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Tag Archives: Butte

The view from Walkerville, Montana

Perched at 6000+ feet in Walkerville, overlooking Butte, Montana, the view is a bit schizoid.  Perhaps it’s the altitude, messing with the brain.  Or perhaps it’s reality.  Walkerville and Butte are places which are archetypal American places, forerunners to contemporary Detroit.  Butte was once – 1880-1920 – one of the wealthiest cities in America, sitting astride “The Richest Hill on Earth.”  Today it probably ranks as one of the poorest places in the country, and the once bustling small city is now a nearly abandoned town, shrunk to 25,000 or so.  Empty houses and office buildings, warehouses and churches slowly crumble into the ground.  Walkerville, a thriving town in its heyday is now a place of derelict houses, and it seems, the kind of people looking for a cheap refuge from the world.  I’m setting my newest film, Coming to Terms, in this town.

The view in Walkerville

Out in the wider world the follies proceed.  Mitt Romney, in his inimitable style, went abroad to burnish his presidential stature and typically stepped promptly into dog doo of his own making.   That on his first day out, in a carefully plotted endeavor by his aids to avoid all problems.   The Republicans, after the circus of the primaries and the orchestrated endless “debates” seem intent on spending a billion and more dollars in super-PAC funds to hornswoggle the American people into believing that this guy is, as the cliche goes, “presidential timber.”   Sort of like the year 2000, when we elected a spoiled stupid rich frat boy to run the nation (into the ground.)   Well, actually we didn’t elect him – he was appointed by a corrupt Supreme Court.

Mitt, the man from Utah

Mr Romney, who emerged from the zany collection of Presidential wanna-be’s coughed up by the delirious Tea Party influenced primaries, as the choice of the back-room pols of the party, is, unfortunately for them, laden with some very heavy baggage:  he’s Mormon, which most allegedly Christians regard as a heretical cult, and the rest of humanity regard as a latter-day religious legend and hoax, echoing that of, oh, Christians, Muslims and about any other religion coming out of The People of the Book.  Then he’s rich, and courtesy of the Occupy Wall Street folks, (who, incidentally have not evaporated as our mass media would seem to indicate) he’s identified as part of the 1%.   These days that puts him in the company of bankers, Wall Street con men, and other currently frowned upon members of the “financial business” community.  And like his cohorts in fiscal flim-flam Mr Romney stashes much of his wealth off-shore, in the Cayman Island, Switzerland, and other dirty havens for dubiously obtained money.  And owing to this typical rich man’s practice, Mr Romney is loath to reveal his past taxes, likely because despite his reputed half-billion in wealth, he didn’t pay any.  He surmises, correctly, that such a revelation would not sit well with any but his 1%.  And he can’t win an election with only 1% of the vote.  Even if he tacked on the 30% or so of dyed-in-the wool racists who simply cannot abide an “N” in the White House, and will vote for any “Anglo-Saxon” who coos the correct euphemisms which the times seem to have forced our racists to take cover behind.   And then, alas, Mitt went forward to London (and then plans to go on to Poland and Israel), where in a mere 24 hours he managed to make an Olympian-scale foot-in-mouth act, which begot mockery from the Brits, and bled back to our shores as a grim electoral comedy.  I can’t imagine what goofs he’ll manage in Poland and Jerusalem, but the fields are fertile for yet more faux pas from fabulous Mitt.   Fox and the super-PACs have their work cut out for them trying to install their brilliant choice into the Oval Office.

Meantime here in Butte, the most famous somewhat recent citizen is being feted, post-humously, in the Evel Knievel Days, currently crowding our miniature downtown.

Bustling Butte.

For the coming month or two, this blog will go into a little rest period as I am rather occupied with the new film, and myriad other things.  For anyone wishing to follow the making of Coming to Terms, there’s a new blog which will follow as best I can the preparation, work, and I think I’ll keep it going as whatever happens with the film happens.  A little inside look at the process.  Just go here.

And as I start to dig in on this new film, just arriving in the email comes the tepid festival-speak notice from the Toronto Film Festival turning down Imagens de uma cidade perdida, Dissonance, and also The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima.  I’m fully aware that neither film has the kind of warm-butt’s-in-seats sort of commercially qualities which our festivals, especially biggies like Toronto, seem these days to favor.    I suspect the new one, quite serious and I don’t plan on it being anywhere near sort of abiding by either film-world aesthetic or content conventions, will be any more welcome.

Butte once was a city of 60,000 (1920, including surrounding area); it dipped to 24,000 in 1970, and now is around 34,000.   Along with its population, the source of its wealth also drastically diminished, and the result is an early variant of the current Detroit: a place abandoned when its economic function ceased, and for which no forethought was given to establishing a sustainable society once the mines ran out.  It is a common American story, though here written in direct and clear terms.  Across the valley, Anaconda provides a similar example.  Montana is littered with many other much smaller mining towns, now, as Butte is attempting to do for itself, promoted as tourist destinations.  It is a kind of Disneyfication of history, with the reality gutted, and only the emblems left to stand.  There is something of the whiff of a corpse in it, and that, shall we say, makes it a hard sell.

Today in a Portuguese paper I saw a notice that Manoel de Oliveira was hospitalized there for some heart condition, and then had an infection of some kind – I think the oldest living, active, filmmaker is likely to die shortly.  He is 103.   His last films, one a year, got better and better, which is not often the case.

For anyone interested in seeing some odds and ends I am posting now on Vimeo.  Presently available are a relatively recent short, and a very old one.

Walkerville, Montana

Back in Butte, where in 1987 I came to town, a stranger to all, sat at a stool at the Silver Dollar Saloon, and the person next to me inquired, “What are you doing here?”   To which I replied I was there to make a film.  They asked, “About what?”  And I replied, “You.”   That night I had a free place to stay, and 3 months later I had a new film in the can, Bell Diamond.   Despite the subsequent mangling by the now defunct San Francisco Film laboratory, Leo Diners, which trashed the original footage on processing, and then ran one edited reel of originals over a printing sprocket wheel on making the second print, the film did get in a nice handful of festivals and garnered some very nice critical comment.  And if I recall correctly it was broadcast on New York’s PBS station.

I liked Butte back then, for many reasons, and have returned a few times since.  And on decamping from 4 and a half years in Korea, with an itch to do a narrative film, I decided I’d head that way again.  Though with the thought I’d shoot in nearby (25 miles) Anaconda, the town that smelted the ore that Butte dug up.  While the town of Anaconda itself didn’t leave a nice visual imprint on me, the adjacent landscape of slag heaps did, and it seemed to suit my purposes story-wise.   About a week ago, coming into the town from Missoula, I was disappointed to find that a Superfund clean-up had grassed over most of the black and chemical signs of the slag heaps.   Which had me pondering.


Staying with my friend, Marshall Gaddis, who played the lead in Bell Diamond  (only non-local in the film), up in Walkerville the last days has seemed to turn my head.  While a little of the earlier film had been shot up there, most was down lower in Butte, and nosing around here, the visual qualities,  juxtaposed to the odd social ambiance,  has convinced me to shoot here.  Part is practical – it saves a 30 minute commute to Anaconda and it seems time will be short with some of my actors.  But most is aesthetic and visual: this place just has “something” and it nicely happens it has something to do with the underlying content of the film I’m out to make.  Butte was a rich mining town at the turn of the 19th century, the Berkeley Pit being one of the largest deposits of copper and other metals in the world.   It drew miners from around the world, leaving traces of a rich ethnic mix.  And, as it is America, when the ores ran out, the place was basically abandoned.  Money wasn’t kept here to build a sustainable future.  It left.  What remains here is the collapsing skeleton of a culture which revolved around real work and making things, and what’s left of the working class that didn’t flee as the owners and managerial class did.  The money went to a handful of “industrialists” and bankers.   When the utility of the mines ran out, the money ran away.   Sound familiar?  It sure does to me.

So there’s about a month to research, sort out what needs sorting, and to form enough of a clear idea to accommodate the realities imposed:  two of my actors can only give me  5-9 days, not sure of another, and two can give me almost a month.   As usual for me I’ll find the jig-saw pieces available – people, places to shoot, weather, light, circumstances – and see how I can fit them together.  The core “story” or event is clear in mind, as are a few images.  My usual kick-off point for these things.   With a bit of luck and some enjoyable “work” hope to have another work, well, not “in the can” but on a hard disk, come the end of August.  In the film are a handful of what have become my “regulars” – a little troupe which I happily work with as they appear to do with me:  Roxanne Rogers from Slow Moves (1984), Kate Sannella from The Bed You Sleep In, Frameup and Homecoming; Ryan Harper Gray from Homecoming, Over Here, and Parable; and Stephen Taylor, also in the last three mentioned film, lead in Parable.  And then there will be James Benning, the filmmaker, whom I have known since 1978, acting as well in a significant role.  I hope we all have a good time.  The film’s title will be Coming to Terms.  It’ll be kind of serious.

In about a month we’ll be taking a shot at a Kickstarter campaign, trying to raise some money to help pay for the travel and living costs while here for the actors, and a bit to pay them.  They’ll deserve it.  For the moment it’ll come out of my erstwhile “retirement” pittance.  We’ll post it here.