Thursday, October 29, 2009

Butte, America (Rattlesnake Productions/PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was an Independent Lens production called Butte, America, an extraordinary hour-long history of Butte, Montana from the 1870’s — when Thomas A. Edison’s invention of the electric light and (even more important long-term) the electric power grid vastly increased the demand for Butte’s principal product, copper — to 1982, when the company that owned Butte’s mines (having acquired or put out of business all its competitors in the early years of the 20th century), Anaconda Copper, finally declared them played out and abruptly shut down operations, leaving Butte a virtual ghost town. The filmmaker, Pamela Roberts, picked Butte as a subject partly because she used to visit the place in her childhood but mostly because she saw Butte as a sort of microcosm of the American corporate economy and how it played out in a typical industrial community (she explicitly compared Butte to Pittsburgh and Flint as industrial cities that rose and fall with the production of a particular product).

It’s an intensely moving historical film that could probably be even more moving if it were longer — especially since in the promotional interview on the PBS Web site for the film, Roberts answered the question of which scene she shot most moved her, “We shot a scene—that did not make the cut—with an underground miner we took back into the mine for the first time in over 30 years. He broke down and cried tears of joy for the opportunity to go underground again—he loved mining. And then came tears of sorrow as he recalled his longtime partner who was killed by an explosion. It was very revealing and very touching.” (The story about the miner whose mining partner — a relationship that seems to have much the same emotional overlay as a police partnership — was killed is in the movie; the heartrending return to the mineshaft after 30 years, alas, is not.) She also said that what she would have wanted to include in a longer movie was “more about the lives of the women I interviewed. Their lives and experiences were so interesting, but often devalued in their own eyes. Also, more about Butte today and the current economic resurgence through its restoration and preservation economy.” All of this makes me hope Roberts still has her outtakes and can use them to make a longer version of the film for theatrical and/or home video release.

Still, what we have of Butte, America tells a story that comes surprisingly close to Roberts’ stated intent of encapsulating all the changes in America between 1870 and 1982:

• starting with the early “rush” as fortunes seemingly were to be made in Butte;

• the evolution of Anaconda Copper as the strongest and, eventually, the only company in town;

• the way the city was literally built on top of the mines;

• the company-town aspect of it (workers technically owned their homes but not the land they stood on — for which they paid the company $2 per month “ground rent” — which meant they could be thrown off the land for any reason at any time);

• the degree to which Anaconda Copper not only ran the workers’ lives and drove wages to subsistence levels (which, as Marx pointed out, is what capitalists always do unless government either regulates wages directly or allows the existence of a strong labor movement) but controlled the city’s and the state’s politics as well (editorial cartoonists doing work opposed to the company, its power and its agenda inevitably riffed on the company’s name and drew it as a giant snake squeezing life out of everything in its way);

• the boom time for workers that lasted from the mid-1930’s (when the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union successfully organized Anaconda after previous unions had died due to company opposition, internal infighting or both) to the 1950’s, when Anaconda opened its first mine in Chile and started squeezing wages down in Butte and demanding concessions from the unions;

• the impact of Salvador Allende’s election as president of Chile in 1970 and his nationalization of Anaconda’s mines there, which led to a sudden plunge in the company’s profitability to which it responded by squeezing Butte’s workers even further;

• the exhaustion of Butte’s high-grade ore (which had to be mined like coal — digging underground tunnels, planting dynamite to dislodge the ore and using picks to ship it out on cars running on tracks) and the company’s conversion to open-pit mining of the low-grade ore that was left;

• the environmental hazards of the operation, including the diseases the miners got from inhaling silica dust as they worked (the dust, similar to glass, collected in and around their lungs and ultimately had a similar effect to pneumonia) as well as the horrific amount of pollution left over when the mines finally closed and Anaconda turned off its pumps, thereby allowing water full of heavy metals and toxic chemicals to flow straight into the city’s water supply (the lake outside Butte is now one of the most heavily polluted Superfund sites in the country);

• as well as the company’s alternation between grand seigneur and pillager, literally bulldozing entire neighborhoods overnight to expand the open pits in the later days (the images here looked like the Israeli army in occupied Palestine!) and setting fire to the amusement park Anaconda had opened years before and claimed it was part of an obligation to the workers. (The fire was supposedly accidental, but the townspeople Roberts interviewed were sure it was set deliberately because the park was in the way of Anaconda’s latest plan for expanding the open pits.)

Butte, America actually does what Roberts set out to do — set Butte’s story against America’s in the 20th century and in particular the metamorphosis of industrial production from a dirty, exploitative job to a relatively well-paid one (thanks to organized labor and a government that supported and facilitated its existence — if we’ve learned one thing about labor in the last 50 years, it’s that it can only exist when the government uses its authority to force the private sector to recognize it; once that authority was withdrawn, America’s labor movement underwent a slow collapse until now, when it’s only American labor’s success in organizing the government’s own workers that is keeping it in business at all) and then back to an underpaid, exploitative one on the long slide towards ceasing to exist at all as America de-industrializes and declares entire segments of its population and its cities surplus and not worth bothering about.

Butte, America is a powerful story, sometimes visually beautiful (Roberts found a considerable amount of footage from virtually the entire arc of Butte’s history, and the faces of the miners as they prepared to descend into the earth to work are extraordinarily moving) and sometimes terrifying, always underscoring the lesson that a corporation has no morals, no ideals, no compassion, nothing but a relentless drive to maximize profits for its shareholders; and since it has no morals, it has no compunction about breaking any commitments it makes to its workers, consumers or anyone else. Butte, America is at once a monument to what capitalism can create and a damnation of how easily it can destroy it all again.