Film

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)

Jarrett Berman

Already a local legend, Farmer John's legacy seems assured.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

Director: Taggart Siegel
Cast: John Peterson, Anna Peterson
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Awakened Media
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-03-10

John Peterson grew up on a farm. His parents and grandparents farmed, his neighbors farmed, and, dressed in pink boas and tights, John also farms. The Real Dirt on Farmer John begins as he scoops up a handful of dark, rich dirt and takes a bite. "The soil tastes good today," he says.

His mother Anna began filming the family with her Super-8 in the 1950s, recording everyday lives as they seemed extraordinary: chasing pigs, diving into grain piles, setting brush fires, and riding in the steel shovels of tractors, the kids developed fearlessness and creativity. John speaks lovingly of the farm's rhythms, its ample grounds and towering steel his playground. But that world collapsed when John's father, Lester, died unexpectedly in the late '60s.

Though he is expected to take over his dad's 350 acres, John instead pursues higher education at nearby Beloit College. Only eight miles away, school nonetheless exposes John to a campus culture of free love, radical politics, and psychedelics. It is the genesis of John's curious flamboyance, as he brings his new friends back to the farm with him, determined to create a utopia on what they dubbed "the Midwest Coast." John's home movies at the time capture the hippie hayrides and artistic indulgences that marked his cultural awakening. It is amusing to watch, but such theatrics will not be without consequence. As John's sister Mary Jane wryly comments, "They wanted to get close to the land, but they didn't know what to do with the land, and they didn't do much."

John's fanciful vision eventually contributes to the farm's demise. "Debt financed my dream, then my nightmare," he laments. It's clear John means to impress us with his language, even while making us wonder about his actions. Faced with staggering financial loss, John auctions most of the family's equipment, and reduces the property from 350 to 22 acres. Neighbors once friendly towards John start lashing out at the eccentric hippie, sending police to spot check his property for "orgies and rituals" in the middle of the night. John flees to Mexico, where he discovers the works of Henry Miller, and then, inspired, begins transferring his own pain and disappointment into prose.

Despite this setback, nothing could keep John from realizing his independent vision on the farm. When he's not welding hay balers, he's mowing in drag, or baking "Pig Newtons," a cookie he develops as an additional source of revenue. Still, Peterson often finds himself alone. The townspeople harass him for his refusal to conform; kids terrorize his property, even setting his cabin afire; and when he produces a play indicting "corporate America" for abandoning farmers, John's backers insist that he first mask his "gay mannerisms," if he wants to be taken seriously. At the same time, John's own guilt for squandering his family's legacy leaves him tender and introspective.

Written and narrated by Peterson, The Real Dirt is equal parts cathartic and self-serving. Now 55 years old, he often appears detached from the controversy around him. While his parents lived and died by their land, John displays no such devotion. He admits, "The farm got in the way of every romance I ever had," shattering relationships with girlfriends and keeping him from traveling as much as he'd like to. Still, he always returns to the place he calls his "sanctuary," often with a renewed will. Driven by his mother's unflagging spirit, and a lifetime spent with his hands in the mud, it's hard to see him anyplace else.

John's salvation eventually comes with the burgeoning demand for organic produce. Embracing biodynamic, chemical-free production gave his vegetables a much desired appeal, but the real breakthrough comes when a Chicago cooperative pitches John on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Consumers become shareholders in the Peterson farm, subsidizing his production. In return, John ships them a crate a week of fresh, pesticide-free veggies, along with a newsletter detailing the farm's growth, and passionate philosophy. Describing Peterson's Angelic Organics, John speaks excitedly of the "direct relationship with people you grow food for."

The film celebrates the farm's diversity of vegetables and people alike. Peterson hires migrant Mexican workers alongside white staffers who look like they just dropped off a Phish tour, encouraging a diverse harmony seldom seen in the heartland. People come from across the country to participate in Peterson's enterprise. "I've gotten comfortable with my body, just by working with the tomatoes," notes one of the young interns.

John revels in the connection they find to his land. Accompanied by a girlfriend half his age, he seems reborn, filming music videos and skipping about dressed like a bumblebee. He's even started reasserting himself in town, where Peterson says he still feels "the penetrating eyes of the old-timers." Surrounded by young workers, he presides like a father over his idyllic microcosm. But with no children of his own and a decidedly alternative lifestyle, John repeatedly notes, "It all ends with me." The Real Dirt convinces otherwise. Already a local legend, Farmer John's legacy seems assured.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image