“I feel something for these machines. I look at it and my mind just goes ‘Where has this machine been at?’ If it could talk, man it could tell some stories.”
Ken Alexander, master typewriter repairman, while waxing sentimental on what’s to love about the humble typewriter, hit onto one of the reasons typewriting enthusiasts prefer this analog method of recording information, over what could arguably be considered the more effective and technologically current modes available to us: They are portable and trustworthy. They aren’t susceptible to viruses, you can’t accidentally delete your data, and they record, without judgement, whatever the fingers flying across their keys wish to convey.
Ever since Christopher Latham Sholes first developed the QWERTY keyboard, back in the 19th century, the typewriter has been an ever-evolving tool used by writers the world over. Responsible for everything from sending off battlefield missives from military correspondents, to typing ledgers for the family business, to composing manuscripts, to employing generations of secretaries (and allowing women to find a foothold in the male workforce), it has been an invaluable tool to anyone with a thought that needed an outlet.
With the advent of the computer, however, typewriters began to take a backseat. Who needs to mess with tape and whiteout, and rolling paper into a machine, when one can type faster, correct mistakes instantaneously, and print remotely, all with ease from a laptop?
While the ease of computer word processing does have its benefits, there are so many personal and tactile components that are lost in the process, a fact that is causing a resurgence of sorts in typewriter loyalty.
From musicians who find beauty in their sounds and sculptors who create art from discarded pieces, to the writers for whom the keys form a vessel and the craftsman who can resurrect a machine on its last legs, there are many who feel the typewriter’s story is not over just yet.
“California Typewriter,” a film set to screen at the Newport Beach Film Festival, tells the story of people such as these who still find inherent value in the technology of a bygone era. In an increasingly digital age, there is still a place for the type of reflection offered in the striking of keys and the return of the carriage.
In the film, musician John Mayer tells of a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during which he viewed the scribbled thoughts that became some of our most iconic and well-loved songs. He reflected that there is no way to capture that train of thought when composing on a computer. He began using a typewriter during his writing sessions, to more authentically capture the thoughts as they exited his consciousness. He says:
“It became a kind of confessional for me, where I would sit and just type…and I wasn’t stopped anywhere in that writing by a red squiggly line…what is spell check and grammar check if you’re trying to dig into this mercurial world of what your ideas are? The typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘Right away, sir.’”
Some value this detachedness, the capability to just capture whatever flawed combination of words flows at a given moment as the beauty of the typewriter, while others, like poet, Silvi Alcivar, see it almost as a conduit of sorts. Words flow through her fingers on the keys that she wonders if she would find without them. Her connection with her typewriter is on an almost spiritual level, and she fears for the time there will be no one left like Ken Alexander to keep it running for her.
In a world of instant gratification, and information at our fingertips, “California Typewriter” pays homage to a tangible, tactile form of writing. It is a love song to anything ever composed on a Smith-Corona, Olivetti, or Olympia, and a prayer that the art form will never die.
Directed and produced by Doug Nichol and John Benet, the film will screen at Island Cinema on Sunday, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, please visit newportbeachfilmfest.com.
For more information on California Typewriter, please visit californiatypewritermovie.com.