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"California Typewriter"

Previewing our November documentary film selection

The Econ Extra Credit Team Nov 4, 2021
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From a hotly contested auction at Christie’s (where, paddles flying, a small Olivetti once owned by the writer Cormac McCarthy is sold for a staggering sum) to the quiet backroom of a small family-run repair shop in Berkeley, “California Typewriter” — named for the shop — zeroes in on the life cycle of a tool that predated the phone, the computer and the tablet.

“We’ve become a throwaway society,” muses a California Typewriter technician early in the film. “‘Obsolete’ depends on your point of view, I guess.” 

From here, we follow the clack and ding of a galaxy of typewriter brands and models to living rooms, flea market stalls and museums; we hear from his daughter that Herbert Permillion, the shop’s proprietor, is “willing to spend his last dime” on the expectation that people will come back to the machines.

And some do come back. Collectors, mainly, almost all of them white men. Some, like actor Tom Hanks and author David McCullough, very well known. Hanks’ collection is 250-strong. Many of them like the typewriter for the trouble. “I think we’ve been sold a certain bill of goods about ease and happiness being necessarily synonymous,” McCullough tells the camera. “They aren’t.”

The 2017 documentary juxtaposes scenes of typewriter fanatics with scenes of tech fanaticism: lines and lines of people outside Apple stores in wait for the latest iPad. One by one, typewriter supply companies go out of business. At the same time, a new appreciation builds for the value of things you can touch and hold, of sitting with mistakes and of generally slowing down. “The past is a luxurious pursuit,” says one collector. Watch, and see if you agree.

“California Typewriter” is available with a library card or university login on Kanopy and for free (sometimes with ads) on a variety of streaming platforms. In our next instalment of this Econ Extra Credit newsletter, David Brancaccio gives his take on the documentary. In the meantime, let us know your reaction: 

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