Thursday, April 30, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 8: California Company Town

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is at the halfway mark; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

California Company Town (USA: Lee Anne Schmitt, 2008)

playing: 8:35 PM tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, with two more public showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Vancouver 2008
distributor: none that I'm aware of.

At the intersection of historical, geographical, political, environmental, and aesthetic upheaval lies California Company Town, made by CalArts faculty member Lee Anne Schmitt. It explores the communities and ex-communities built up around this state's extraction industries: mining, lumbering, large-scale agriculture etc. Schmitt's matter-of-fact narration tells story after story from our unheard labor history along with personal recounts of her experiences speaking with people and shooting footage in these forgotten pockets of California. Other times we hear the voices of political figures reciting relevant speeches, or else paid promoters selling faith in the American Dream. Often the soundtrack is wordless however, emphasizing an auditory windswept emptiness that aligns with the images we're shown. Schmitt interpolates archival film footage and close-up shots of the detritus of these commerce-ravaged communities with the bulk of her visual palette: landscape shots of the ghost towns, lunar landscapes, and even impromptu skate parks that exist in and around places like Boron, Darwin, Eagle Mountain, etc.

This essay film is possibly the most formally unconventional of the documentary features at the SFIFF this year, though its outwardly calm yet furiously pointed approach may identify it as a younger cousin of recent festival selections such as Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and the Joy of Life. What a typical documentary viewer is likely to miss most, at least at first, in California Company Town is images of people. There are some, but they're almost exclusively shown in extreme long shot and remain strangers. However, this absence of human visual connection should strike a thoughtful viewer as entirely appropriate to the subject matter of locations where capital has starkly displaced human labor.

Perhaps most interesting are Schmitt's images of the remnants of workers' co-operatives such as Kaweah and Llano del Rio. Not company towns at all, but utopian alternatives, these former communities leave fewer traces than the emptied-out factory towns and mines. And she touches on the fact that some of these dying or dead towns are making unlikely comebacks as bedroom communities for labor pools for modern, capital-infused cities. I'm not quite sure how Manzanar fits in with the rest of the places she exhibits, but like her aesthetic decisions its inclusion in the film provides fodder for thought and discussion. The filmmaker is expected to be in attendance at tonight's screening.

SFIFF52 Day 8
Another option: Proving Ground (USA: Travis Wilkerson, 2007) Actually a multimedia performance piece originally entitled Soapbox Agitation #1: Proving Ground is the most notable vestige of the Kinotek programs of recent SFIFF editions. I wish I had taken advantage of more of them; this one sounds interesting.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Road House (USA: Jean Negulesco, 1948) at the Vortex Room in 16mm; a noir starring Ida Lupino. Need I say more? If so, I'll let Noir of the Week do the talking.

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