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Desolation and confusion
Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California
26 July 2009
California Company Town is a personal study of places created, mostly,
to meet the demands of industry, which have disintegrated, mostly, when
those demands or the resources changed. It's a one-woman operation: Lee
Anne Schmitt took five years, 2003-2008, to make this film with her own
sometimes poetic 16 mm location footage and varied archival material,
with her own monotonous, depressed-sounding voice-over providing
information about the locations she has chosen, blips on the map with
forgotten names like Buttonwillow, McCloud, Westwood, Darwin, Chester,
Scotia, Trona, Salton City and California City. They are towns that
served logging, mining, or industry. But not all fit those categories.
And that's where the trouble comes.
Robert Koehler of 'Variety' calls the film "spare, structurally
rigorous and politically dubious." Spare and politically dubious it
certainly is, but actually not so rigorous, since the places chosen
don't by any means always fit the "company town" designation. Some are
failed socialist or otherwise idealistic colonies, whose demise is
presented nostalgically. The film ends with a couple of completely
inappropriate choices. Some of the places have not died out; two at
least are very much alive, and there is no justification of the
inconsistency. Overall this seems like a graduate thesis that needed
its focus better defined and its supportive material more fully
expanded. While the place choices are inconsistent, the tidbits and
lore provided as commentary on the places are highly selective, often
arbitrary and sometimes maddeningly incomplete.
Schmitt studies desolation, to the exclusion of all else. Though many
of these towns are still inhabited, she does not interview people and
only once reports speaking to anybody. (Contrast Jia Zhangke's 24 City,
a study of industrial change almost overly rich in human content.) Face
time would spoil the desolate effect, but people with memories of
decaying places do exist, indeed many of these towns themselves are
still inhabited. But, no people. Instead, the filmmaker's information
comes from research whose sources she rarely gives. She often lingers
on torn wallpaper, graffiti, weather-beaten handwritten signs or pages
of books, working as if she were an art photographer of American places
in the vein of Stephen Shore or Lewis Baltz. Sometimes, focusing on
some old government signaler or a bit of bush, she lingers
unnecessarily long. But the effect of sadness and abandonment gets
across. That decay and disintegration are the inevitable outcome of
capitalism, as the film suggests, is where the politically dubious part
Inter-titles give the towns' names in tiny letters, as if to highlight
the current insignificance of these benighted places. And then comes
the voice-over, each town lingered on only four or five minutes. Often
Schmitt explains who owned the place and how a company changed hands,
exploited workers, destroyed unions, blocked strikes; or how a resource
ran out, as is the case with boron, or became toxic, as with the salt
lake adjacent to Salton City. The ghost town theme might justify
visiting some gold rush settlements, but there aren't any of those.
Salton City, by the way, is not desolate after all. Schmitt shows that
it has a renewed life, however dubious, as the site of cheap houses
sold for under $250,000 to service workers from Palm Springs.
Schmitt is aggressively ironic in her mockery of American kitsch
dreamers, providing excerpts spoken by FDR and Ronald Reagan, the
latter narrating a sappy old documentary about natural resources that
was funded by an oil company. But she is reverent in recounting how a
Utopian socialist community named a giant sequoia after Karl Marx.
Hardly a "company town" is Manzanar, the California site of one of the
WWII Japanese internment camps set up by the federal government. The
film shows ghostlike period footage obtained from the government
showing Japanese-American girls performing a mass display of
baton-twirling and other internees, most oddly, apparently putting on a
high-stepping blackface minstrel show. With this comes a smug
plummy-voiced recording of somebody (FDR?) justifying the internment
and even extolling the kindness of Americans as a model safeguarding
captured Yanks -- an idea that resonates painfully in the wake of
Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. But it's not so sure that Japanese Americans
with relatives who were in the camps will like this mere pungent blip
of a vignette, or feel the Nisei ordeal deserves inclusion with
business ventures gone bust just because Manzanar is abandoned now.
Most great cities have great locations, and any place that's hard to
reach and limited to a single function, like the classic pre-war
"company town," is likely to be short-lived, but these organic points
get lost in the film's politics.
Finally Schmitt abandons logic altogether by ending with Richmond and
Silicon Valley. Parts of Richmond look desolate, true, but other parts
look beautiful. Anyway, it's not only the site of a huge active Chevron
oil refinery but has a population of over 100,000 with eight or nine
other major employers, so why include it? Or, if you do, why not
explain how it differs from a fading mill town or Utopian settlement?
Why omit mention of how it boomed in the Forties as housing for
shipyard workers connected to their work by train? An odd vignette of
Eldridge Cleaver voicing black rage is, once again, tacked on here
without sufficient context. As for Silicon Valley, it's obviously a
region, not a town. Shots of grassy-knolled industrial parks, a lone
picnicker, and cars rushing around curved roads highlight the Silicon
Valley passage, which provides no voice-over. How can there be one?
There's no demise in view, and there are too many different companies
and a whole diverse active city, San Jose, to keep "Silicon Valley"
from being even metaphorically appropriate here.
If Schmitt doesn't like people, maybe she should stick to landscape and
cut the political commentary -- or become a still photographer, like
Baltz or Shore or Richard Misrach, whose work speaks volumes compared
to this film.
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