Butte, from afar

Some cities draw me in for the light alone. A few weeks ago Mystic, Connecticut had that kind of pull. Today, it’s Butte, Montana, a place I’ve never been but have seen clearly through the eyes of Wim Wenders (German film director, playwright, author, photographer and producer).

52 weeks in film: waterfront (Mystic, CT)
from 52 weeks in film: waterfront (Mystic, CT)

Five years ago I read the summer issue of Zoetrope (a quarterly literary art magazine with guest editors each issue) edited by Wenders. I filed the magazine away and every once in a while, particularly during road trip season, I flip through the pages and imagine what Butte looks like in every angle of light.

After Wenders first visit to the city in 1978, knew immediately that he had to tell a story there. I felt the same way after looking at his photographs and film stills from Don’t Come Knocking (which he directed and co-wrote the script for with actor and writer Sam Shepard). The film came out in 2005, but the filmmaker has been back to Montana a number of times to capture it with a camera.

52 weeks in film: rocks algae (Mystic, CT)
from 52 weeks in film: rocks algae (Mystic, CT)

Butte, at the turn of the century, was one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi with its abundant copper mines along with other heavy metals, including silver and gold. It resembled little of the oversized mythical ghost town of today. Wender’s described the city as being filled with mineshafts, derricks, pits, huge ten story high brownstone buildings like you see in New York, wide avenues, but altogether abandoned.

Shepard and Wenders weren’t alone in their fascination with Butte. Famed detective writer Dashiell Hammett based his first novel, Red Harvest, on the city of Butte, a place he spent in his early twenties as a Pinkerton detective. It wasn’t long before Hammett understood his real purpose there, to break up labor strikes and to impart fear into unruly laborers through brute force. He quit the detective agency, moved to California and to write hard-boiled detective stories.

52 weeks in film: sunset (Mystic, CT)
from 52 weeks in film: sunset (Mystic, CT)

Wenders’ depiction of Butte stayed with me. The photographs and film stills published in the magazine were struck with light folded every which way and even with the Edward Hopper like scenes, the place felt lonely and isolated with empty cityscapes, towering buildings, luminous windows, stark lampposts, deserted train tracks. It’s a city with stories around every block with the M&M café where everyone once gathered to down a jigger of whiskey and tell their tales, Jack Kerouac included (who after visiting in 1949 noted that the M&M was the ideal dive bar).

Butte is a working-class mining town filled with dive bars and legendary outlaws. No wonder Wenders, Shepard, Kerouac, and Hammett fell for the place. Through them, I have as well.

What places are on your must-see list this summer (or in the near future)?


    • ArtandLemons says

      Rosa, Me too. I’ve only seen Montana from the overlook car of a train, what I saw was beautiful though.

  1. says

    You sure get around Girl! I’d say a future must see is Greece….this weekend I’ll settle for NYC. Thanks for sharing the pics. -Mary

    • ArtandLemons says

      Mary, Ha, well I guess I do but I always feel like there is so much more to see. Greece would be nice, ever been. Enjoy NYC and hope you share photos when you return!

  2. says

    Heading to London & Ireland right after summer is over. Can’t wait! Hoping to take a quick weekend trip during the summer somewhere close to home (San Diego) – not sure where yet!

    • ArtandLemons says

      Megan, Sounds like you’re in for a fabulous summer! The U.K. and Ireland are on my places to visit.


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