Toni Mester
Sunday January 07, 2018 - 11:31:00 AM
Ken Alexander at Work
Ken Alexander at Work

Over the holidays, I spent some time at the movies, catching up with the Golden Globe nominees to better share in the fun. But for great cinema, nothing beats the Pacific Film Archive, which is the best screen in Berkeley for quality of projection, sound, sightlines, and programming by astute curators. An attentive audience ensures a reprieve from date night muttering and the rustling of popcorn bags, and their appreciation of fine art often elicits applause at the end of the credits, when the house begins to empty, as it should. The price of a museum member ticket is $7 for the first film of the day and $5 for the second, and the cost of membership is quickly reimbursed for the avid cinephile. Upcoming series include perspectives on Ida Lupino, Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman films, Sergei Eisenstein and his contemporaries, and much, much more. Lucky us. 

Besides retrospectives, the PFA often runs art-house and festival winners that the first run movie theaters overlook, like the documentary California Typewriter that got four screenings in December. The last show, which I attended, was almost sold-out, so word must have gotten around about this intriguing look at a seminal machine of the analog age that is no longer being manufactured but still sold and repaired at the eponymous store two short blocks from my house. The business has been at 2362 San Pablo Avenue for 36 years, almost as long as I’ve lived in West Berkeley. With the celebratory film and the opening next door of a popular cannabis dispensary, the Berkeley Patient’s Group, my working class neighborhood suddenly feels so chic. 

The stars of the film are the shop’s owner Herbert Permillion III and repairman Ken Alexander. A focus on their dedication to keeping the store and its machines running is the thread that connects appearances by actors Tom Hanks and Sam Shepherd, writers Silvi Alivar and David McCullough, and musician John Mayer; who all attest to their romance with the typewriter. Its history is provided by Martin Howard, a collector who travels the globe in search of antique machines, and a profound expression of its aesthetics by Jeremy Mayer, who sculpts fabulous creations in human and animal forms out of typewriter parts. A musical interlude is provided by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, whose percussive compositions exploit the familiar sounds of clickety-clack and ding ding

The philosophical undercurrent of the film asks us to consider the loss of analog expression, as the technology of composition has moved from the typewriter to the computer and other digital implements of writing. Have we lost the intimacy and comfort of slow writing to the instant gratification of word processing? It’s a question that has haunted me since watching this hugely entertaining documentary with its lingering intellectual afterlife. 

I grew up with typewriters. The office desk of our family business, Tri-State Electric Company, held a heavy black Underwood that my mother and I used to type letters and monthly invoices. At home, we had a sleeker Smith Corona, and my brother and I each took portables to college. I bought an electric typewriter for graduate school, which I kept until I bought my first Apple computer, an SE. I cannot remember how I disposed of the last of my typewriters, and frankly I don’t miss them one bit. Having suffered through whiting out hundreds of college papers, crumpling up failed attempts at correction, and retyping pages from scratch, I think computers are heaven on earth. Revision is a snap, especially with on-line dictionaries, spelling and grammar check, which is especially useful for stimulating the vocabulary of the aging brain. The vast research apparatus of the Internet provides breadth of information and gravitas of exactitude. With all this help, it’s a wonder how badly written so much of the Internet remains. But that’s another subject. 

The keyboard is the persistent element of the typewriter still in use, essentially the same QWERTY arrangement invented and patented by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1868, shortly after the Civil War. Today global villagers write English by pushing little keys in an order first conceived a hundred and fifty years ago by an American newspaperman practicing freedom of the press, with some additional functions of course. But the basics remain the same. 

One summer long ago, my mother urged me to take “touch typing” at the high school, where the classroom was arranged in long tables supporting rows of black manual Underwoods with blank keys. We students stared straight ahead at a large printed keyboard hung over the blackboard, instructed never to look down, but to find the right letters with our fingers. Thus was formed the eye to brain to hand connection that facilitated my higher education and livelihood. Learning to type helped me to think, write, and make a living. As a composition teacher, I told my students that developing the skill of writing at the keyboard would ensure they would always have a job. 

In material terms, there’s a continuum between the analog and digital world, not a total break and distinction. Theoretically, we don’t know if the world is continuous or discrete because we can’t see that small, and most people don’t give a damn about quantum physics anyway. PBS recently aired a documentary about George Boole, the nineteenth century English mathematician who formulated the calculus that allowed the digital revolution, but it took a century before inventors turned his logic into computers. The age of the human run analog machine is far from over but morphing into an industrial composite that uses artificial intelligence to run familiar machines like computer driven cars and other robots. We are probably living on the outer edge of the first industrial revolution, which started during the realm of Elizabeth I with the mining of lead. Five hundred years later, we are still trying to get the poison out of pipes and paint, so let’s not get carried away with technological hubris. In 2016 Americans elected a science denier as president, a historical setback and national humiliation, to say the least. 

The upcoming generation that has grown up in the digital age still has Popular Mechanics to teach them how the world works. Many smug teenagers who are showing old folks how to text know zip about the internal combustion engine and couldn’t rebuild a hot rod like grandpa and his friends in their youth. People take machines for granted without understanding the science of their structure. I once asked a class of travelers to explain how an airplane weighing hundreds of tons manages to stay in the sky, and nobody could explain the principles of lift. There used to be machine repair shops in the East Bay before retirements and high rent put them out of business. Now broken televisions, microwaves, and vacuum cleaners end up on the curbs rather than get fixed and re-used. We don’t live in a brave new digital world but in the junkyard of the analog age. 

Longing for an older, slower way of life infuses the film California Typewriter. Perhaps everybody who writes at a computer keyboard should have a typewriter handy for when the power fails. Arthritis often makes longhand difficult for the older writer, so demand for affordable typewriters as a fallback for that demographic may revive their manufacture. Even movies have gone digital. I was too stoned at the time to appreciate the irony, but I saw the original Star Wars in a friend’s garage theater, delivered to the screen by his antique 35 mm carbon arc projector. Now most celluloid has been digitized to disc, even movies that reek of nostalgia. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.