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Desolation and confusion

Author: 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 comes in.

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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