Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The magic — and music — of carriage returns

Life is full of charming surprises.

The Los Angeles Times runs an annual compilation of overlooked films that remained “Under the Radar” during the previous 12 months. Eight critics selected five titles each this year: Some lists are all over the genre map, while others — such as that from animation historian Charles Solomon — are devoted entirely to a given specialty.

The overarching principle is apt: As a film critic myself, I’m far more aware of indie and art house releases than most folks ... but more than half of these 40 titles were new to me. And quite a few piqued my interest.

One did so immediately: California Typewriter, a documentary by director Doug Nichol, which critic Gary Goldstein insists was “egregiously denied a place on this season’s documentary Oscar shortlist.” I read the article the day it was published — Thursday, December 28 — and immediately checked our streaming options. Lo and behold, its available via Amazon Video (and iTunes), and we watched it that very evening.

Isn’t the modern world amazing? In times past, you’d never even find out about most documentaries, let alone have any opportunity to view them. And now they’re just a few clicks away.


Nichol’s film is indeed delightful. The narrative is split between two topics: the Berkeley, California, store that gives the film its title, which has provided service and sales for all makes and models of typewriters, fax machines, calculators and the like since 1949, and which has been run since 1981 by Herbert L. Permillion III; and affectionate — and often droll — visits with typewriter collectors and purists such as musician John Mayer, playwright Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough, and artist/sculptor Jeremy Mayer.

Watching Tom Hanks dither over his massive collection, while trying to decide upon just one “desert island typewriter,” is a hoot and a half.

It also pays to be one of Hanks’ good friends. When somebody expresses genuine affection for one of the humble, old-school machines, Hanks makes it a gift. With the proviso that the recipient must use it, for old-school correspondence.

These individuals also eulogize the “experience” of their beloved typewriters, insisting that they’re essential to the artistic process, in a way that computers, laptops, tablets — and so forth — cannot match. (Except for Jeremy Mayer, the outlier, who cannibalizes typewriters in order to re-purpose the components into assemblages that range from life-size small birds to life-size human figures. With results that demand to be seen.)

You’re undoubtedly wondering what this brief film review is doing in a blog devoted to Vince Guaraldi.


So there we were, Constant Companion and I, thoroughly enjoying this film and its collection of colorful on-camera subjects, along with Nichol’s savvy use of background music: Cy Coleman’s cover of “Playboy’s Theme,” Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies,” Bill Evans’ iconic reading of “Stolen Moments,” and even a selection by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra (for real).

And, suddenly — during one of the Berkeley visits to Herb’s store — we heard the gentle and unmistakable melody of Guaraldi’s “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” from his Warner Bros. album Oh, Good Grief!

Nor was that all. Somewhat later, as Herb and his adult daughters — Carmen and Candace — decorated their store for the holidays, Nichol inserted Guaraldi’s instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here,” from his Charlie Brown Christmas score.

And that’s why you’re reading these words.

So: Aside from quality filmmaking chops, Nichol obviously has excellent taste in music.

I highly recommend this little film ... and not merely for the opportunity to hear some well-placed Guaraldi excerpts. The film is a thoroughly engaging — and informative — eulogy for a technological workhorse whose day, alas, has come and gone. Likely for good. (But not entirely. Thankfully.)

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