California Company Town scopes out lands of the lost
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This land isn't your land, or my land, and it wasn't made for you and me such is the insightful and incite-full impression one gets from California Company Town, Lee Anne Schmitt's beautifully photographed, concisely narrated, and ominously structured look at the Golden State and the state of capitalism. Sneak previewing at Other Cinema for one night before it screens in full 16mm glory at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival, Schmitt's labor of love, shot between 2003 and 2008, is a provocative piece of American history. On a semi-buried level, it's also an extraordinary act of personal filmmaking that subverts various stereotypes of first-person storytelling by women while simultaneously learning from and breaking away from some esteemed directors of the essay film.
Categorically speaking, Schmitt's left-leaning survey of the American landscape belongs next to recent cinematic people's histories such as Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One (2002) and John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007). Her dedicated photographer's eye for still-life truths of American sightseeing is influenced by Cal Arts filmmaking elder James Benning, while her carefully selective use of archival audio in particular, radio makes California Company Town an understated female answer to the gay reading of homophobia in Ohio within William E. Jones's too-obscure classic of new queer cinema, Massillon (1991).
One by one, California Company Town investigates this state's ghost towns doom-laden boomtowns of the past where today, at best, bedazzled modern day cowboys and cowgirls reside and line dance for tourists. Surveying forgotten landscapes that verge on post-human, Schmitt has an eye for signs of the times, whether they be literal ("USA WILL PREVAIL" on a theater's marquee in Westwood; "Stay out" spray-painted over a "Prayer Changes Things" billboard in Trona) or figurative: spider webs of broken glass; a tree falling through the roof of a house; punk rock kids skateboarding near factory ruins. She pairs these sights with the sounds of speeches by FDR, Eldridge Cleaver, Cesar Chavez, Ronald Reagan, radio testimonials, and most contentiously her deceptively flat voice-over, which renders each titular site as a place that looks like a dead end yet has roiling life beneath its stingy, abandoned surface.
California Company Town is a one-woman road movie. A lonely film, but also an act of strong resolve built to last and, in its original filmic form, slowly decay. Over and over, from Chester to Scotia through to McCloud and even Richmond, Schmitt traces the varied yet similar ways in which private interests crush community and exploit natural resources. In the process, she reveals the ultimate forfeiting of American pride of ownership. Grim stuff, yet presented in a manner that ultimately flouts the dry speechifying of academia, doctrinaire ideologues, and public television pablum-pushers. Schmitt concludes her film with a mute final gesture designed to start arguments.
CALIFORNIA COMPANY TOWN
Sat/21, 8:30 p.m.; $6
Other Cinema at Artists' Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
CALIFORNIA COMPANY TOWN is also screening April 30, May 2, and May 4 at various venues as part of the Golden Gate Awards Competition in the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival. www.sffs.org>.