Features | Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: Lee Anne Schmitt on California Company Town

By Max Goldberg

The title California Company Town evokes the nondescript captioning of survey photography, and Lee Anne Schmitt’s 80-minute landscape film is, in one sense, exactly that. But California Company Town is also a ghost story, radiating absence. At the edges, there is a voice—Schmitt’s own, reciting chiselled commentary with the dreamy reticence of someone reading road signs aloud. Signs: There are many in California Company Town, enough to make it seem that Schmitt is collecting them. One dangles in front of derelict construction in Richmond, taunting citizens with “Another Quality Affordable Homeownership Opportunity.” A triangular “Department of the Interior” emblem in Sequoia National Park—where, we learn, the socialist commune of Kaweah was evicted in the name of land preservation in 1892—is pleasing to the eye but pocked by gunshots. In the context of Schmitt’s travelling archive, signs all pose the same staggering question: What happened here?

At a certain point we realize that California Company Town is moving chronologically through the different industries that have written themselves upon the American west. Every few minutes we pull up to another town, and Schmitt moves her magnifying glass over some crumbs of its history. Her decision not to refer to a map allows the film’s expository information to be contained within the contemplation of landscape rather than the other way around. The frames are generally devoid of human activity, giving us the feeling that Schmitt is collecting evidence—but evidence of what? The very notion of emptiness seems up for grabs: the desolation of Schmitt’s delicate 16mm footage jostles against tourist replicas of the old west, wilderness frescos, and the romantic vistas of forgotten promotional films like the color-drained Heritage of Splendor (1963, narrated by Ronald Reagan and sponsored by the Richfield Oil Company).

California Company Town is certainly a model essay-film, but it’s also something of an ark for its many pathways to the past. Most documentary filmmakers marshal pre-existing sounds and images to illustrate an argument—the present is safely assumed. Schmitt, like the novelist W.G. Sebald, treats the archive as a live thing, stirring its voices so that they rise to the surface of the film’s palimpsest-like landscapes. Both the towns and archival materials figure as ruins, unfurling the half-lives of a country that still doesn’t have its mind made up about itself. One thinks of Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even finished.”

When a speech by César Chávez echoes through the abandoned United Farm Workers’ headquarters in Keene, it seems that the space itself is animated with memory. Elsewhere, California Company Town is haunted by FDR’s Good Neighbor policy, the bully pulpit of several “Voice of God” documentary narrations, and the ethereal strains of the Eagle Mountain high-school choir, recorded just before the school was dissolved. Schmitt also incorporates radio postcards from her journeys: evangelical sermons, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” a local-access dispatch on the Hegelian dialectic, and so forth. These turns of the dial furnish the film with an overarching metaphor: history as radio, comprising different frequencies and interceding static.

The first such signal in California Company Town carries the voice of George W. Bush—fitting since the five years Schmitt spent working on the film bracketed his second term. These were the years when swollen promises of an “ownership society” crumbled in plain sight of domestic abandonment. In Schmitt’s film, darkening imagery of prisons, internment camps, and environmental disasters carry us into the present tense. A final pair of trespassing portraits decisively tilts California Company Town towards barbed critique. Here we have two versions of the contemporary California company town, less than 60 miles apart: Richmond, where Chevron pumps $20 billion of annual profit amidst impoverishment; and Silicon Valley, where glassy offices peak out from plush greenery, and workers stroll at a leisurely pace.

Interestingly enough, one finds the same contrast in The City (1939), the classic New Deal documentary urging citizens to leave behind strangled industrial centres for the vague dream of a clean company town. What was then fantasy has since hardened into inequity, and Schmitt’s music selection for the closing credits (Florence Reece’s brittle labour song, “Which Side Are You On?”) kicks up the dust of dissent. Reece’s coal-mining ballad, famously used in Harlan County USA (1976), etches a geographically specific history of violence. Replanted in California Company Town’s fertile soil, its thrusting verses seem as much a prophecy as a lament. The song, like nearly everything in Schmitt’s film, is a study in revision, that strange process by which a work is completed and the past is known.

CINEMA SCOPE: How did you begin work on California Company Town?

LEE ANNE SCHMITT: I moved to California from Chicago to go to graduate school in 1998. During that time I went to a lot of these places, but not with the idea of making a film, just more to shoot some photos and try to figure the place out. It’s jarring coming from a concentrated city to Southern California. I did my thesis project on Clifford Odets and put this work aside until after I graduated in 2003. The piece about the Tehachapi Loop being so close to the UFW Headquarters was there in 1999. I was interested in combining those two spaces, but the larger scope of the project took a while. It was probably a year into shooting it that I realized it would be as long as it is.

SCOPE: It’s interesting that you maintained that connection between the Tehachapi Loop and the UFW Headquarters, since it’s really one of the only places in the film where you draw a clear geographic relation.

SCHMITT: It was important to push the idea, at least a couple of times in the film, that some of these things are very close to each other and that their histories are touching, because they all are kind of next to each other.

SCOPE: Or on top of each other.

SCHMITT: Or replacing each other. That was very much at the beginning, knowing I wanted an old ghost town, a tourist town. Darwin was one of the first places I knew really well; I used to go out there all the time. It’s where the Sierras go into the desert, and you drive right past Darwin in that transition. I reshot it a few times. My first encounter there was like many of my encounters when I started shooting. In a lot of places I did actually have to crawl through a fence to get in. Halfway through shooting Darwin the first time, this guy pulls up in a reconditioned Volkswagen with this huge ZZ Top beard and a giant dog. At first he said, “You’re not allowed to be here,” and by the end he was serving me herbal tea in this old reconfigured house. People would constantly seem one thing and then be another. Everyone has a weird story about how they ended up as the caretaker of an abandoned town.

SCOPE: Even though you don’t include it in the film, you can sense all that anecdotal history in the background.

SCHMITT: One of my fears was doing a quirky California thing, but I have this whole collection of maps people drew for me. It’s probably apocryphal, but more than one desert guy drew me a map on how to go the back way to China Lake. There’s supposedly a town where they moved people out in a week. Everyone says that all the cars are still there, which doesn’t make any sense. I have all these maps of dirt roads that don’t correspond to anything I can find.

SCOPE: Was it always clear to you that you didn’t want to use a map as a framing device?

SCHMITT: The film is chronological now, but at some point I did move regionally trying to do the same thing. But there were certain things that just didn’t make sense when I was shooting, and the chronology ends up working better. I think it’s frustrating for some people, but I also think it’s really useful to feel disoriented. If you’re in the film’s experience, I think you realize that the information’s not accumulating towards anything all that tangible, but that it’s just kind of accumulating and building up. I tried to structure it so it makes sense at 80 minutes, but it could go on in a lot more detail. The first voiceover I wrote was 40 pages of anecdotes and information about things like the breakdown of water legislation, land legislation, homesteading acts.

SCOPE: It seems like the accumulation of all these stray historical fragments correlates with the form of using this windup Bolex camera where you only have a 30-second limit. Is it accurate to say the film is also about you interacting with this machine?

SCHMITT: Sure, I mean there are a lot of economies that were just part of the project. Shooting with a Bolex, or later when I was shooting with an SR-2, film is expensive, and you’re very aware of trying to cover something in a specific way, as comprehensively as you can. I would say that I lost most of my favourite shots of the first year of editing at some point and replaced them with longer shots, shots that are maybe a bit more banal.

SCOPE: What kind of effect do you think that has?

SCHMITT: Well, I think the romance of the abandoned town can really be seductive, so this is that second phase of a relationship where you get past the initial excitement and get into the things you don’t know. There is footage that I shot in the very early stages that I kept, but my shooting changed as I looked at more and more archives and different projects that tried to do something comprehensive through still photographs, like the WPA photographs or even something like William Eggleston’s Los Alamos project. People will ask why I have so many long shots, and there are only two shots that are one or two minutes long. It’s interesting the way people perceive the time of it.

SCOPE: I wonder how much of that just has to do with not seeing many people in the frame.

SCHMITT: It’s funny, I never thought of that until it was almost done. I have a lot of video interviews with people, but it never even occurred to me to cross the two. I knew that I mostly wanted people to be in an archive or in the remnants that they left behind.

SCOPE: I want to talk about your voiceover, since it sounds like you went through different phases and at some points even considered not using it. It furnishes the material with a reflective distance, and it’s interesting how introducing a woman’s voice into this landscape affects our sense of how it has previously been viewed and used. What were your priorities in terms of the writing itself and your reading of the script?

SCHMITT: Writing as simply as possible is really important to me—to me, that’s always the sign of good writing. I knew it was important it be my voice, and I knew it was important to give a sense that I had travelled shooting these things, but I didn’t want it to be a travelogue. I would watch the footage and speak into a sound device and cut that into the film, then transcribe it, and then copyedit it. For a year, that was the writing process, and then I went through and changed the order and did the same thing from that text. A lot of times the grammar of the text wouldn’t fit the grammar of the film. I sent it to a couple of people I trust to copyedit, and in some cases I actually went with the less correct grammar because the rhythm felt better. And then finally, I went into the studio and recorded one version and cut that in, and then had to do another version and did more editing for tempo. It was a huge process. I get a little stymied in terms of its being a female voice because at some fundamental level, it’s a female voice because it’s my film. I hesitate to read it as this very political act for it just to be a woman’s voice, but it’s true that it’s somewhat rare to hear a female voice speaking political text that’s not identity-based.

SCOPE: Can you talk a little more about your use of archives? I heard Rick Prelinger talking the other day about the archive as a site of active engagement, and it made me think of your film.

SCHMITT: As part of the process of researching I went to the National Archives in Maryland; I think everyone should spend a week there. For one, you can. You can look at all this firsthand material, and there’s so much about it that’s fascinating. Just the way things are grouped together is interesting. Everything come from different sources, and the National Archive keeps the cataloguing system of whatever collection it comes from—so there’s thousands of different cataloguing systems. It’s almost impossible to move directly towards something. Then there’s the stuff on the back of the photographs, the stuff Dorothea Lange wrote on her proofs, the stuff the archivist wrote in the ‘40s, the stuff subsequent archivists have done, the stuff that was or wasn’t considered important.

SCOPE: Watching the film, I definitely have the sense that you’re exploring how these documents reveal themselves over time. In the Westwood sequence, you include the handwritten caption under the photograph of the strikebreakers, and it’s moving imagining this hand so close to the events.

SCHMITT: I’d love to do a project that does a lot more with the archiving thing. There’s something revelatory about these layers of people and how they saw things—and they’re histories that aren’t even that old. In the museum in McCloud, they had junk that had been left behind, so there were all these private property signs and signs that were put up when the river got contaminated. They just put it in the museum because they put anything in the museum—anything with the McCloud name. It’s the same thing with some of the houses in Trona or Darwin. They’re archives of someone’s life that nobody cared about. Even they didn’t care about them. They would leave their bills, family photos, and you’re wondering: How does this get left behind? I’m sure there was a logic, and you have to be really careful not to make a lot of assumptions at every point. One thing about the decision as to whether or not to include voice is that images can be really seductive, and you need ways to counterpoint and complicate people’s reactions.

SCOPE: In the McCloud photograph, you focus on the faces of a few African-American and women workers. In that case, you’re pointing towards these contingencies of history without even verbalizing them.

SCHMITT: Yeah, and when you see something like that you wonder: How did that work? What happened four years later? In the footage from the internment camp in Manzanar, there’s a talent show and all these Japanese women are dancing in blackface. It’s actually very easy to read in some ways: that’s what happens, people get turned on each other. But it definitely complicates this reading of villains, victims, and heroes. It’s not that simple at all. I think there’s a little bit of a myth that when you humanize things, you understand them better. Sometimes when you humanize things, really and honestly, it gets harder to understand, but in useful ways. So I was always trying to choose something that would be a little bit difficult to close off or get behind.

SCOPE: How does opening the film with Bush’s voice work in that sense?

SCHMITT: Sometimes I think that’s a mistake. What interests me is that nothing he says in that section is wrong. The reason I chose it is that he actually provides a very useful topic sentence for the film. You know, it is America’s tradition, and if you believe in a certain morality, he’s right. Except that we haven’t lived up to that morality, ever. But he’s talking about the same legacy that I’m referencing in the film. The rest of the speech—it’s on the fifth anniversary of the war—is much easier to parse in terms of the specific historical moment. Rhetoric really interests me, the way that language lives in different ways.

SCOPE: There’s something interesting about it being a radio signal too, that it’s in the air for you to run into. And with the archival material, it’s travelling in time and space to meet you where the film is.

SCHMITT: I think space and time can sometimes just let you hear things. I remember when I was driving around Fontana, which is another Kaiser town, on Martin Luther King Day. They were playing all these speeches, and it’s not like I didn’t agree with the texts before, but I heard it in this way that was really profound. A lot of times with the radio, I was in a really interesting place to hear things. There’s so much faith, foolhardy or not, in a lot of these places, like Llano Del Rio [a socialist commune in the desert which lasted from 1915-1917]. There’s no water there. If you’re out there it seems a really difficult place to want to set all these idealistic thoughts, but people did.

SCOPE: For all the ways beliefs can manifest, though, there are just as many ways they can be erased. There’s the irony, for instance, of the utopian society in Kaweah being cleared out under the guise of wilderness.

SCHMITT: Well, wilderness is fascinating. You get into the same discussions with use and art: There’s a pure idea of land, and a pure idea of art, and I think both of them are flawed and deeply troubling. I love the National Park System, but so many people don’t understand the politics of how it was created, and it wasn’t even that long ago. It’s a huge part of this history, so you try to create a situation where people can look at things and maybe have a different response than they expect.

SCOPE: You did the Richmond and Silicon Valley segments after the rest, right?

SCHMITT: Yes, very late in the shooting. Richmond’s easier to talk about, because I did kind of want to come home. It isn’t really in the film, but Richmond is where my father had his first job, that was his first industry. And I wanted to come back for other reasons: I had been reading about these protests about the war outside the Richmond plant, and I read this editorial about how people were really upset about this Iraqi oil coming in and not so upset about the general issues with the oil companies, that energy consumption isn’t entirely about dependence on Arab nations. There was a phase when I thought I was going to end up in Hollywood, back in Los Angeles because that’s where I lived.

SCOPE: It’s interesting how Los Angeles creeps in there in a couple of places—when you explain that Llano Del Rio is now the outer edge of the Los Angeles commute and how the city was considering Eagle Mountain as a landfill site.

SCHMITT: Some of that was probably just organic to my living in Los Angeles: the day drive set some parameters in Southern California. There’s no question that Los Angeles also dominates a lot of Southern California, but I just fell out of love with that argument. It just didn’t seem to be what I was talking about. Until I figured out the chronological structure, I didn’t really have the ending.

SCOPE: It’s such a powerful graphic contrast, moving to Silicon Valley where everything is well-watered and the landscape is manicured. It makes something click.

SCHMITT: In Richmond you can look at this six-mile refinery and it’s omnipresent in every direction, and so much of the landscaping in Cupertino is meant to blend in. It’s the tip of the iceberg in a way. Most of the technology of those companies, the actual old-school infrastructure, isn’t even there. It seems like such a clean industry.

SCOPE: Right, that was my response, that there’s this illusion that there is no industry.

SCHMITT: There’s this great Gertrude Stein quote from the essay, “Reflections on the Atomic Bomb:” “Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural.” Silicon Valley and the song [“Which Side Are You On?”] came at the same time in terms of being put into the edit, and it was done as I was cutting the actual negative. I was cutting the negative last summer, and that was a really particular time to be finishing this long film. It’s interesting how a lot of people want to relate the film to the housing crisis.

SCOPE: Doesn’t that go along with this idea of rhetoric, how it seems to activate what’s around you at that moment?

SCHMITT: Sure, of course, and that’s great too. But I think if you talk too much about what the film is you lose sight of it being a photograph film, and that’s a big part of it. I’m asking a lot more questions personally than I’m answering, but I don’t feel like an expert in anything, other than driving directions. I don’t even necessarily feel like a filmmaking expert.

SCOPE: You talked at the screening about James Benning showing you the Tehachapi Loop. What lessons have you drawn from him in terms of form and practice?

SCHMITT: Well, he didn’t really show me the Loop. His is one of the many badly drawn maps that I have. I admire the way he makes work, the way he does it on his own time and resources. It’s incorporated into his contemplation of the world. But with James it’s hard to talk about the lessons—I get kind of bogged down. He wasn’t on my mind much shooting it. When I thought of films, I was thinking more about text-based films, like News from Home (1977) or Speaking Directly (1973) by Jon Jost. And I was looking obsessively at ‘30s and ‘40s work, survey photographs, and the idea of photography taking over journeys. I read John Muir’s travel books and Isabella Bird’s memoir for that idea of how you gather daily perceptions. And then, I hate using the word poetic, but the way sound and image can move in illogical ways in something like Bruce Baillie’s films was influential. Robert Frank’s video-essays too, they can be really illogical.

SCOPE: I actually just saw Home Improvements (1985) yesterday.

SCHMITT: It’s one of my favourite pieces ever. What is it about personal work, craft, political voice, and where do those intersect? I admire all these people because they made their work: especially these people that made a body of work that speaks to itself pretty consistently, that’s really important to me. It’s not just about individual films, but more of an overall gesture.