How Tom Hanks, John Mayer and other artists are making typewriters cool again
California Typewriter director Doug Nichol makes a case for the beleaguered office instrument
Last Christmas, in what would prove a bittersweet moment for audiophiles the world over, vinyl music sales in the U.K. overtook their digital counterpart for the first time, capping off eight years of growth for a format considered all but dead a decade earlier.
Vinyl's unprecedented boom is the brightest example of a movement journalist David Sax recently dubbed "the revenge of analog." And, according to a new documentary making the rounds at festivals and sold-out screenings across the continent, the revolution will soon have another romantically idealized but conceptually obsolete cavalier in its ranks: the typewriter.
"I type almost every day," Tom Hanks boasts early on in California Typewriter, seated in front of one of 250-plus working machines in his private collection.
Hanks is one of several subjects, both famous and otherwise, who testify on behalf of the beleaguered office instrument in director Doug Nichol's first feature-length documentary.
A Grammy-winner known for helming music videos by the likes of Sting, Pulp and Aerosmith, Nichol's work on California Typewriter was a five-year, self-financed labour of love. Speaking hours before a sold-out screening at the Hot Docs cinema in Toronto, the director theorized that, beyond die-hard aficionados like Hanks and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough (who still uses the same typewriter he bought in 1965), the rise in typewriter popularity might have something to do with digital fatigue.
"I think there's a bit of a technology burnout that's happening." he said. "Kids have grown up touching glass and they find it so interesting to push a button. Whereas the new iPhone, that's boring to them. It's all they've known."
For guitarist and singer John Mayer, known as an early adopter in technology circles, the epiphany came while perusing typed-out lyrics at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "I thought to myself, I don't have any representation of this," he says in the film.
Mayer discovered the typewriter allowed for a process permanence while eschewing any distraction, which helped him concentrate on his lyrical ideas. Plus, "I've never gone back to any hard drive I've saved and said, 'let me dig this thing up,'" he notes. "It's sort of like high concept trash."
Nichol, who began filming as the owner of a cheap, broken typewriter but now owns 85, says there's method behind Mayer's madness. "There's a joy that comes from writing on it. You have to think before you commit your ideas to paper."
"If all of our stuff is being collected and password-protected in the cloud, when you die, nobody's ever going to know where that stuff is," he continued. "As McCullough says in the film, future historians are going to have a hard time knowing much about us because a lot of that intimate stuff will be lost."
At the screenings in Toronto, Nichol appeared alongside one of California Typewriter's more interesting subjects, the Toronto-based rare typewriter collector Martin Howard, who also sat in on our interview. Howard, who boasts the country's largest collection, pointed out that Canada has an interesting history with the typewriter, including the Montreal-based Empire and the Toronto-made Horton typewriter, which in 1883 became the first to offer visible typing.
"Typewriters are very liberating," Howard explained. "A perfect metaphor for rebellion against technology."
"That's why Tom Hanks likes to write letters," Nichol added. "His letters are going to be around thousands of years. Our e-mails aren't going to last our lifetimes."
— Jonathan Dekel, q digital staff