Farming “will remain the same though Dynasties pass,” thought Thomas Hardy. In our own day, the farmer is beginning to be treated like an endangered species, a poor moulting bird that tenderhearted environmentalists want the government to take under its brooding wing. Hollywood became interested in him a few years ago, and a spate of movies with well-known actresses appeared almost simultaneously.
The film establishment gave an Academy Award to Sally Field, and Jessica Lange won kudos from the critics. They and Sissy Spacek and Jane Fonda went to Washington to testify before congressional committees about what they felt. When it was plain that there was even less big money to be made out of farming as a film topic than as a way of life, the industry went on to other concerns. At the distance of a year or so, it may be worthwhile to step back and think about these efforts to depict an important part of America. The films, Sally Field’s Places in the Heart, Jessica Lange’s Country, Sissy Spacek’s The River, together formed an instant genre, with its own conventions and stock motifs. There was the confrontation with the banker, at first business-like, then confused by the entrance of wife and kids. There was the auction, which began calmly and then degenerated into a shouting match between auctioneer and other farmers. There was the confrontation with bad weather, rain, or tornado. There was typically a scene with a woman struggling to handle machinery and finally succeeding, a sequence handled grotesquely in River. Indeed, it was often hard to keep the scenes apart in one’s mind, especially between Country and River. Now convention and motif are a part of all great art, but the synthetic character of these instant traditions was obvious and repulsive.
The source of the filmmakers’ concern for farmers had tainted the stream. Film and television, as industries, are urban conglomerates. Their money comes from large urban companies. Scripts are written and then directed by city folk from LA or New York, as Ben Stein pointed out a few years ago. On a trip to the country, they feel like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock or Burt Reynolds in Deliverance: simple, straightforward souls from a peaceful, orderly city suddenly involved in the chaos and violence and dark mysteries of the rural world. That this vision bears small resemblance to reality needs little argument. It is our big cities (especially LA and New York) that are chaotic and violent, while our rural communities live in comparative peace and order, the peace of the property owner, the natural order of the seasons. The born-and-bred city-dweller feels, no doubt naturally, more at home in the city than in the country. It is hard for him to notice the normal, and he is struck by the different, which he tends to interpret as the bizarre. The city-dweller also tends to assimilate what he does see to what he knows. This leads to some striking insights and some appalling oversights.
The most impressive insight is the vision of the modern farmer as a victim. From time immemorial the farmer has been the one independent figure in our society, as in others. He can produce his own food and clothing. He can afford independence of views and action as no trader or professional can, because he can retreat back to his own land and grow his own food. He is the archetypical free man who, in Jefferson’s vision of America, was the basis of a free society. But no more. Now letters to the editor, the suicide rate, and publicity all present him as a victim. As we have concerts to raise money for starving Ethiopians, so we have concerts for the farmer. He collapses into severe depression or explodes into violent outbursts. In River he sells himself as a strikebreaker to nefarious urban interests. He is the puppet of forces he can neither control nor understand, whether big business in River or heartless bureaucrats in Country. He wants to die and may well kill himself. He survives even in movie fantasy only because he has a star for a wife.
The least sympathetic aspect of this vision is presented in the mandatory bank scene (in all three movies). The farmer has become a mini-Third- World country, shouting back at the banker who wants his loan repaid, reminding him that he was the one who urged the farmer to borrow the money (in several films). Wilfred Brimley in Country has a few just words on this attitude. The farmers hired the money, didn’t they? To depict the farmer, of all people, as someone so out of touch with the rooted nature of things as to believe the slick experts on economics, a group that has not been right since 1929 (to take a year at random), is to present the modern farmer as so infantile as to be unsalvageable. It is hard to put together a consciousness-raising session for Candide.
There is little reason to doubt that these films do reflect a dismal new reality on the farms. The farmer has joined the ranks of the bank teller who cannot talk back without losing his job or the honest cop who has to watch corruption flourishing and Serpico being mugged. In the recent farm films, the banker is the farmer’s friend and neighbor, but he, too, has his strings pulled by remorseless forces behind or above him, a monopolistic businessman in River or a ruthless bureaucrat in Country. The only way the banker can make things better is to quit. It is the vision of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America. The farmer is a redskin, and strip-mining stands as metaphor for American big business and big government, as in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.
The reason is plain to see and easy to tell. We live in a money economy. All of us, even the richest executive, depend on the artificial monthly or weekly doling out of money, not the natural creative rhythm of the land. We are all puppets of the sources of money: big business, big banks, big government. Even our freedom of speech is guaranteed only by these same sources. Inevitably we identify with the new, impotent farmer and rejoice in his or (in these movies) her rigged success against the money economy, just as we cheer Rambo and Rocky and Lou Gossett’s Iron Eagle when they fight against socialist aggression. It is good psychological catharsis, but in our hearts we know that things do not work that way. We watch these movies in darkened theaters or on our VCR’s, where it is hard to check up on us. On the job, in public, we keep our mouths shut and our noses clean.
All of us, you see, owe money to the bank or to credit card companies. We all feel frustrated at bureaucratic interference or the vagaries of a market economy which even the experts fail to explain and cannot control. In this environment the farmer has become another film version of the secretary from Nine to Five, the factory worker in Modern Times.
In each film someone fights back. In each case a woman with a family is behind it all. Here, too, is an insight that is worth savoring. The basis of salvation and renewal in the secular world is family. Business can hurt a family as it does in Country or even attempt to split it up, as it tries to do in Places. Each film, however, depicts the family as the basis for resistance to destructive and simplifying bigness.
Is family enough? Common sense would say no. Families need community; they need religion. In River Sissy Spacek’s husband, Mel Gibson, always tries to do things on his own. An angry crowd shouting at the auctioneer fails to stop the sale of a friend’s farm. Men unite only to work in a dark factory while breaking a strike—which they fail to break—or to shore up a dike against a flood, which other men, hired by the ruthless local businessman to stop them, attempt to break down. In Country the crowd’s refusal to bid for a friend’s farm does stop an auction. Only in Places in the Heart, however, do we see a real community at work. Rich and poor, healthy and blind, black and white work together to stop the seemingly inevitable loss of home and breaking up of community in the face of economic humiliation and racial hatred and sexual infidelity.
Places is also the only film in which religion has a significant role. The narrative is framed by a church service. It begins with a father saying grace over a meal. In the final church scene, the entire community joins in the communion service; rich and poor, black and white, quick and dead. It is only as we see the dead sharing in the communion that we understand that this scene is an allegory of the Reformed view of Paul’s insistence that the Christian perceive the Body of Christ, the communion of true believers. That communion, that community, rooted in religion and protecting the family, is the true basis for the survival of home and farm. It is a powerful scene, incomprehensible to most urban Americans, Christian or not.
Religion is relegated to saying grace in the other two farm movies. As I mentioned. Places begins with Field’s husband, a strong masculine figure, giving thanks for the family’s meal. Women take turns in giving thanks in Jessica Lange’s Country, significantly, since the men in the movie are either old or broken by their lack of capitalist success. In River Sissy Spacek has her children thank Sun and Earth for their food, the single phoniest scene in a movie reeking with phoniness. A list of reasons for success and failure could be lengthened, but in the end River and Country fail to give us a satisfying picture of the American farmer because they lack a simple and sincere picture of his religion.
The inadequacy of River and Country may best be judged by contrasting them with the rural vision portrayed in the Australian Peter Weir’s Witness. A Pennsylvania Dutch Amish child witnesses a brutal murder in Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Railroad Station. Harrison Ford, a detective, returns with the child and his widowed mother to the Amish country where they hide out from the murderers. The Amish have removed themselves from hedonistic, capitalist America. They are thrifty and hardworking pacifists, and they occasionally suffer from violent teenagers and rude tourists. They are free, however, and their freedom is rooted in community and religion. (They are also the one part of rural America unequivocally praised by Wendell Berry.) Again, saying grace is significant. Ford has taken mother and child to a downtown fast-food joint and is literally biting into his hamburger as the two bow their heads in silent prayer. He is frozen in embarrassment, mouth agape, staring at them. It is a funny and beautiful scene, and we are reminded of how far the urban American is from the natural response of most people, who thank God for what He has given them.
Are the rural worlds of Witness and Places in the Heart Rousseauistic fantasies? I did not find them so. They are needed reminders that our culture’s future must be rooted, that the land, lovingly used and cultivated, can create culture as well as cultivation, character as well as crops. True productivity is rooted in a way of life and a way of life must have community and religion as well as family and personal success. The farmer enjoyed a short-lived success on the silver screen as the latest addition to our nation’s pantheon of victims. It is not an honor he needs, just as he does not need his ersatz “rights” protected or the laws of economics turned upside down for him. We all, farmers and not, need to remember that all culture and all creativity—I do not speak of productivity—are rooted in family, work, community, religion. To feel them as alien, as many film people do, is to hate the human. We need to admire less our Audubon Society Magazine, with its lovely scenes of nature empty of human presence, and appreciate more our Grant Wood American Gothic. The businessman engaged in strip mining and the environmentalist zealously protecting empty spaces are closer than they think. Against them stands the farmer, user of the land, cultivator of it, worshiping and working with friends and family. It is a model of the truly human, and we cannot see it too often.