Berkeley typewriter shop stars in touching documentary
By Lou Fancher
If “California Typewriter” doesn’t make you almost cry, laugh or experience an unexpected desire to bear hug actor Tom Hanks, call the police: Someone has stolen your heart, sense of humor, and the ability to recognize genuine soulfulness.
The dual-story documentary about Berkeley’s iconic California Typewriter Company and a gang of click-clack-ping typewriter enthusiasts carries a moving message about old-fashioned and modern technology.
Just one example of the documentary genre’s increasing depth and stylistic range, director Doug Nichol’s 103-minute film is included in the 16th annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival May 31-June 15 at three theaters in San Francisco. A special screening June 4 at BAMPFA brings the film close to its story’s origins and East Bay audiences.
California Typewriter has been in Berkeley since 1949. Bought in 1981 by Herbert Permillion III, a retired, almost 20-year-career IBM serviceman whose expertise was Selectric Typewriters, the shop on San Pablo Avenue became a family business.
Permillion’s two daughters worked in the store and like Kenneth Alexander, near-family after 42 years repairing Smith-Coronas, Remingtons, Underwoods, Olivettis, Royals and more, they appear with Permillion in the documentary.
Manual typewriter aficionados, collectors and fans with celebrity status line up too: Hanks and his over 200 machines, Grammy-winning guitarist and singer John Mayer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough (who still uses a typewriter he bought in 1965), Playwright Sam Shepard, Oakland-based sculpture artist Jeremy Mayer, the Boston Typewriter Orchestra — who knew — and a star in the realm of typewriter collectors, Toronto-based Martin Howard.
Although the flash of well-known figures could outshine the Permillion family, Alexander, or the machines themselves in the film, it never does.
The documentary begins with a bang: a swift re-enactment of Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams’ 1967 “Royal Road Test” picture-book art piece for which they threw a typewriter out of car going 90 mph. The black-and-white photos of debris read like a crime scene investigation catalog. The film noir implications are obvious: violence happens when a typewriter is tossed, not just littering. The mystery is, who’s guilty — and of what?
Nichol’s established his filmmaking stature with Grammy winning music videos for artists like Sting, Pulp, Madonna, Aerosmith and more.
In film notes and interviews, he says he began his first feature-length film and the five-year, self-financed project largely due to a New York Times article about an Underwood typewriter someone found on the street that became a cherished possession.
Nichol picked up a used typewriter for $6 on eBay and finding it in need of repair while living in San Francisco, took it to Permillion’s store. Blown away by the family and their struggle to remain solvent in today’s i-everything, computerized, digital-only world, he made a video.
He sent the short doc to Hanks’ wife and some months later, the actor phoned and said he’d be pleased to appear in the full-length documentary. Finding Mayer, who transforms the parts of dismantled typewriters into astoundingly human, expressive sculptures, led him to Howard, expert extraordinaire. And so it went as one person linked to the next in a daisy chain of typewriter devotees.
But Nichol’s real mastery isn’t only journalism-like investigative research and using his connections to gain access to inside stories and notoriously private stars like Hanks.
Instead, what makes the film accessible and admirable for its artistry are the obvious enthusiasm of participants, the way non-stars appear as natural and charismatic as people accustomed to being on screen, mostly solid pacing and the repeated and subtle pivots back to the theme. In 2017, Nichol’s film suggests, there’s analogue and digital. Why not celebrate both?
Other notable films in the festival have equally sturdy East Bay roots. “Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk,” is executive produced by Green Day, narrated by Iggy Pop and features music by iconic Bay Area punk bands and musicians. Director Corbett Redford’s film spans 30 years of history with the spotlight on Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street music collective.
“Nat Bates For Mayor” tells the story of the 2014 mayoral race in Richmond. Expect outrage at the $3 million backing Bates received from Chevron, but also hilarity from the wild, guerilla-style documentary that reveals racism, class warfare and other ugliness at the heart of political ambition.