The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


California Typewriter

It's relatively easy to make a documentary about a “big” subject. Making one about a mundane subject is a lot harder. How do you get an audience interested in something that isn't inherently dramatic? California Typewriter, as the title suggests, is all about typewriters. It's perfectly understandable if your initial reaction to that is “pass,” but don't write the film off so fast. There's more substance here than you'd anticipate.

Director Doug Nichol looks at what the typewriter means to a bunch of people who don't completely want to leave the machines behind in this highly technological age. Tom Hanks shows off his collection, expressing his fondness for the style and sounds of typewriters. Musician John Mayer explains how his manner of writing lyrics changed dramatically for the better once he purchased a typewriter. Late actor/playwright Sam Shepard talks about how the physical movement of ink flying onto paper inspires him.

The celebrity segments are interesting. There are also some interviews with non-famous people that hit you on a more emotional level. Nichol follows Jeremy Mayer, an artist who makes incredible human and animal-like figures using the parts of deconstructed typewriters. His love for the devices comes through, as he demonstrates the process of taking abandoned, beat-up machines and transforming them into something new and beautiful. Additionally, we meet Herbert Permillion and his family. They run a typewriter repair business and, as the cameras follow them, are trying to determine whether there's enough demand for their services in the modern world.

California Typewriter succeeds because Nichol has chosen his subjects well. Their stories are engaging, and the director is careful to highlight the meaningful connections between the objects and the people who interact with them. The movie's interviewees are as eloquent on the subject of typewriters as they are passionate about them. A philosophical element exists within the documentary, as well. Certain moments explore how computers have increasingly made typewriters obsolete. As John Mayer astutely points out, computers only create a file, whereas typewriters create physical works that provide tangible proof of one's efforts.

At 103 minutes, California Typewriter is about 15-20 minutes too long. Even if what's here is good, there's only so much you can say on the subject, and the movie starts to feel like it's repeating itself a bit toward the end. The overall impact isn't diminished, though. The film is an admiring tribute to a device that has made business easier, made life more convenient, and given the world some of the greatest pieces of literature ever created.

Don't be surprised if you feel like hauling your own typewriter out of the basement or attic afterward.

( out of four)

California Typewriter is unrated, but contains mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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