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When Kansas Came to Town: Portrait of Crop Artist Stan Herd in Earthwork

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Earthwork
Directed by Chris Ordal
Shadow Distribution
Opens April 29

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It’s clear early on that Earthwork, a meandering yet absorbing dramatic account of Kansas “crop artist” Stan Herd’s troubled 1994 project in Manhattan, is determined to avoid clichés. A boardroom scene in which the decidedly life-size Herd (John Hawkes) pitches his idea dispenses with its goodhearted-hick-vs.-city-swells showdown in a single exchange, and the movie subsequently raises class and geography only implicity. This is especially impressive considering how essential these are to the story: Herd gets help constructing the piece—a bucolic landscape composed of natural materials—from several homeless men who occupy a transit tunnel near the shabby installation site, while his cash-strapped wife, Jan (Laura Kirk, a co-producer), struggles to make ends meet back home throughout the film. Earthwork is neither schematic nor utopian, even if Hawkes lays on the hayseed charm a little thick and the pace is occasionally too languid. Instead, writer/director Chris Ordal establishes a visual parity with his subject’s ethos: Like Herd, the movie—which resists peeking above the horizon until its final, poignant skyline shot—strives for a connection with land and labor typically missing from depictions of urban life, and provides a timely model for finding value in lean circumstances and humble company.

 
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