Documentarian Doug Nichol's debut feature, "California Typewriter," celebrates the surprising staying power of a technology that has become almost — but not quite — obsolete. Although many of its subjects are endearing characters, the film's scattered approach undermines its point about the simple endurance of an artifact.
Taking its name from an Oakland repair shop, "California Typewriter" opens with the reminiscence of musician Mason Williams, who, with his friend, painter Ed Ruscha, once threw a Royal typewriter out the window of a moving car, documenting the predictable results, with photographer Robert Blackwell, in the 1967 art book "Royal Road Test." The sequence seems to belong to a different movie, and Nichol never provides any context for Williams, best known for the 1968 instrumental hit "Classical Gas," or for Ruscha, a pivotal figure in pop art.
The true heart of "California Typewriter" is the struggling shop, whose owner, Herb Permillion III, takes pride in a skill that is all but extinct. It's mesmerizing to watch Permillion and a few dedicated craftsmen take apart these ingeniously constructed machines, which were once ubiquitous. Although Nichol supplements the film with interviews featuring such collectors of vintage typewriters as actor Tom Hanks, the film could easily have focused only on Permillion's business as a way of looking at the history of the typewriter and the dizzying range of designs.
Instead, the movie takes some long detours: Singer-songwriter (and typewriter enthusiast) John Mayer argues for the machine as a potent creative tool, but he seems oddly unengaged with Nichol's camera. Oakland artist Jeremy Mayer, who makes found-object sculptures out of discarded typewriter parts, is one of the shop's regular customers, but his presence in the film has less to do with typewriters than with the artist's financial struggles.
Other celebrity endorsers include the late playwright and actor Sam Shepard. His insights into the creative process are worth hearing. Although the film would benefit from a more reined-in focus, "California Typewriter" is a love letter to an antiquated device — one that retains its charm and utility even in the digital age.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 104 minutes.