California Company Town -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- "California Company Town" uses a deadpan, controlled tone to savagely attack the failures of capitalism and its impact on the American landscape. Specifically surveying a series of deserted industrial towns in California, director Lee Anne Schmitt gets her point across in an aesthetically intriguing but thematically redundant way.

"California Company Town" should attract art-house devotees and environmentalists alike, though it is hard to imagine the film getting a huge following.

Schmitt, who directed, wrote, produced, photographed and edited this cinematic essay, previously examined the death of the American Dream in the quizzical terrain of the nation's gambling mecca in her 2000 short "Las Vegas." But "California Company Town," Schmitt's first feature, is far more ambitious.

Much of film is composed of static long takes of 14 West Coast towns including the ironically named Darwin, McKittrick, Kaweah, Chester, Scotia, et al. Schmitt narrates the mini-histories of these places, which currently resemble ghost towns, while juxtaposing her shots with archival stills and footage of the busy, more "innocent" glory days when industry and labor first developed the territories.

Sadly, according to Schmitt, greed and lack of true entrepreneurial spirit destroyed not only the environment but the lives of the workers, who were forced to leave when the mining and lumber jobs dried up.

What could have been a straightforward documentary with talking-head interviews with former workers and business people becomes an artistic statement in the style of Depression-era photographer Walker Evans. Further, Schmitt incorporates rock and folk music and radio broadcasts to either comment on or challenge the imagery.

The most ironic passage comes early as George W. Bush, on the radio, extols America's commitment to "freedom" while we witness the devastating results of Westward Expansion. A later episode about the internment during World War II of Japanese-Americans speaks even more loudly about the contradictions between political rhetoric and historical reality.

The only real drawback to Schmitt's intelligently crafted film is that it doesn't take very long to figure out the central thesis, and some of the repetition over 76 minutes does not add significantly to her argument. By contrast, the similar but more ambiguous work of French filmmaker Chris Marker possesses a greater and everlasting emotional pull.

Opens: July 24 (California Company Town Prods.)
Production co.: California Company Town Prods.
Director/screenwriter/producer/director of photography/editor: Lee Anne Schmitt
Not Rated, 76 mins.
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