A social and aesthetic document of promise betrayed, Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town records, through a series of mostly fixed-take still lifes, the gutted remainders of a couple dozen modern-day ghost towns scattered across the West Coast landscape. Opening with a soundbite from our disgraced 43rd President identifying “America’s tradition” as a commitment to “freedom,” Schmitt’s film goes on to chart the frustration of the country’s pledges of personal autonomy and the failure of the endless opportunity promised by American progress and industry. As she travels up and down the coast, the filmmaker documents a full range of public detritus: failed utopian projects, misguided land schemes gone to seed, and most significantly, the abandoned communities created by various California business concerns—oil, lumber, the military—to house their workers, only to, first, suppress any attempts of these workers to improve their conditions and, later, to close up shop altogether, leaving entire decimated villages in their wake.
Schmitt’s working method is to transpose period archival footage—often just audio tracks—onto original 16mm visual material, supplementing the found footage with contemporary radio broadcasts, rock and folk music, and her own context-filling narration. At one point, the filmmaker, in a voice bowed with sorrow, relates how she watched a mill worker spend his entire evening drinking a solitary six-pack in the doorway of his house, the sadness of the observation counterpointed by the calm desolation of a few fixed takes of the mill itself. More often, the audio and video tracks directly collide as the positive rhetoric of ancient boosterism audible on the soundtrack finds its natural corrective in the damning evidence uncovered by Schmitt’s camera. While these juxtapositions may occasionally tread a little too close to an easy audio/video irony, the desolate gravity of the visuals always speaks for itself.
In McKittrick, the camera tracks past an endless series of pumpjacks drawing oil from an eerily depopulated field in which human workers are no longer required. In Darwin, a former mining town, Schmitt takes us inside a dilapidated shack, lingering on an empty milk bottle perched atop a dust-caked chair and the few recognizable scraps of a winter-themed wallpaper still clinging to their rotting foundation. But for all the obvious miseries of the film’s present-tense footage, running throughout the project is the sense that, despite the official rhetoric of opportunity, there was never much in the way of promise attached to the film’s locales to begin with. The outrages pile up: blacks and Italians forced to build their own housing in one company town while their non-ethnic counterparts are given prefabricated homes, the brutal suppression of a CIO-endorsed strike in another town, even the Japanese internment camps of WWII are touched on.
California Company Town is ultimately a film that asks, in a country whose official rhetoric has always been saturated with empty talk of individual opportunity, what meaning can the idea of personal freedom finally have? The two official sound clips that touch on the concept—Bush’s opening words and a later bite equating freedom with anti-communism—are treated more than a little sardonically, the second juxtaposed with archival footage of a drab ‘50s suburban tract. In the film, the concept of freedom is intimately linked with either the establishment of a utopian community in which land is divided among the members or the ideal of individual ownership—both possibilities viewed with precious little optimism throughout.
Appearing at a moment in American history in which a record number of homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages, in which the word “freedom” has been banalized into a bit of vacant rhetoric, and in which economic confidence is at an all-time low, Schmitt’s work records, with an inquisitive eye and a touch of irony, the always tenuous link between ideal and practice in the public life of the nation. Only in the film’s final section, a succession of views of Silicon Valley fields and offices, an obvious contrast to the poverty of the preceding locales, does the filmmaker allow for any sign of (dubious) promise. Of course, given the fate of the other sites documented throughout the film, what type of future can we expect for even the most prosperous of California company towns?