In the spare, structurally rigorous and politically dubious “California Company Town,” filmmaker Lee Anne Schmitt observes the life and (mostly) death of several of the Golden State’s company-owned towns with cool detachment and aesthetic miserabilism. As her camera trains on the collection of more or less ghost towns, her flat-toned narration imposes a p.o.v. that private property is mostly bad while failed California socialist collective towns are to be remembered nostalgically. Sure to be a desired item on the art fest circuit well into 2009, the pic’s vid life depends on whether Schmitt wants her 16mm work shown digitally.
Schmitt’s political line at first subtly woven into the work’s fabric, by the end — with the classic union song, “Which Side Are You On?” under the closing credits — is blunt. However, the film’s conclusions are banal and off the mark, while its depiction of a California and, by extension, the U.S., as a land of abject failure and death is, to put it mildly, worthy of rebuttal.
A CalArts alum and teacher under the considerable influence of master structuralist James Benning (“R/R”), Schmitt spent five years traveling the state visiting forgotten and abandoned communities, most owned and operated by logging, mining, agricultural and various industrial companies, or, in a couple of cases (as with the Japanese American internment camp at Manzanar), by the federal government. Each town (ID’d by title card) is given roughly four-to-five minutes of screen time, ordered in historical chronology from old NoCal logging towns like Chester and Scotia, on to 20th century desert burgs like Trona, Salton City and California City, and finishing with some irony in Silicon Valley.
In place after place, narrator Schmitt relates stories of cruel monopolies imposing their wills on worker-residents. From a formal standpoint, the accounts grow repetitive and, in Schmitt’s annoyingly (if intentionally) flat voice, fairly dull. As content, they describe a California history of unending corporate dictatorship, in which those who entered these towns should’ve abandoned all hope, and how left-wing opposition (via unions or, in a rare clip of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers) was inevitably crushed. Indeed, the ruins include those of former socialist-run communities and a vacant HQ for Cesar Chavez’s United Farms Workers.
Schmitt’s conclusion that private interests always lead to bad outcomes tends to ignore the reality that, as the world’s 10th largest economy, California has been, ever since the Gold Rush, a dynamic land full of both booms and busts. Indeed, the state’s highly diverse economy has rendered company townsunsustainable, the stuff of creaky 19th century-style capitalism. They’re dead for a reason.
Schmitt’s compositional sense, immediately visible in her earlier short films, is exceptional, displaying a potent ability to merge the decaying artifacts of human habitation with vast landscapes. The result is akin to visions of modern-day ruins haunted by barely dead ghosts.
This framing, as well as a use of found soundtrack clips, ties in with Benning’s work; but unlike Benning, Schmitt holds her shots for much shorter duration, and her choice of subjects (trash piles, graffiti, detritus flapping in the breeze) is more obvious and pointed. The starkest contrast with her former mentor is the miscalculated narration, suggesting Benning’s consistent decision to avoid it is probably wise.