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Director Doug Nichol’s California Typewriter Passion Project

EVEN ACCOMPLISHED PEOPLE GROW RESTLESS. After graduating from film school at the University of Southern California, Doug Nichol began his career as a camera operator on high-profile music documentaries like U2: Rattle and Hum (1988), and Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), for which he was also a director of photography. As a cinematographer he shot the TV documentary Billy Joel: Live in Leningrad (1987). Nichol won a Grammy Award for directing the 1993 video documentary Sting: Ten Summoners Tales.

He spent a decade directing music videos for artists like New Kids on the Block, Sting, Lenny Kravitz and Aerosmith, earning two other Grammy nominations along the way. He later directed hundreds of television commercials. But for Nichol, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, something was missing. Music videos and commercials “were a way to support my family,” he tells Moresby Press, “but I felt there was an emptiness.”

And then a passion project came along that would change Nichol’s life and those of nearly everyone involved with it—the 2017 documentary California Typewriter, which he directed, photographed, edited and co-produced. Ostensibly about a struggling typewriter-repair shop—and the subculture still devoted to the analog machines that the rest of the world mostly considers obsolete in the digital age—the film is also about people following their passion, instead of following the herd.

“Nobody in the film is doing what they do for money,” Nichol says. “They are all doing it out of love. The whole project, top-to-bottom, was infused with that.”

The movie had its origins in 2011, when Nichol read an article in The New York Times about an East Village artist whose favorite possession was an Underwood No. 5 typewriter. Intrigued, Nichol found the same model on eBay for $6 (plus $60 to ship the heavy machine). He thought the antique would look nice on a desk in his office. But the broken typewriter called out to him to fix it.

Herb Permillion, owner of the California Typewriter shop

He Googled “typewriter shops” and found just one, California Typewriter in Berkeley, which was open for only a few hours a day, four days a week. He met the owner, Herbert L. Permillion, III; Herb’s daughters, Carmen and Candace, who also work in the shop; and master repairman Ken Alexander. The chance encounter led Nichol to make a three-minute short about the shop that later grew into the full-length documentary.

“The motivating force of this film came from when I walked into that typewriter shop and met the family and they repaired my typewriter,” he says. “They were struggling so much that I felt I had to finish this film for them. It was only through getting their story out there that people could meet them and they could have any hope of their business surviving.”

Nichol started hanging around the shop and filming the staff at work, and then made the short. A friend showed it to actor Tom Hanks, who collects typewriters and offered to appear in the longer film. As one introduction led to another, Nichol followed two paths: filming notable people who use typewriters—including Hanks, playwright/actor Sam Shepard, historian and author David McCullough, and musician John Mayer—and telling the stories of people he met at the shop. One of those narratives involved the artist Jeremy Mayer, who creates android sculptures out of discarded typewriter parts.

“When I met him, Jeremy was sleeping on the floor of a shipping container with not even twenty bucks to his name,” Nichol recalls. “But he was loving what he did, which was taking apart typewriters like erector sets and putting them together into these forms.”

A parallel began to emerge between the themes of the film and Nichol’s own experience of making it. In his self-funded passion project, he found himself gravitating toward people who were also motivated by love for what they were doing. 

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Scars of War, Sins of Father Form Aida’s Secrets

“YOU CAN’T HIDE EVERYTHING. Something must surface.” An elderly woman who survived the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp is talking about the mystery behind the bittersweet new documentary Aida’s Secrets, from producer/director Alon Schwarz.

Schwarz’s uncle, Izak Szewelwicz, was born in 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen displaced-persons camp, a community popular amongst refugees who lived there after the war. As a blond-haired toddler Izak was sent to Israel to live with a family he assumed was his own. But he soon learned they were not his real parents or siblings. He eventually met his birth mother Aida, who as a young blonde beauty had immigrated to Canada after sending Izak to Israel. She told him that his father had died in the war.

As an adult, Izak lives in Israel with his children and grandchildren. But everything he thinks he knows about his background is revealed as false in 2013, when he tracks down his adoption files and learns that his father was alive after the war and had divorced his mother. Seeking more answers, Izak locates his birth certificate in Germany and is shocked to discover that he has a brother. Shep, 10 months younger than Izak, is blind and lives in Canada.

The film gains dramatic momentum when Izak, then in his late 60s, flies to Canada for a tearful first meeting with the brother he never knew existed. Izak is overjoyed, but Shep seems uncomfortable with the new reality of his life that he is forced to confront.

It turns out that Shep was raised in Canada by his father and never knew his mother—just as Izak, the brother he never knew, had never met his father. Despite his visual impairment, Shep was a competitive athlete as a younger man, skiing, running marathons and cycling. Grisha, the father who raised him, was cold and emotionally distant. He had married a German war widow and Shep was 16 when he learned that she was not his mother.

By the time of the brothers’ reunion their father has died, so it’s too late for Izak to meet him. But it turns out that Aida, the mother Shep never knew, is living not far from him in Canada. The two men feel confused and betrayed. Shep in particular suffers from abandonment issues. “I think I’m a person that a mother would have loved,” he says.

Soon after meeting each other for the first time, the two brothers drive to the nursing home where their mother Aida now lives—Izak to see her for the first time in years, Shep to meet her for the first time ever. Seated in a chair, the old woman is frail and forgetful but remembers both of her sons, murmuring “God bless you,” as they kneel and kiss her.

At this point in the story, the sons and the audience want to ask Aida what happened—why did the family split into fragments after the war, and why were the brothers never told about each other? But Shep and Izak are initially reluctant to be aggressive. 

She later claims not to remember what happened to Shep when he was a baby.
“I was a person, I was a baby,” he says afterwards. “But it was almost like she blanked me out of existence.” Izak feels some sense of closure, but for Shep, pain and doubts linger. Aida is their mother, but did the sons have the same father? They agree to a DNA test, but Izak insists he has “absolutely no doubt” that he and Shep have the same father.

Through their own investigations, the filmmakers discover that Aida had tried to rejoin Izak a few months after sending him to Palestine, but her application was denied because the state of Israel didn’t recognize her as a Jew. She instead wound up emigrating from Germany to Canada.

All these decades later, she has kept two black-and-white photographs that were evidently shot in the same location on the same day, during a summer picnic by a lake. One shows a young, handsome Grisha sitting on a blanket and smiling. In the other, Aida relaxes on the same blanket with her two babies and another man. What was the relationship between the three adults?

The filmmakers learn that Grisha was a philanderer who cheated on Aida with other women. A sad, powerful and intriguing film, Aida’s Secrets purports to be about families displaced by war and atrocities. But what happened to these unfortunate brothers may have had more to do with the sins of their father than the horrors of war.

Obscure 1976 Cult Film The Astrologer Resurfaces

“YOUR DREAMS ARE MUCH TOO LARGE,” a carnival barker tells his sidekick Craig in the bizarre, laughably bad yet thoroughly enjoyable 1976 movie The Astrologer. Craig Denney plays the main character and also directed this nearly forgotten curiosity that combines mysticism, international adventure and crime while telling a disjointed story of a megalomaniac’s rise and fall. 

Denney’s own dreams may have been too large, as well. He didn’t secure rights to the Moody Blues songs he used in the film, so the movie was never officially released and has rarely been seen. But now the non-profit American Genre Film Archive has rescued The Astrologer from oblivion with a scratchy print this is occasionally being shown at festivals and midnight screenings.

Reportedly financed by a horoscope publisher called Moonhouse International, which Denney himself founded and chaired, and based on his novel of the same name, The Astrologer was acquired by now-defunct B-movie producer and distributor Republic Arts Pictures, which Denney led as chief executive. The film’s title theme, credited to orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, reportedly was used without Mehta’s knowledge.

The movie seems to have been destined to show at midnight for giggling, stoned audiences. Shot in garish colors on 16mm film, The Astrologer recalls the early underground cinema of John Waters—with the main difference being that Waters was funny on purpose. Denney apparently took his material seriously and had no idea how awful it was. Dialogue in the script by Dorothy June Pidgeon is atrocious, with Denney declaiming in a suave newscaster voice amid abrupt, non-sequitur cuts.

The plot, as much as it can be followed, finds Craig discovering that his psychic powers are real, not just a con, when he accurately reads the palm of a beautiful woman, Darrien (played by Darrien Earle) who falls for the carny’s pitch in Long Beach, Calif. She joins him in the traveling carnival, taking part in Craig’s magic act and occasionally picking the pockets of people in the audience. But after two years she’s had enough and leaves him.

Next, Craig improbably enjoys an afternoon picnic in a graveyard with a couple who have driven him there in a Rolls-Royce. They present Craig with an opportunity to become a diamond smuggler in Kenya, where he soon winds up in prison. His wealthy sponsors bail him out, and together they meet with a wild-eyed, loincloth-wearing tribal leader whom they bribe with booze and a rifle to learn where priceless gems are hidden in the nearby jungle. Craig and his cohorts find the stones easily enough, displayed openly on a stone ruin but protected by a cobra. The other man in the trio is struck by the snake and falls dead. Craig shoots the serpent and makes off with the jewels.

He and the woman then meet with an unscrupulous character in a hut who says he’ll give Craig a boat in exchange for the woman. They agree, and when Craig returns a few minutes later to find the man on top of her, he charges in and shoots him in the face with a rifle. Blood drips down the frame like animation from an old episode of the Batman TV show.

Craig then spends an idyllic interlude aboard a sailboat at sea, to the unlicensed strains of “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues. He comes ashore in Tahiti, and tries to fence the jewels in a tiki bar awash in lurid pink and orange, where the camera zooms in on cigarette butts in a urinal and women bare their breasts at the tables. But Craig is pursued by the guard from the prison in Kenya, who has followed him to Tahiti. Remarkably, given the film’s overall amateurish quality and apparent low budget, it was shot on location in Africa, Tahiti and France.

Before long Craig is back in California, where he provides his psychic services to the U.S. Navy for lucrative fees. He becomes a millionaire mogul when a movie about him—also called The Astrologer—is a huge hit. He hires a private detective to find Darrien, who has become a prostitute, drugged in a seedy hotel room where the phrases “God is Dead,” “Hell is Earth” and “Shit on Life” are written in lipstick on the mirror, and a rat runs along the window frame.

They soon marry, and their honeymoon makes front-page headlines on newspapers around the world. A scene in a gourmet restaurant where their dinner conversation devolves in slow-motion into an argument—ending with Darrien throwing a glass of wine in his face—almost qualifies as innovative avant garde filmmaking.

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