Soap of the Earth

Farming in a PBS Fishbowl

Sutherland also wants this story to seem timeless--and his way of universalizing the Buschkoetters' situation is to keep it looking as if it's happening on the moon. When a tool salesman calls a machete his "O.J. Special," what's jolting isn't the sick joke of Darrel buying a his-and-hers set, but the reminder that these people share a media/cultural context with us that the movie otherwise leaves out. It's even startling to see Darrel sipping a Bud Light. They own a TV set, but aren't ever shown watching anything but agricultural reports--gloomy ones, of course. Finding out what kind of sitcoms or music they like might distract us into seeing them as individuals, not archetypes. Sutherland's version of empathy is as imperious as superciliousness would be. Is he honestly worried that we'll find the Buschkoetters' lives insufficiently stark if they're ever seen enjoying themselves?

It's a safe bet that these rural churchgoers also have politics conservative enough to estrange viewers-like-us, which may be why the movie omits those too--even though small farmers are seldom apolitical, on the sensible grounds that they can't afford to be. Then again, PBS is seldom apolitical either, largely for the same reason. By my calculations, if Sutherland started shooting in early '95, this project probably got the go-ahead the previous fall--i.e., just as Newt Gingrich came to power. Back then, to a network dependent on congressional goodwill and ever ready to tug the old forelock to the new boss in town, a big miniseries about upright white Americans in the Corn Belt must have looked like an impressive antidote to the nasty stuff on P.O.V. that gets Jesse Helms hot under the collar. All the same, I don't see why the Buschkoetters should complain. By now, they must be used to being sacrificial lambs--and they probably don't watch PBS much anyway.

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