California Company Town
Directed by Lee Anne Schmitt
In 1963, four years before he became governor, the screen actor Ronald Reagan lent his voice as the narrator for Heritage of Splendor, a public service film encouraging Californians to use their natural resources wisely. The film was produced by the Richfield Oil Corporation, which today is part of the ARCO energy conglomerate.
California Company Town is not, as its title might suggest, the tale of the Hollywood assembly line that manufactures pitchmen like the Gipper. Instead, it’s the story of how rapacious private interests have long determined the future of Golden State development. And it’s telling that in Lee Anne Schmitt’s amazing new documentary, contemporary images of exurban California can be juxtaposed to such chilling effect with archival footage from Heritage of Splendor and elsewhere.
Pretty obviously, Schmitt didn’t predict the national mortgage crisis any more than she foresaw Sacramento’s bankruptcy. But California Company Town, which was shot on 16mm over a period of five years and completed in 2008, arrives this season as a tour de force of Marxist prophecy. Examining primarily the anonymous desert ghost towns of the Central Valley — once populated by the workers of mills, plants and mines — Schmitt shows how time and again families have lost their homes due to economic forces over which they have no control.
Like Thom Andersen and James Benning, her colleagues at CalArts (she thanks them both in the credits), Schmitt brings a savvy post-Godardian viewpoint to architecture and landscape. But her camera also depends on immediacy, clarity and wit, and California Company Town’s final scene, which is unnarrated, makes for one hell of a punch line.
July 24-30 at Anthology Film Archives