Monday, July 20, 2009

Schmitt's CALIF. COMPANY TOWN -- quiet, beautiful, bracing -- opens at AFA; also Q&A

Of all the states in the USA, California has long held a place among the most popular -- and the most promising. Greeley's "Go west, young man!" remains as applicable today as when it was first uttered (1851). Over the decades a lot of people did just that, and many of them ended up in one or another of the 20-odd towns profiled by artist/filmmaker Lee Anne Schmitt in her unusual documentary California Company Town.

The companies included in CA Co. Town are (or were) involved in everything from logging to mining, and most of them managed to despoil resources, sometimes spreading toxicity in their wake. Most have also closed their doors, leaving their businesses bankrupt, their town a dead husk, and their workers to their own devices, which -- considering their low pay and the fact that some of the companies sold their housing out from under them -- amount to damn little. This is not a pretty story, yet Ms Schmitt does not beat it to death. Her voice (she's the narrator) is pleasant, intelligent and unraised; her film is starkly beautiful, quiet and unhurried. Lasting only 76 minutes, it covers a lot of territory, physically -- California is a long state -- and metaphorically.

What makes the film so fascinating are the many details Schmitt offers up along the way, as she travels from one desolation to the next. She finds visual beauty in the starkness, as artists are wont to do, as well as telling bits of information regarding the companies and their owners, the towns and their workers. In McCloud, CA, we hear snippets of religious radio, and Ms. Schmitt learns that, in the early days, Blacks (no surprise) and Italians (some surprise) were paid less than other workers. Did the Sacco & Vanzetti craziness take its toll here, too? We're made privy to the Utopian Socialist agenda of Kaweah, CA (a town that no longer even exists), and in Boron, CA, the Pacific Coast Borax Company -- which dug for Boron and produced Boraxo -- is now owned by a mining company in Spain. In Buttonwillow, CA, a two-bit circus appears to be one of the only games left in town.

The saddest portion of the movie? A toss-up between Eagle Mountain, CA -- where the choral group of the final high school class performs on the soundtrack, as the town literally closes down around it -- and Adelanto, CA, where toxicity levels, long cancerous, are still so, even though the town itself closed down in 1992. Wait: Maybe it's California City, CA, built to compete with the likes of Los Angeles, but today is the home of nothing more than one huge prison. Though many of these towns rose on the hopes and dreams of their founders, the film remains a critique of capitalism that barely mentions the word itself. Instead, Ms Schmitt's show-and-tell is dense with detail and empathy.

CA Co. Town may help cure, or at least counter, our nation's increasingly short memory. Even if not (the short memory does seem a treasured possession for many of America's citizenry), it will stand as quiet, beautiful, sorrowful, irrefutable testimony. The documentary screens at New York City's Anthology Film Archives, beginning this Friday, July 24, through Thursday, July 30, daily at 7 and 9pm. Special 5:15 matinees will be added on Saturday and Sunday. Ms Schmitt herself will be in town taking Q&As on July 24th, 25th and 26th at the 7pm and 9pm shows. She may be at the 5:15 shows on the weekend as well.


Although filmmaker/artist Lee Anne Schmitt, shown below, had a friend's wedding to attend this past weekend, she made time for a half-hour interview prior to her coming appearance in NYC to introduce her film at AFA. Below are highlights:

TrustMovies: Is that you narrating California Company Town?

Lee Anne Schmitt: It is. A lot of my shorter pieces -- and now this one -- use my voice.

It’s a good voice. Quiet, pleasurable, intelligent -- but not lulling. When did you first make the movie?

I started out, as I often do, before I had a very clear idea. It stemmed from my move to California from Chicago. I moved here ten years ago, to go to grad school. I spent the first couple of years trying to get around the place. A lot of my work, even my photography, is based on industrial landscape. At first I drove around and got to know the place. Some of the places I went during my first year here, I didn’t even know what I was doing, exactly, but it has turned out that some of the film that I shot then, I have actually used now.

I think I began to have a clear idea for the film maybe five years ago. That was when the film really started. It began very specifically at the Tehachapi Loop in Central California. It’s very beautiful there and there’s a lot of history -- the Chinese workers who built the loop, for instance -- but a lot of it is hidden history.

One of the major things that kept my attention were all the really interesting details and facts you provide about the various towns, so different one from the other – both the facts and the towns themselves.

I am always looking for ways to view history that are much more interesting that what we often get here in the US. You want to see a process that you can carry from place to place. But you also what to honor the individual place and how it is indicative of its particular history.

I feel certain you must have read Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the US?

Yes, several times. The first time was in high school.

Wow --was it assigned to you?

Yes. I had a really great history teacher in High School. Sometimes you‘re lucky with just one teacher.

In the PR sent out to us about the film, it almost sounds like an art project rather than a documentary. Yet it is very political.

My roots in film are initially from image-based, art exploration. A lot of people I studied with do essay work. Although, if I look back at it (I went to school at Northwestern University), much of my early work makes a lot of sense in terms of what I now do. I think I come at things from the experience of image. But I also have a lot of background in issues of historical documentation. The two don’t separate that much for me. Nor does it in the films from other people whose work I really love -- Johan Van der Kueken, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker. There’s that old trope that form and content should not really cleave. You can look at something as film, but you cannot separate the film from its content.

What are you working on now?

The entire time I was working on this California Company Town, I was concurrently working on another piece – about the ideas of the west and the frontier, but via a look at the last, free-roaming herd of buffalo in the U.S. -- in Utah. There are free-roaming herds still in Canada.

What is this buffalo film called – and when will it be completed?

The Last Buffalo Hunt. I am trying to finish that one now, and I hope to have it done some time in the fall of 2009.

I am also, very preliminarily, starting up a new project to do with John Brown, the abolitionist. I sort of imagine this to be a complicated project, maybe ending up as a couple of smaller films that will speak to each other.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, while I have you in my clutches?

The thing that always sort of feels important to me, particularly here in the US, is to just have acknowledged that there is this whole line of alternative work going on with some of us filmmakers. Sometimes I think the very idea of documentaries in this country can get really limiting.

Wow -- for me, who am suddenly seeing more and more documentaries that are so different, one from another, it seems much less limited.

I'm not sure if things are much more vibrant now, but I know a lot of diverse types of work get made. I'm sure that a very diverse body of work gets screened here in the U.S. A lot of very different films have been seen, such as John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.

How difficult was it for you to get this week’s screening at Anthology Film Archives?

Not hard at all. I guess it was organic. It actually came to me, a little bit. I have been very lucky in that way. People seem to respond to the film. There was a natural way that the film has found people. Though, for me, it’s been hard to get U.S. screenings, in general.

Is it easier abroad?

It’s interesting that my film has been shown a lot more abroad than it has been here. Although, because the film is about California and its shifting landscape, it does seem important that it be shown here. I shouldn’t complain because, as an alternative, independent filmmaker, I have been very lucky. I don't think it's the fact that audiences aren't interested in alternative documentaries, but rather that it's more a limitation about the way films are curated and discussed in this country. Genres are very rigid, and limiting.

I think American audiences look first to be entertained before they are willing to sit and learn.

Perhaps. They look for entertainment and for a way of finding information -- but a very specific way to find that information. And a specific way of seeing politics and information. Like the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 or the film of Fast Food Nation. Not to disparage those films, but this is a little more limited way to seeing the subjects that these films discuss. Alternative documentaries seem to me to be a little more… philosophical.

(All photos courtesy of Lee Anne Schmitt.)

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