POETICS OF GHOST SPACES: THE CINEMA OF LEE ANNE SCHMITT

This entry was posted on March 20th, 2020

Note from the editor: As part of the latest edition of Fronteira, Festival Internacional do Filme Documentario e Experimental of Goania, Brazil, we share this text by Mónica Delgado, written for their official catalogue, now graciously shared by the festival organizers for us to publish. American filmmaker Lee Ann Schmitt has just freed her documentaries online in times of quarantine, and we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to share the love for her wonderful work.

By Monica Delgado

Lee Anne Schmitt is a remarkable portraitist of the postindustrial decadence in the United States. The American filmmaker develops in her documentaries a policy of space and landscape to extract a social diagnosis of her country from the remains of the situation. It establishes an archaeology of the surroundings from cement corpses or abandoned places, all witnesses of the vanishing. At the same time, in the midst of this exhaustive analysis of the history of a country from the absences and dramatic transformations of space, Schmitt endows this cartography with a reflective, cautious and intimate voice, which gives the story a lucid touch in the face of worn-out structures of a recent past, either to denounce racism or the consequences of excessive capitalism.

The filmmaker proposes a political vision from the landscape, revealing the status of social issues. In Schmitt’s films, the past speaks and dislocates the present, from shots where testimonies are not even necessary to attest the decadence that has transformed the habitat. The inhospitable, ruined and abandoned spaces crying out a failure that time extends and clarifies.

Schmitt places the viewer in a liminal state: the task of reconstructing history from the clues it provides, to imagine a past where there is no place for glory or nostalgia. Rather the work of the filmmaker is to apply a method to demystify the landscape or turn it into an anti-romantic experience. An example of this appears in the first minutes of his film California Company Town (2008), where the landscape is bucolic or natural (with fauna and extensive flora) only through the exhibition of some paintings. The recording of reality only finds environments composed of tractors, felled trees or oil machines.

Schmitt also uses in his films the resource of the filmmaker/narrator, which has the function of guiding the thesis and the justification of the marrow of the film, but also to complete a methodological journey from a personal and intimate level. The filmmaker supplants the presence of the nomadic communities, which are no longer within the image, by a voice that allows the landscape to have a convincing psychological aspect. Without Schmitt’s own narration in her movies, the images of abandonment and the ghost-cities would be doubly nude or empty.

Schmitt’s documentary style has been compared with the structuralist concepts of John Gianvito’s or James Benning’s films. It is perhaps in Benning and his One Way Boogie Woogie (1977) where Schmitt finds inspiration on recording the damage caused by the passing of time on the West Coast and its urban conglomerates. But unlike some of Benning’s works, Schmitt manages to make visible one more component: the social sensitivities transformed by the production methods and explored from the ghosts of the housing constructions.

The “company town” who inhabit several of her works, becomes not only the proof of a type of economic failure but the appearance of a new type of desert as a crude metaphor of the impossibility of urban settlement and industrial success. Architectures that do not provide shelter to anyone.

But there is another element that Schmitt uses, and that establishes a filiation with the documentary style of other American filmmakers like Travis Wilkerson or Thom Andersen. For Schmitt, the insertion of personal experience also provides the transformation of the landscape. The deconstruction or revisitation of history, as happens in California Company Town or Purge The Land (2017), does not fully support this descriptive dependence on the environment, on factories or towns forced to become ruins, but on the explanation or testimony of a voice that breaks down, investigates and recomposes this urban radiography.

In California Company Town, the filmmaker develops an imaginary map of more than a dozen small ghost towns, traces of industrial and post-capitalist periods, where there is almost no need for the presence of the people who inhabited them. Human settlements created and maintained for years by the same companies that required a close workforce for their raw material factories. From the time of the logging or mining industry to the conglomerates of Silicon Valley, Schmitt explores the physiognomy of space by recording, in 16 mm, the texture of these absences in the light of years passed, but also from the advantage of archive material.

What Schmitt records in California Company Town are the lags of prosperity, of extreme depredation. If the industry that sustains them is finished, all types of community chains end. Thus, the filmmaker goes through concrete cemeteries, including ruins of schools and recreation areas, now merged with the figure of the desert and its loneliness. Spaces that are subject to the rules and results of the production methods, where the market and its rhythms mark the existence of the communities. The figure of the desert, not as a natural space that governs the Californian steppe, but as a rubric of a natural simile: the triumph of the desert as an analogy of the consequences of an exacerbated capitalism.

The desertic nature of California is shown in Schmitt’s cinema as an imposition. That is, the desert triumphs again and again but not from its free and natural existence but because historically production mechanics condemn the space to keep its inhospitable and solitary side, free of people.

Kevin Lynch, in his book The Image of the City argues that “The landscape acts as a vast mnemonic system for the retention of history and collective ideals.” It could be said that Schmitt adopts a new system, guided by a chronological thread, to elaborate a crescendo in the transformations of the tendencies in the production modes, which had their apogee from the middle of the last century to the present. Moving from the timber industry to the consequences of the technologies and millions of dollars that emerged from Silicon Valley, for example, speaks of a modification and fragility modeled by the dialectics of economic industries. This mnemonic system that Schmitt is configuring in each shot of these fourteen urban conglomerates allows not only to investigate in the memory of these places, but to build a new one from the absences and ghosts.

Schmitt’s cinema is also based on the premise of comparison. Although the spectator does not have the memory of yesteryear, there is the possibility of imagining from these remains a past that is not rewarding, especially because this spaces were designed not for the well-being of the citizen, but for functionality of the man or woman as workers or parts of a labor or social mechanics that ultimately does not transform, but only displaces. In Purge the Land, Schmitt confirms that racism, despite the struggles, deaths and activism reflected in various monuments, museums or memorials have gone for naught. The pillars that support racism seem to remain intact.

In these variations on the re-semantization of the memory of landscapes, Schmitt makes a strong criticism about the inefficiency of history to transform common senses. The story about the life of John Brown, the historic abolitionist who died executed in 1857, is confronted with the vestiges in a present where racism is still a threat. The filmmaker’s family life, which has an African-American son and husband, is perceived as being infringed by a memory that has not managed to stay afloat. Some of this fear is shown in the short film womannightfilm (2014), where Schmitt makes a nocturnal registration, in a mini road movie, that culminates with the expression of fear before a harassment.

On the other hand, Purge the Land also proposes a successful work of employing music and sound as new layers for interpretation. The feeling persists that the music, composed by Jeff Parker, former Tortoise musician, composer and partner of the filmmaker, takes on an instantaneous dimension as if it had been recorded along with the voiceover, creating the same atmosphere in an immense off-field. In The Fansworth Score (2017), a similar experience occurs. There, Schmitt makes more concrete the relationship with the music that she has established in his previous works, but this time by the hand of the visual artist Rob Mazurek.

Instead, in The Last Buffalo Hunt (2011), Schmitt marks a parenthesis in his landscape style, although questioning the disappearance of some traditions and places in the USA through the environment stays. Whether The Wash (2005), California Company Town, Three Stories (2012) or Purge The Land mark an observational style mixed with the film essay and the reflexive and intimate voice-over as a resource, in The Last Buffalo Hunt the filmmaker bets for another type of document. Interviews and the recording of hunting scenes or nocturnal habits help to build the process of decomposition of a community identity. The old West and its men already in crisis, living the intervention of tourism and its chains of commerce. Rather the subject of hunting as a tourist attraction, with its crudeness and pathos, seems to be only a first layer, even very disturbing, on this frivolous and dehumanized United States, but for Schmitt it is also about stripping away the resistance of a kind of American about to become extinct.

This panorama allows to ratify to Lee Anne Schmitt as one of the American filmmakers with a compact author universe, that dissects the fantasies of community from the urban remains, to demonstrate the impossibility to retain the memory, in spite of the concrete and bricks that try to preserve it.

This films of Lee Anne Schmitt here.