California Company Town casts a probing, clear-eyed gaze at the landscape of California towns abandoned by the industries that created them—onetime boom-towns now haunted by the twilight of the American promise.
The colonization of the Americas meant radical transformation of a territory. A historically unprecedented force took hold of a continent and bent it back over itself. Physically—here it is, uprooted, turned over. Meaning upside down: not only is there no longer vegetation growing here that feeds a wide variety of species, now only one specific type of human—one driven by extraction, mechanization, technicalization, production and consumption—is making itself at home by way of new construction, asphalt, factories, and houses as far as the eye can see. Its logos replace the birds; its neon tubes, the sun.
In the past, talking about California country meant talking about nature, a nature that corresponded to a spiritual aspect, a state of mind. The aesthetic traces of what was left behind from the old world, decorative frescos themselves in ruins, can hardly stand up alongside that mythos. They tell the story of a time that has now become too slow, too silent, too well-integrated into a world riven by its own depths for us to tolerate.
In this way, California Country Town shows us a furtive glance, as we have lost our ability to gaze and appreciate the slow evolution, the miniscule movements from filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who still had the courage then to provide it. Or do we view it as out-of-date propaganda, unspoiled nature that can be, even furtively, sung in voiceover?
This exploitation has its own history, that of industrial cities ruled on all sides by an old-school owner. Lumber, mining, oil, intensive agriculture, fishing, military bases, concentration camps for the Japanese, prisons, aerospace sites…it’s all here. These cities fall; they are abandoned. They were overrun by the march of the history of capitalism, now globalized and operating on enormous scales. Now will come the steps from ruins to destruction, described in the genitive case: nature ruined by capitalism’s destructive proceedings, those proceedings themselves in ruins as they are transmuted into far larger forms of exploitation.
What’s left are sordid landscapes, ghostly factories, recycled earth to satisfy the tourist industry’s need for façades, a socialist and syndicalist past come and gone, and the memories of the Black Liberation movement alive and well. What also remains is a born-again discursivity driven by denial, and the techno-industrial bubble of Silicon Valley.
Lee Anne Schmitt is an artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She is interested in political thought, personal experience and the land. Much of her work involves 16 mm filmmaking placed in landscape, objects and the traces of political systems left upon them. She has exhibited widely at venues that include MoMA, the Getty Museum and Centre Pompidou. She is currently working on a series of films using personal objects to explore trauma’s effects on narrative structures.