I finished the film California Company Town in 2008. The film was a way of looking at the fallibility of history, to be able to depict a process of political thought against the markings it makes on landscape. Most of my work combines official and anecdotal histories.
For this piece for the Art Journal website, I was asked to revisit the outtakes of the piece, to make a work using the footage I hadn’t chosen when making the original film. So this is a revisiting of the time I spent making California Company Town. These are the stories I didn’t use, but still remember.
The film is 76 minutes long. I shot approximately 12 hours of footage, or 24,000 feet of 16mm film. There are 241 shots in the film. Since most of the footage was shot with a Bolex, with a wind of approximately 25 seconds, there were about 1,500 shots in the original footage. A catalogue film, California Company Town depicts, one by one, 22 “company” towns: Chester, Kaweah, Scotia, Calico, Darwin, McKittrick, McCloud, Westwood, Corcoran, Buttonwillow, Trona, Boron, Eagle Mountain, Adelanto, Manzanar, Palmdale, Llano del Rio, Salton City, Silverlakes, California City, Richmond, and Silicon Valley.
The film was always intended to be incomplete. It was meant to work like a catalogue, but one that has no index. People have complained that they become disoriented, and lose track of the towns spatially. But that is the point. Others say they get bored. That is also, in some ways, the point.
I always use my own voice in my work. I think it is important. Once, I was told that a curator didn’t program a piece because he didn’t like female voiceovers. Other times I am asked why I didn’t use a “real” voiceover artist.
I shot the film for over six years. I was 29, and just four years in California when I began, long enough to fall in love with Robert Smithson, especially the version of him in the Super 8 footage Nancy Holt shot in Mono Lake, where he is shirtless, sorting large pieces of shale, driving in trucks and listening to Michel Legrand. I was 36 when I finished the film.
I had grown up on the East Coast, the daughter of an executive for a chemical company; I spent 12 years in Chicago, taking pictures of abandoned buildings and staging performances.
The first town I went was Trona, guided there by James Benning, who knew the route so well he was able to describe it by the way the color of the pavement changed. I drove out on the flat desert roads. It took me a year to get used to the idea that I could stop almost anywhere along the way, pull over, take a pee, and never be seen.
I saw James again along the way almost four years later. He was standing by the side of Highway 120 on the way up to Quincy, filming a railroad trestle for his film RR, which he both began and finished while I was working on California Company Town. We had drinks in a bar near where we were staying, and he was nervous, because he’d heard it was a biker bar, and thought they might hassle me. But the only bikers who showed up were six older Harley guys and their ladies, who drank a pitcher of beer and left before it was dark.
In Randsberg I filmed a carousel made of homemade metal horses while teenage boys shot off guns in their backyard. The cemetery there has wooden graves, smoothed by the wind but otherwise preserved, which date from its time as a mining town in the 1800s. Nearby, outside Victorville, there is a railway graveyard where rail spikes mark the edges of the graves. In Manzanar, there’s a memorial to the Japanese who died while interned there during World War II.
None of this is in the film that got released.
I remember shooting out by Ridgecrest, on my way to Victorville. It was easily 105 degrees. I had stopped at a hot dog stand for an ice cream when two guys walked by, one of them with his shirt off. Across his back he’d tattooed a huge Celtic cross, homemade Aryan prison tattoos, and the words FUCK YOU across the back of his neck.
That same day I was recording sound outside the Victorville prison, and I thought I could hear, in the headphones, the sound of chanting coming from the prison yard. I also recorded the sounds of wind, of the train, of the migratory birds at the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge near the Salton Sea. The aching sound of the oil rigs near McKittrick, the sounds of dogs. Coyotes at night. Almost everywhere I went, you could still faintly hear the sound of traffic, off in the distance.
One of the first surveyors to reach the border of California was Clarence King, who in 1867 headed the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. In the 1850s, based on his readings of John Ruskin, King had formed the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art. King met and in 1888 married a black woman named Ada Copeland. She had been born a slave in Georgia and moved to New York in the 1880s. She and King had five children and owned a house in Brooklyn, despite the fact that the entire time they were married King told her he was a light-skinned black man named James Todd, whom Copeland believed was a Pullman porter, thus explaining his long absences from home. Copeland only found out King’s true identity as a nationally know geologist in a letter he wrote her on his deathbed in 1901, when she was forced to sue for the money he had promised her in his will. When Copeland herself died in 1954, she was one of the last remaining Americans who had been born into slavery.
California Company Town was shot on 16mm film; it screens as a 16mm print. I recorded my sound on DAT tape, transferring the film to MAG stock in order to edit. When I first went to buy MAG stock, twelve years ago, the company selling it was housed in a warehouse and had sixty employees. They went down to four employees and then were bought by Kodak, which itself filed bankruptcy just last week.
This is the last film I edited on a flatbed, one I bought for $900 fifteen years ago. It is a Moviola “apartment” model, and for five years it sat in the corner of my six-hundred-square-foot Hollywood apartment. When it broke down, it got repaired by a technician who worked for Atomic, the Kem distributors in Los Angeles. He would always come to my house in the middle of the afternoon, because he lived in the far reaches of Palmdale and worked off hours to avoid traffic. He lived on the edge of town, because he raised foxes. He also collected white cars, and said he had about twenty. Now the flatbed it is stored in my garage. I tried to give it away last year, but no one would take it.
Almost every technical filmmaking process I learned when I started making films is now obsolete.
I chose the towns in Company Town to chart a systematic logic of use and abandonment that is central to the history of expansion and industry in America. California itself was chosen for emblematic reasons; it is known as the frontier state, a golden landscape, a magical wilderness.
Many of the people I met were high on crystal meth. Camping near Redding, I met two guys who said they were walking from Sacramento to Portland. It was their first day, and they didn’t have a tent, just sleeping bags. I gave them some firewood, but when dusk came, I heard them screaming from the bugs.
In Bombay Beach I met a couple who lived in Niland, who had ridden trains west from Philadelphia, and now lived, carless, in an apartment with a puppy, which they had with them, on a leash made of twine. They had begged a ride from an old man, who was driving them to Palm Springs. He had lived in Bombay Beach, before it flooded, and thought they should see it.
One of the last places I filmed was Richmond. It’s one of the places the Black Panther Party began, after the 1967 shooting death of Denzel Dowell. My father’s first job was in Richmond. He was an engineer in the Standard Oil refinery. My father has always believed in the American Dream. He believes in economic progress, in the free market, in the power of prosperity.
Every film becomes a document of its own process, each film an act of autobiography. Every film I make is an attempt to understand my father. The year the film came out, my father had a heart attack. He recovered, then had stomach cancer, and then fell down the stairs in our house.
When he saw the film, he asked me if I was depressed.
I open the film with a shot driving up a mountain road, light coming through the trees, through the windshield. I shot this one alone, propping the camera in the passenger seat, and driving up a mountain, steering one-handed. I also shot dozens of roads, of trees at dusk, of water, of dawn. I filmed orchards and cherry blossoms, and the fields of wildflowers that show up in the desert in the spring. I have dozens of shots of dogs, behind fences or chained up in yards. I shot signs, signage, and graffiti. Letters left on the ground, old photographs. I shot in the small storefront museums in small towns, with donated old clothes and washing tubs, and scrip from the company store. Museums that are always run by men in their seventies, who know the history of the town, having lived their all their lives.
On Martin Luther King Day in 2003, I drove out to Fontana to film the Kaiser Steel works. Nearby is the town of Eagle Mountain, the planned community Kaiser built in the middle of the desert. There used to be a short rail line between the two towns, to bring the ore from Eagle Mountain to the steel mills in Fontana. I never used the footage of Fontana, but I remember the radio played King speeches all day, and that is what I listened to, on a gray winter day, driving through the remnants of the Kaiser empire and the now almost-endless desert sprawl of the housing developments nearby.
I was able to film most of the towns in Southern California over weekends, making ten-hour drives on Thursday in order to film and be back at work in Los Angeles by Tuesday. The towns further north I filmed over a long twelve-week shoot in the summer of 2007.
I camped most of that summer, often sleeping in the back of my truck, in order to keep the equipment safe. At one camp ground near the Feather River, I came back to my site to find a deer drinking water from a plastic garbage lid on the ground. Later, I went to pee, and I saw him sleeping beneath a bush just behind my truck. I thought he was sick, but the next morning I saw a dozen more deer, going through the trash left behind by the other campers, and I realized they were just tame and overused to people.
Later that summer, I camped in a county campground in the middle of the redwoods. It was a heat wave again, but the air beneath the big trees stayed cool, the warmth of the sun never reaching the ground. In the middle of the night a car pulled in, and a family got out, grandparents and two or three kids. They set up their camp in the dark, and in the morning I could see their car was packed with plastic bags full of clothes. I saw them eating breakfast cereal the next day, the kids wearing shorts and T-shirts despite the chill in the air. I went swimming then, despite the cold. It was late in the summer, and everywhere there were the bodies of dragonflies, dead after mating. The kids from the camp had wandered down to the banks of the river, lethargically throwing stones in the water.
Half way through the film I spent two weeks at the National Archives, searching for political texts and archival films. I copied hundreds of photos, including many of the proofs from the OWI and FSA photographers. One of the sets of photographs I remember best was by Dorothea Lange, a series of photos shot at the Marysville FSA camp. In it, two girls sit on the hood of a car, watching a fire nearby. On the back Lange had written, “Two migrant children watch their house burn to the ground.”
In the same file was a series of photographs of gardens, showing a contest run by the FSA camp, giving prizes for the best-maintained lots.
In the film is the footage I found from a talent show at the Tule Lake internment camp. The part I used showed five Japanese women performing in black face, doing a shuck-and-jive minstrel dance. Another part of the same film showed Japanese men catcalling a slight, effeminate man, who minces around the stage.
One of the first places I went while making the film was the La Paz headquarters of Cesar Chavez’s union, the United Farm Workers. The meeting hall there had originally been a tuberculosis hospital, but it had been boarded up years before, with boxes haphazardly piled up, many of them containing the archives from Chavez’s time with the union. Skaters had broken in, and squatters. I remember walking into the great meeting room, where kids had set up a makeshift skate ramp from a chair and an old door. As I turned around to leave, written across the wall behind me were the words “You Are Already Dead.”
When I went to make the video piece to accompany this text, the hard drive with all of the footage was dead, having not been booted up in six years. Its backup was also dead, for the same reason. I ended up having to redigitize the images, from the Digibeta transfers. Some of what I wanted I couldn’t find.
My original negative, though, still remains in a giant pile against one corner of my office. Most of it has notes on it, written by my best friend Uli, who conformed the A and B rolls. She had a baby and moved back to Germany, for the second time, over a year ago.
At this point I have lived in California for fourteen years, longer than I have ever lived anywhere else. I am forty years old. This year I also had a baby, who is now six months old.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do a project like Company Town again, if I’ll ever again get to spend so much time standing alone, miles from anywhere, waiting for the light at the end of the day.
Lee Anne Schmitt is a filmmaker whose work begins with landscape and the space between the ideology and the reality of the spaces in which we live. Her work has shown nationally and internationally in such venues as the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Pacific Film Archives (Berkeley), FID Marseille, and Cinema du Réel (Paris). In October 2011 the Viennale organized a retrospective of her films.