California Company Town Explores Boom and Bust in the Golden State


The companies in Lee Anne Schmitt’s elegy for California boom towns gone bust run the gamut from farming to logging to mining, but after a while, the towns themselves take on the same ghostly countenance—a panoramic graveyard of rusted metal, boarded-up windows, and sagging chain-link fences. These are towns with names like Boron (after the mineral), Chester, and Trona—names on maps and exits on freeways, colonized by corporate America and then abandoned, along with the hopes and dreams of the workers who settled there. Shooting in spare, clear-eyed 16mm that recalls James Benning’s California landscape films, Schmitt packs in fascinating historical tidbits in the form of photographs, archival footage, and narration: One town, we learn, was once a socialist colony with a 500-foot sequoia named after Karl Marx; another was built with a single main road so as to keep undesirable elements (like union organizers) out. Ronald Reagan appears as the voice of an educational film about the state’s natural splendor—produced by an oil company. Mostly, though, Schmitt surveys the wreckage in all its post-apocalyptic desolation, saving her most trenchant detour for last. (Hint: It’s not a ghost town just yet.) California Company Town may have cost a fraction of this summer’s Terminator and Transformers behemoths, but its postcards from the edge of capitalism make for the far more frightening disaster epic.