I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a documentary at once as insightfully simple and frustratingly jumbled as Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town. With the past year’s economic meltdown and the massive loss of American jobs, particularly in the automobile sector, a documentary about wreckage left in industry’s wake seems particularly timely. Large portions of Detroit already resemble the broken ghost towns depicted in Schmitt’s study and are only getting worse. Yet while Schmitt is quite prescient in her examination of the potentially destructive link between production and place, she stumbles in her attempt to build this analysis into a full-scale indictment of the larger institutions of American conservatism and capitalism.
The greatest strength of Schmitt’s work is undoubtedly its stark, haunting visuals. The bulk of the film consists of still or slow panning shots of the current state of company towns throughout California that were abandoned by their corporate founders at various points throughout the twentieth century. Often presented with only their own sparse natural soundtrack, these images of industrial and residential desolation incite a visceral experience of waste and loss. Schmitt’s narration weaves in and out of these scenes, leaving the images enough space to speak for themselves, but filling in necessary details about the particular cause of the environmental devastation in each town. The viewer is left with a haunted impression of 20th-century America’s incursions as blight on the land, consuming natural resources and leaving a brittle and polluted husk in their wake.
Her narrative voice, however, struggles to match the coherence of her imagery. Her overriding thesis is that capitalist industry has left permanent, wasteful, and often unnecessary marks on the natural landscape. Her imagery throughout the film bears out this environmentalist message, as do her spiritual reading of Emerson’s description of nature as a counterpoint to culture and her ironic deployment of an old Richfield Oil Corporation advertisement starring future arch-conservative Ronald Reagan. Yet a nostalgic leftist labor history permeates the film as well. Schmitt provides detailed anecdotes about workers who temporarily named a giant sequoia tree near Kaweah, CA after Karl Marx and about the builders of a failed socialist co-op in Palmdale, CA. She also goes into great detail about the brutal repression of strikes that took place in some of the towns and the totalitarian control over workers’ lives that the company town structure of corporately owned housing allowed. However, her twin narratives of wanton industrial consumption and capitalist exploitation of labor do not cohere as well as she would like. We can see where she is coming from, hoping to examine two separate evils visited on the country by the same economic zeitgeist, but it remains unclear whether she believes that socialist labor organization would have prevented industry from scarring the California landscape and depleting its resources.
Similarly curious visual and audio evidence regarding the religious right and Bush-era militant conservatism further muddles Schmitt's already messy argument. She opens the film with a car radio playing a George W. Bush speech on the military “commitment to Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq” and later prominently depicts a ruined theater marquee reading “USA Will Prevail” in the town of Westwood. Even more questionably, she soundtracks scenes throughout with ominous and grainy clips from Christian conservative radio that appear to have no particular bearing on the film’s actual subject matter. The militarism angle is at least somewhat supported by the body of the film, as the same critique of wanton destruction she levels on logging and mining towns holds particularly true for military towns like Adelanto, where the air has been rendered carcinogenic by the activities at George Air Force Base, or Manzanar, which housed a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But while Christianity and militarism are certainly two heads of the same conservative animal that permitted unfettered industrial expansion, indicting them by tenuous association only weakens Schmitt’s more effective conservationist critique. Targeting these institutions is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially given this film’s likely art-house audience, inspiring knee-jerk righteous indignation without an intellectually coherent basis.
California Company Town presents a few noble arguments, but these alone could never fill its runtime. Schmitt’s polemical digressions bulk out the film without adding in a meaningful way to its central narrative. And despite their disparate origins, the towns upon which she directs her camera simply are simply not different enough from one another to avoid feeling repetitive. Her feature-length ambition ultimately takes what could have been an extremely compelling short film and leaves it bloated and confused.