“California Typewriter” might center on a small, beleaguered typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., but this quirky, obsessive documentary is about so much more than broken keys and busted type wheels. It’s really about how we create art.
Sinking into a dedicated — and overwhelmingly male — subculture of enthusiasts, the director Doug Nichol unearths a trove of reasons for loving the clickety-clacking machine. The playwright and actor Sam Shepard (who died last month) confesses an addiction to the percussive sound of thoughts striking paper. Tom Hanks, an avid collector who owns around 250 machines and types almost daily, declares that he hates emailed thank-you notes and simply deletes them. Take note, sycophants and star-stalkers.
More substantively, the musician John Mayer and the historian David McCullough speak eloquently of the need for tangible proof of creation versus the ephemeral nature of digital data. Denied diaries, letters or first drafts — whether of songs or presidential speeches — future historians will find it much harder to plumb the minds of the famous.
Overlong and poorly annotated (interviewees are not identified until the end, and even then without photographs), “California Typewriter” fields plenty of thinkers, but it’s the fringe folks who entertain. Like the sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who — inspired by multiple viewings of “Metropolis” — transforms irreparable machines into fantastic beasts and life-size figures. Or the self-described typewriter poet, Silvi Alcivar, who composes impromptu stanzas for any occasion and for people who just need cheering up.