In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Conor Bateman looks at the experimental documentary California Company Town, from Lee Anne Schmitt.
Date Watched: 5th March, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 4
As the ‘best of the decade’ lists rolled in circa December 2009, Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) wrote a piece for CinemaScope as part of their “The Decade in Review” series. In typical Andersen fashion, rather than provide a list of his own, much of his piece analysed someone else’s work, here Film Comment’s poll for best of the 2000s. At one point he criticises the return to Old Hollywood convention, through the celebration of studio fare like No Country for Old Men and Million Dollar Baby, yet notes:
There is still some hope for American cinema in the messy movies, like Inland Empire (2006), as haunted and haunting as a nightmare, and Zodiac (2007), as meandering and inconclusive as life, which can stand comparison with the best messy experimental films of the decade, such as Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death (2004), Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town and Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land (both 2008).
This paragraph was the one to most directly pique my interest. Not only does he colour Fincher’s Zodiac as a beautiful meandering mess (which is such a great description of it), he also cites INLAND EMPIRE and the modern holy grail of experimental American cinema, Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death. Recently I’ve been watching some of Jacobs’ shorts and they’ve impressed me a lot, in particular the brilliant Perfect Film, so when two other films are held up as something of equals to Jacobs’ magnum opus (yet unseen by this writer), I immediately sought them out. Both are available on Vimeo, and both have very few views on Letterboxd. That seems to be a trend with experimental cinema, the divide between art installation and theatre showing sees many films fall through the cracks into obscurity. Unless someone like Thom Andersen is pointing you in the right direction, it’s not always easy to get access, or even look for in the first place, engaging and interesting experimental cinema.
California Company Town is an unusual travelogue, the points of interest the abandoned working towns of once-evolving industries, with Schmitt moving through the arid Californian landscape like a location scout working on a post-apocalyptic thriller. She shoots on 16mm film, and CCT feels like it could have been shot decades ago, if not for the voiceover from Schmitt herself, which tells us which corporations owned which town until when. The focus of the film is ostensibly the way in which companies and people have destroyed the natural landscape, or perhaps vice versa, in the pursuit of profit (companies) or a better life (employees). We move from timber and mining towns to ‘seaside’ resorts, a massive prison town and, then finally, Silicon Valley, the latest in the long line of booming industries making Californian soil its home.
The very nature of tracking the bust-and-boom towns brings about a comparison to P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, shots of oil refineries notwithstanding. It’s because so many of these towns were set up for the sole purpose of industry, and when that industry falters, either the major company declares bankruptcy or sells, leaving the workers in those towns stuck in the desert with no job. So many of the towns we move through in the first half of the film were owned by one family each, who held claim not only to the factories but also the schools, homes and, in one town, the unions within it.
Peter Greenaway once said in an interview that “I feel that the cinema we’ve got after 100 years is in some cases not a cinema at all, but a history of illustrated text… We know cinema is very hybrid, very mongrel, and still hasn’t found an autonomy for itself. But I don’t think it should be used simply to illustrate literature.” This idea of replicating textual narrative, though Greenaway focused primarily on narrative driven conventional cinema, can be applied to the documentary form as well. So many modern documentaries could be reduced to a mostly interesting non-fiction book, in fact a lot of them actually stem from non-fiction books, and so experimental documentary might then be defined as an analytical survey of a concept sans the usual trapping of structure and form, less boundary pushing than ignoring the boundaries altogether. It’s what separates a film like California Company Town from Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl.1
Early on Schmitt quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “land was a remedy to whatever was false and fantastic in culture”, but she qualifies the quote by noting that “by land, he meant nature.” Industry and the American ideal is what appears as false and fantastic in Schmitt’s film, and nature is its victim. The film isn’t merely a didactic historical account or overly politicised film, rather, Schmitt uses locked off shots and holds each image to create a sense of the meditative; nature’s rhythms existing in spite of the ruined buildings within it. Primarily because of that visual approach, James Benning is an obvious influence on how California Company Town appears, both its visual style, which evokes Benning’s Deseret, but also in its title cards, which evoke Landscape Suicide.2
Not content merely to chronicle a linear history, Schmitt indulges us at points with a her ironic wit. At one point early in the film she plays the opening credits to a short documentary about nature conservation from (presumably), the late 1950s, only to reveal the narrator is Ronald Reagan and that the film was bankrolled by an oil company. Even the way the film ends, in Silicon Valley, with no accompanying voiceover, suggests an amusingly cynical approach to the cycles of capitalist growth. The use of music throughout also showcases a skill for juxtaposition. In the first few minutes of the film a short snippet of John Lennon’s “Imagine” plays faintly in the background. At another point we hear a school choir singing a hymn over shots of an abandoned baseball diamond. In voiceover, Schmitt then tells us this is a recording of the last school choir performance in the town of Eagle Mountain.3
Not only does the film look at the empty promise of industrialisation, it also touches on American history more broadly. At one point we hear a re-purposed voiceover from a radio interview talks of “the Japs” and how “we hated them all”, Schmitt then cutting to an abandoned field and hollowed out factory, revealing that it once was the place of an internment camp for Japanese-American citizens during World War II.4 We then watch film Schmitt obtained from the national archive, which shows a staged sense of happy life within the camps. This internment becomes its own industry capable of producing and sustaining lies, ideologically intertwined with both the military towns and the massive prison we see later. It’s a vague sense of history repeating itself.
That’s what California Company Town trafficks in often, this vague idea of cyclical history. Though the point becomes clear as the film moves on, Schmitt is willing to let the images speak for themselves so much of the time. The film almost washes over you, and the rare invocation of old footage helps this sustained sense. The focus, at least visually, isn’t merely how the buildings were abandoned, but that they are abandoned, that they exist today, reminders of a past, yet also a present-day eyesore oft ignored and overlooked.