Home movies are the bane of documentary film, and as time progresses there are likely to be more and more biographical projects that are lazily pieced together from their subjects' collection of amateur videos and 8mm films. Further advancements in technology, such as editing capabilities available for personal computers, has even allowed for the low-budget autobiographical doc, which disgustingly saw the light of day and overrated acclaim two years ago with Jonathan Caouettte's Tarnation.
Now there is Taggart Siegel's The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a would-be-interesting showcase of eccentric, organic farmer John Peterson, founder of one of the largest CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) groups in the nation. Using his family's old Super 8s, John constructs his own autobiography masked as a history of the farm on which he grew up, and the footage has an unfortunate precedence in the telling of his story.
John's family bought the farm towards the end of the Depression and by the time he was born, the Peterson's were enough of a crop-raising clan that John couldn't even contemplate an existence different than his own. He believed that every kid grew up as rural and rustic as he and it wasn't until college that he discovered another kind of life. Then, he probably didn't imagine that he would not have a life beside it.
But, his college buddies came out and lived on the farm with him. This was the '60s and free-spirit, communal living, was a radical idea for young people. While John was discovering new ways of extending himself and expressing himself beyond the needs of the field, his friends — generic hippies, apparently, right down to the Rickie Tickie Stickies — were looking to condense themselves onto this fertile land, producing art but also helping with the chores. They made more home movies, as well as fictional films that starred their host, bits of which appear in the film.
When the late '70s arrive, the expected drama of the debt crisis era of droughts, bank foreclosures, equipment auctions and other tragic turns is intended, yet is emotionally absent. These things are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie about a farm in the '80s, but by this point, neither Siegel nor John has established any sort of reason for the audience to care about this farm or about John's consequent remorse. Further attempts to affect drama, such as a time where John's home burns down, presumably the act of arsonist neighbors, fall flat, because John is obviously operating his video camera during the events, and the audience is allowed no actual relationship to him or his reactions in the moment other than some off-camera yelling.
Little of the old footage really speaks for itself, as the audio is primarily reserved for an extensive voice-over spoken by John, and most of the film is dependent on his words. The clips lack independent significance and they also have little importance as linked together. Many of them even seem chosen at random, their purpose nothing more than visual filler. Sure they coincide with the narration, but not enough to truly add something to it. Close your eyes and you won't miss a thing. Except for the vital experience of cinema.
If John hadn't remained on the farm his whole life, his goal was to become a writer. As he reads the narration, a poetic reflection on his life and land, there are occasional shots of him typing out the narrative. His skill with words is decent, and as a work of literature, his story might be more agreeable, but orally the writing fails miserably. Aside from the fact that John's voice is an irritation, he is way too into his prose to not be a ham, resulting in many of the words sounding corny and contrived.
Ineffectively mixed in, perhaps as an attempt to break up the monotony and dominance of the voice-over/montage, is some interview footage, mostly with John' s mother, the occasional sequence featuring John addressing the camera, or a pretentiously staged shot featuring John riding a tractor while wearing ridiculously flamboyant costumes. In addition to assuming the viewer's interest in this specific yet altogether unremarkable chronicle, Siegel also pushes for the acceptance of the unexplainable, attention-seeking eccentricities of John's being. As the focus of a character study, John would be better suited to a compilation doc like America's Heart & Soul, where the limited amount of screen time would better accentuate his quirks and the central events of his life.
Eventually the story reaches the present day and it is here, past the halfway point of the film's 83 minutes, that the doc becomes an interesting look at the communal management of an organic produce business. After a meager return to farming in the mid-90s with more naturally grown crops, John is persuaded to expand his operation as a CSA company, which he names Angelic Organics. He is able to continue his production and stay on the farm by selling shares of the harvest to local families, in return for which they are delivered a box of varied fruits and vegetables and a newsletter each week of the season. Working for him, there are interns, laborers, educators, and refugees, all of them eager to be a part of a collective operated by this open and caring, though slightly odd, man.
During this final section of the movie, John's narration is pretty much gone and so is the reliance for old footage, giving it a more candid, pragmatic flow. John still remains too aware of the camera, and there is a gratuitous and irrelevant inclusion of a music video for a song by his girlfriend, but for the most part, the last 25 minutes are a treat.
Unless working with a real historical focus, character-centered docs should stick to the now, using older footage sparingly when the narrative requires some background or lead-in. During the lengthy timeline that takes over the film, The Real Dirt sometimes works to represent the entire history of American farmland of the last century, but very broadly and only as a context. When a film's context becomes its only text, it becomes very hard for the audience to understand the filmmaker's objective.
Even the provocative film Capturing the Friedmans, which is noteworthy for its own use of home movies, is all about what is current to its production, having evolved from a documentary about birthday clowns into an investigation, filled with discoveries and mysteries, into the members of a troubled family. It depends a lot on the old movies as back-story, but primarily the footage becomes supporting evidence for the present day drama involving a father who may or may not be a pedophile.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John offers no discovery or mystery into the Peterson family or their farm, only matter-of-fact self-importance. By the time the film at least becomes experientially absorbing, it is far too late. If this is an answer to the question, "Where does our food come from?" then the curious will be sorry to have asked.