"And again another day ends, as we see the sunset reflected so beautifully from the glorious Golden Sunlight Mine," the voice of our teacher crackles over the CB, as we bounce along rough Montana roads in our convoy of Chevy Suburbans. It was the year 2000, and I was enrolled with other college students in an intense summer field camp for geology.
I enjoyed mapping out watersheds, measuring streams for toxins, looking for fossils and struggling to work out the often complex layers of lithified sediment that had been deposited over vast lengths of time (in fact trying to wrap my brain around the enormity of geologic time was one of the factors that most drew me to geology). I wasn't as thrilled about trying to work out crystalline patterns in cooled magma chambers or other "hard rock" inquiries. However, it was fascinating to stand on the edge of the Berkeley Pit (test your knowledge here), looking at a vast expanse that comprises the world's most toxic lake -- so toxic that birds die if they land in it, and new species of bacteria have evolved to navigate the nightmare.
I've climbed up hills on the country's largest Superfund site ("It's probably not a good idea to get any of that dirt in your mouth," a teacher admits). I've stared straight up all 585 crumbling feet of the Anaconda smelter complex, a lone remaining pillar over the scar of a mining and processing center that rivaled Mordor in its heyday. I've also seen Montana streams that are as bright fluorescent blue, green and red as 80s skatewear, and devoid of life. Follow their rushing course a ways and you'll find rusting mine cars and broken shafts, the detritus of massive extraction.
It's difficult to get a sense of the awesome scale of mining and minerals processing, unless you darn a hard hat and venture into a blast zone. The tires on ore trucks dwarf even the largest SUVs on normal roads, and opposing walls of a pit have miles between them. Fortunately, we don't all have to step on such fractured Earth to get a glimpse (although I highly recommend you do it at least once).
Instead, we can see the experimental film China Town by Lucy Raven. Yes, I'm sure the title is an allusion to the famous noir masterpiece, which had as a central theme the pillaging of Earth's resources for personal gain.
Raven's China Town is also haunting and beautiful, as well as deeply meditative. Definitely not for a mainstream audience, the 50-minute film has no dialogue, narration or even moving images, at least in the conventional sense. Raven built the piece from some 7,000 digital still images and ambient noises taken on location. I had guesstimated that the images clock by at between 1 and 4 or 5 frames per second, depending on the subject (my quick calculation gave an average of 2.3 for the film -- compare that to 24 fps for standard cinema movies). The result is unique, dreamy and introspective, reminding me a bit of the mood of Paul Schrader's excellent Affliction, with it's long, slow looks at wide open spaces.
Raven got fantastic access to her subjects, and takes the viewers on a methodical journey of copper, from an open pit mine in Nevada (not unlike the Golden Sunlight Mine) all the way to a plant in China that spins out finished wire. We see the blasts that first tear rock from the ground, and ride up front in one of those massive trucks. We get an inside look at crushing, loading, shipping, unloading, and all stages of smelting and processing. There are many great scenes for the kid in all of us that likes to see machines do cool stuff with molten rock. With the lack of any explanations of what was going on, this is no how-to: but that very quietness forces the viewer to ask what the processes mean instead.
One of the things that struck me about the movie was how few people were actually needed to make things work. There were robot arms, conveyor belts and elevators stretching to the horizon, and vast landscapes, but so few people it had an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel. I almost expected a Final Fantasy character to run through the industrial scenes.
The film does spend a little time turning the lens on the homes, bars and shops surrounding the mine and processing facilities. The hardscrabble towns (complete with memorials to horrific industrial accidents in times past) had such a common, tough spirit that it wasn't easy to tell Nevada from China. The world is getting smaller.
China Town was begun while Raven was an artist-in-residence at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah. It was edited at Ohio State University. I saw it at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in NYC, a dynamic outfit that will soon be hosting a movable bubble space by Raumlabor.
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