Ribbons of memory

Collector Martin Howard goes inside California Typewriter

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Doug Nichol's California Typewriter brilliantly captures the percussion of the keys at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Doug Nichol's California Typewriter brilliantly captures the percussion of the keys at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Antiquarian typewriter collector Martin Howard over brunch in the garden of Narcissa, next door to the Standard Hotel, joined me for a conversation on California Typewriter, Doug Nichol's documentary featuring Tom Hanks, John Mayer, Jeremy Mayer, Pulitzer Prize winners David McCullough and Sam Shepard, and a reenactment of Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams' Royal Road Test execution. Martin is the glue of the film as we are taken on an historical journey for his search to purchase a Sholes & Glidden typewriter.

Martin Howard on typewriter Betty Grable:
Martin Howard on typewriter Betty Grable: "She uses a Sholes & Glidden in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Wrong Box (John Mills, Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore), Royal Flash (Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates, Florinda Bolkan, Oliver Reed), Waterloo (Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Orson Welles) and references to Slavoj Žižek in Sophie Fiennes' The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology and the traces in Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius (starring Sônia Braga) come up over eggs Benedict, avocado toast and coffee.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I was reminded of the concept of the "inertia of the real" in connection to typewriters - as objects that give us a sense of time. Slavoj Žižek explains it by using the example of the airplane cemetery in the American desert [and the film I Am Legend in Sophie Fiennes' Pervert's Guide To Ideology].

An awe we cannot get through literature or other kinds of storytelling, only in an abandoned physical object. Sam Shepard in probably my favorite moment of California Typewriter speaks of "the ink flying into the paper." The "into" is important. He doesn't say "onto" or "at". It's a penetration.

Martin Howard: It's indelible, yeah. "Into", not "onto", right, that's beautiful. Sam was beautiful in the film. His presence, that more than anybody else, not because he died - for me is the highest sense of wonder. Ostensibly, it's when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up - when he is in the film. What he is saying, how he looks, this meditative quality of him speaking is magic.

California Typewriter director Doug Nichol with Anne-Katrin Titze at Metrograph
California Typewriter director Doug Nichol with Anne-Katrin Titze at Metrograph Photo: John Benet

AKT: Have you met him?

MH: No. You have, though, a few times, right?

AKT: Yes.

MH: Did you meet him over the past six years? Since the interview for the film?

AKT: I have.

MH: Did he ever comment on it?

AKT: No. But the presence you say you feel on screen is very much there in person as well. It's a great loss. In California Typewriter we get a glimpse of your childhood home and the many remarkable objects your parents collected and constructed. Did movies play a part as well?

MH: When I grew up there was no TV in the house. My parents wanted us to play. And I'm grateful for that. A couple of my favourite movies as a child were the wonderful British comedy and pantomime The Wrong Box with a young Michael Caine. Also the war movie Waterloo with Rod Steiger as Napoleon. And oh, Royal Flash with Malcolm McDowell. A real British romp.

Betty Grable typing on a Sholes & Glidden in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim
Betty Grable typing on a Sholes & Glidden in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim

AKT: I'm asking, because in Doug's film there is a strong link with Jeremy [Mayer, the sculptor] between what he does now to cinema, to Metropolis. I was asking him in the post-screening discussion at Metrograph if it was fair to say that the two most influential films in his life came out exactly 90 years apart - Fritz Lang's Metropolis in 1927 and California Typewriter this year.

John Mayer brings up seeing Bob Dylan typing in the Pennebaker film Don't Look Back. There is also a film clip from James Ivory's Bombay Talkie. I was wondering if there were any cinematic references to early typewriters you know of.

MH: There is one called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim with Betty Grable and there was a Sholes & Glidden in there. She actually is one of the first secretaries and she uses a Sholes & Glidden in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.

AKT: I have heard the title. It's a musical, isn't it? But I have never seen it.

MH: I haven't seen it either.

AKT: Are there Sholes & Glidden typewriters used in any other films?

MH: No, just that one. Films didn't influence my interest in mechanical things. My dad was a research scientist, so he had a lab with all sorts of mechanical things. He had a wood shop and a machine shop and computer stuff. He was always putting electrical circuitry in front of me and science books on the shelves.

My brother and I [who are twins] didn't pay much attention to that but going to his lab was really cool. His subject was psychology, but not clinical. It was human perception, how humans perceive things. He dealt with optical illusions, how people judge depth.

California Typewriter poster at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
California Typewriter poster at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

He also got involved with the Space Shuttle Canadian astronauts and the issue of space sickness. When you go up there, it's like sea sickness. You don't have a reference of "down". He was studying ways to mitigate that problem. He influenced me.

AKT: It's interesting, Doug mentioned to me - although it is not in the film - that for most of the people involved, the connection to typewriters came through fathers.

MH: What are the other influences coming through a patriarchal connection? Who else?

AKT: Tom Hanks, for example. His father gave him his first typewriter. You do like to take apart the typewriters you collect. I think one of the threads in the film is that a typewriter allows you also to put it back together. You couldn't do that with a computer that easily.

MH: Yeah, the putting it back together is really important, the pleasure of putting things back together. It's very satisfying. In a same way I think that one gets satisfaction from stripping down a chair, an old wooden chair with many layers of paint. You get down to the beautiful wood underneath. The reveal of the object hiding there, you know?

AKT: A house, too. Have you seen Kleber Mendonça Filho's film Aquarius, that came out last year? It's about the incarnations of this building called Aquarius by the sea in Recife, Brazil. Kleber and I had talked previously about cinemas being turned into other businesses. And he said that they always leave one trace behind that still identifies it as a cinema. I know that a supermarket I frequent used to be a cinema. And he told me to look.

MH: I love it, I love it. It's a vestige and you're sleuthing. You're looking for the DNA of the original source. What did you find?

Martin Howard at Narcissa:
Martin Howard at Narcissa: "My parents wanted us to play. And I'm grateful for that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The ornament on the top of the original marquee outside.

MH: I love what you're saying. You can also see it with old painted advertisements on the walls or sometimes some mechanical traffic from the day. It's wonderful. It's such a tenuous link, isn't it?

Read what Doug Nichol had to say on David McCullough and the drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, typewriter poet Silvi Alcivar, on linking the machine to Tom Hanks and Martin Howard's fathers, the mystery of QWERTY, and John Mayer on a "Blade Runnery back alley deal" in California Typewriter.

Read what Doug Nichol had to say on Sam Shepard, Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams' Royal Road Test execution, Jeremy Mayer and the natural world, and how Tom Hanks got involved with California Typewriter.

California Typewriter is in cinemas in the US.

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