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).
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.
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.
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)?