Sneak Preview: “California Company Town”

by Peter Wong on March 26, 2009

Attendees at a recent Artists Television Access screening were treated to an unofficial sneak preview of one of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival official selections. Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema presented a video screening of Lee Ann Schmitt’s acclaimed experimental documentary “California Company Town.”

The titular towns referred to in Schmitt’s film were not set on lands where people voluntarily assembled to build a mutual future. What primarily brought the towns’ inhabitants together was the employment offered by a large institution and the “convenience” of living space near the place of employment. The worst of these towns deliberately built one access road for the town so the company could control its workers’ movements and activities. The filmmaker seemed to say a company town was a company town regardless of whether the employer was a lumber mill or a state prison. Once the employer left, the reason for the town’s existence generally left as well.

That point was underscored by the generally forgettable or mundane names of the towns visited by the film. Darwin was not named in honor of Charles Darwin. Richmond and Keene’s notoriety as the birthplaces of the Black Panthers and the United Farm Workers certainly didn’t arise via the efforts of Chevron Oil or an industrial farm owner.

Schmitt’s film paid visits to about a dozen such towns now abandoned by their original employers. Many of these former company towns captured by Schmitt’s camera have become decaying wood and steel graveyards of capitalism. What was once a thriving factory became a backdrop for an impromptu skate park. Where death by abandonment had not claimed a town, the inhabitants struggled to develop new reasons for the town’s continued existence. Palmdale became a working class bedroom community for Los Angeles, even if a “normal” one-way commute lasted three hours. A more extreme example of reinvention involved a company town becoming a faux 1870s Western town to bring in tourist dollars.

Schmitt seemed to see these social reinventions as avoiding addressing the central fault of company towns. The main industry of a company town may take oil or wood from the land where it was located. But unlike the healthy ecosystems that the film compares company towns to, companies usually returned nothing to the land after taking the land’s resources.

That lack of connection to the land perhaps explained why company towns died after the company moved on. The towns’ inhabitants were so used to relating to the land as a springboard for wealth generation that they could not conceive of developing a more positive relationship to the land. What little the viewer learned about the people who still lived in the company towns generally came from a distance. The film offered plenty of shots of the people-free streets of the somewhat thriving company towns. Over the soundtrack came excerpts from a religious broadcast which seemed to quell anger towards the big employer’s abandonment yet offered no real solutions.

Schmtt didn’t dictate a particular interpretation of her politically charged images. Instead, her visual vignettes provided small bits of history and ironies about a town. The viewer had the job of finding patterns in the sights she recorded. “California Company Town” could thus be a pointillistic portrait of capitalism’s shortcomings or at least a record of visits to zombie towns.

The documentary’s images easily lended themselves to mythic interpretations. A freight train endlessly emerging from a tunnel recalled the Midgard Serpent, the agent of universal death in Norse legend. Then again, weren’t company towns part of George W. Bush’s myth that capitalism provided the breath of life to democracy?

(“California Company Town” screens at the S.F. International Film Festival. Dates to be announced.)

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