanks talk about framed thank-you notes, rather than deleted e-mails; listen to John Mayer talk about the value of not having to immediately correct or erase aborted attempts at lyrics. The tactile nature of pressing keys and having a letter show up on a piece of paper in front of you is almost indefinably and infinitely more than having those same keys and letters connected by computer circuitry of whose workings I, at least, have no understanding whatsoever. What do zeroes and ones have to do with each of these letters?

Consider how much more slowly, in both thought and action, one has to proceed to type a letter. Since you don’t have the ability to simply erase a misspelling (and there’s no red, squiggly line telling you so, as John Mayer points out), you have to think ahead of time about what you want to say. Now, for some things, that may very well be impractical. If you want to digitize a manuscript and mass-produce it, eventually it’s got to be run through something other than a typewriter.

Though some might withdraw completely from the world of technology (Wendell Berry wrote about why he would never buy a computer), I’m not giving up the computer on which I am now writing this. Even typewriter repair shops know that they will have a lot of trouble surviving if they don’t have a website. However, as we should know by now, not everything works for everything. Our “smart” phones have convinced us that it’s better to have everything, literally, in the palms of our hands. And that’s valuable for all sorts of reasons. But perhaps we miss out on other valuable things, even when we have “everything.”

I wonder, also, if part of the problem is that we take everything so seriously. It might seem that those who use typewriters are the ones taking things too seriously, but maybe it’s the other way around. There’s a sort of whimsy attached to typewriters (I’ve found) that just doesn’t obtain when I’m using a computer. Manual typewriters are some of the most interesting machines that I’ve ever seen. It’s like an old car or motorcycle without any computers in it. Everything is connected to something else in a tangible, visible, concrete way. I’m never going to be a typewriter repairman. I’m not naturally inclined mechanically. But I can, in spite of my mechanical ignorance, figure out where the problem is in a manual typewriter that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.

There is also a character possessed by individual typewriter that makes letters, lines, and impressions unique to that machine, let alone its dings, dents, and imperfections. I’m not going to spend much time thinking about the person who used a pre-owned computer. But a typewriter from the ’40s or ’50s? Or my oldest one, a 1921 Remington? That seems to have a very physical connection to history. And of how many man-made things can you say that they will (if it’s been taken care of, or if I spend enough time on it) work just as well as the day it was made, 75 years before?

Now, as Tom Hanks points out in the film, no one is ever going to open another typewriter factory and sell the best typewriter ever for thousands of dollars. It’s never going to be that. But there is something in a manual typewriter (something I never suspected was there) that still holds our attention, though no one is ever going to manufacture another one. (The last typewriter factory in the world, in India, closed in 2011.)

At any rate, maybe you still don’t believe me or can’t imagine a film about typewriters being very interesting. I wouldn’t say this about many movies I like, but I can promise you that California Typewriter—even if you have no interest in acquiring a typewriter yourself—will fascinate you with its story. And, by the way, if anyone has an old typewriter in a garage or attic that they don’t want, I’ll take it.