Say what you will about Santa Cruz: we are a kick-ass cinema town. I have a standing movie date every Friday night and without fail, there is always at least one unheard-of, self-distributed indie-fringe film to choose from. There's also always at least one documentary playing in town (and usually it's NOT by Michael Moore). And I'm not talking at some hidden away micro-venue either, but at a real live movie house with raked seats, fresh popcorn, and big screens that fill your peripheral vision. Long live The Delmar and The Nickelodeon.
The film pick this weekend was The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a funny, sweet, warts-and-all documentary portrait of the world's most eccentric Midwestern farmer. Lovingly made by San Francisco filmmaker Taggart Siegel, the film traces 50 years of John Peterson's life and struggles to keep farming the land in his own free-spirited way. Cross Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with Grant Woods' iconic painting American Gothic, and you begin to get a sense of Farmer John's world view. A burly, somewhat effeminate, dirt-chewing guy, John loves nothing more than driving a giant tractor, just so long as he's doing it dressed like an enormous bumblebee.
A winner of multiple audience-awards on the film festival circuit, The Real Dirt chronicles much more than just the peculiar personality of this exceptionally sincere oddball. The film probes what it means to be a third-generation American farmer, the particular suffering and triumphs of that way of life, and evolves into a deeply moving exploration of what it means to be true to oneself and one's own definition of destiny. Siegel's film isn't perfect -- it's a bit messy and unfocused (especially when John abandons the farm for philosophizing in Mexico) -- but this seems to me to be a perfect reflection of the subject at hand. One doesn't often plow through life in a straight line. John Peterson is the King of Zig-Zags. But his anchor remains -- unwaveringly -- the land.
Siegel has known Farmer John since the '60s, and incorporates candid interviews, stunning intimacies, 16mm documentary footage and funny, celebratory scenes of both artmaking and farming that have been shot over the decades. Super-8 footage from the family archives shows the farm looking like a Walt Disney fantasy of happy hay bales and freshly-baked cherry pies until John's father and uncle die in rapid succession, leaving the fifteen-year-old John to step up and run the show. With the unqualified support of his indefatigable sprite of a mother, Farmer John manages to keep the farm going AND enroll in college, where he finds himself smack in the middle of '60s counter culture. His mind "expanded," the idealistic John turns the farm into a sort of Xanadu for hippies, artists and freak-flag flyers of every description. This giddy experiment lasts for ten years, and results in some wonderfully colorful plays, parties and performance art (all captured on film). Ultimately, though, these radical free-thinkers are more about embracing a free place to stay than embracing a pitchfork.
And so, sadly, all this glorious free expression brings about disastrous results, with the farm falling deeper and deeper into debt, and the neighbors accusing John of running a Satanic cult, complete with sex orgies, drug dealing, and human sacrifice. An unexplained (and barely investigated) arson fire destroys a chunk of the farm, and the rise of Reagan-era commercial agribusiness brings about a near-foreclosure. Humiliated and deeply distressed, John is forced to sell off almost all of the family's acreage. Where once there were only cows, we suddenly see hundreds of tract-houses sprouting up in the neighboring fields.
The Real Dirt is no downer, though. I won't give away any more, except to say that I have only scratched the surface -- this film is full of surprises, with the craziest Deus-ex-Machina of all time arriving in the form of a lone organic onion. Farmer John's story is, in the end, a testament to the redemptive power of creativity, with much larger implications about the legacy of family farming in this country. With my ticket stub burning in my pocket, I ran home and immediately found a CSA collective to join. For those of you who don't know what that is, go see this movie. You may just be moved to do the same.