Soap of the Earth


Agog at its own empathy, self-consciously majestic, and proving that PBS does so know how to stick up for the heartland, Frontline‘s six-hour The Farmer’s Wife, the first of whose three parts airs September 21, is documentarian David Sutherland’s record of two desperate years in the lives of Nebraskans Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, struggling to make a go of farming as they bring up three small daughters. When Sutherland started filming in the spring of 1995, the Buschkoetters were waiting for a government loan to stave off the loss of their rented land. When he stopped in 1997, things had gotten better, but not by much.

If I’m less than agog myself, it’s not because the two-hour debut left me indifferent to their problems. A farmer’s son who lives for crops, Darrel’s a decent guy with an angry streak and a rough-and-ready sense of humor that his exhausted wife can’t share, even as a coping mechanism; Juanita, called a “city girl” by locals because she grew up in nearby Lawrence (pop. 350), is woebegone but capable, with an expressively wistful, unprettily beautiful face that has Sutherland dreaming dreams of Walker Evans. They’re likable people on the brink of despair, and it’s painful to watch their arduous grind and endless money worries wearing down their spirits and frazzling their marriage.

Because Sutherland followed the Buschkoetters everywhere–even into bed, where Darrel and Juanita have several awkward tête-à-têtes while the cameraman adjusts his fly on the wall–the network is comparing The Farmer’s Wife to its notorious 1973 docu-soap An American Family. But that series isn’t exactly a noble tradition. The blowhard Loud clan were the advance guard for today’s tabloid TV–rough drafts of Jerry Springer’s guest lists. I also don’t know how any self-respecting documentarian could peddle this pseudointimate pseudoveracity as truth-telling after Albert Brooks’s definitive send-up in Real Life. At least MTV’s The Real World makes no bones about being compromised–a ticket to showbiz, pure and simple.

Unlike the Louds, the Buschkoetters don’t seem to be neurotic attention-getters. They probably agreed to appear because they thought it would somehow help their situation, which is poignant. And unlike its predecessor, Sutherland’s film isn’t tawdry. But the Heisenberg principle still applies. It’s faintly ludicrous when the Buschkoetters earnestly discuss the tension in their marriage and never suggest that the filmmakers’ constant, probing presence– insisting that they keep articulating their problems while the chores go hang–might be adding to the strain. You also have to wonder how the fishbowl affects their children. Midway through a long scene of Juanita leading the kids in bedtime prayers, there’s a disconcerting moment when one daughter accidentally glances at the camera–and hastily looks away, like she knows this is the ultimate no-no.

If Sutherland thought the Buschkoetters were average folks, he must know they stopped qualifying the minute his crew came to the door. But why should he care, since he’s out to swell their story to the stature of myth–a glowing echt-Americana epic, with editing that lingers importantly over every gorgeous sunset that Darrel drives his tractor through and lardings of fake Copland soaring away on the soundtrack. While the director may believe that he’s honoring the Buschkoetters, these embellishments falsify their experience as much as sticking them in The Real World‘s swank digs would. It’s a layer of meaning imposed on the material, and a strikingly egotistic form of compassion. Sutherland often seems less moved by the Buschkoetters than by his vision of them; you can’t help feeling that he’s a mite proud of all the beauty he’s lavishing on this family’s miseries.

Even if that’s unfair, magniloquent aggrandizements of somebody else’s bad luck have left me queasy ever since I bailed on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men–and at least James Agee’s self-dramatizing readiness to view hardscrabble lives as so much gruel for his gush had the justification, or pretext, of serving as Depression agitprop. But unless the later installments differ radically in tone, Sutherland isn’t even out to make viewers indignant–just awed at the poetic resonances he’s discovered in the Buschkoetters’ prosaic story.

He’s clearly sensitive and tactful, since he won their trust–and doesn’t violate it, at least in the sense that the movie isn’t malicious. Unlike the reprehensible Frederick Wiseman, the director isn’t lying in wait for the couple to make fools of themselves. Yet he’s just as willing as Wiseman to treat their circumstances as raw material for the effects and images he’s after, and tailor his footage to his own symbolic purposes. After Darrel and Juanita worry over how they’ll manage with three children to feed, Sutherland cuts to one of their daughters on a swing set at twilight–and holds the shot until the rhythmically creaking chains sound like the Grim Reaper’s scythe.

Sutherland does have an eye, and plenty of matter-of-fact moments hit home–the easy way frail-looking Juanita scoops up her youngest child with one hand while carrying a pail with the other, a bit when Darrel jokes incredulously about how they’ll never have enough leisure time to feel bored. But the director is so intent on rendering the Buschkoetters’ situation elemental that he gives short shrift to particularizing it. Modishly, he does without a narrator, so you know he doesn’t care about being informative, and for a movie this long and detailed-looking, the facts stay surprisingly vague. If you’re curious what financial mistakes got the couple in such hot water, whether government support services are helpful or burdensome, or even if their predicament is typical of small farmers, phone them. Sutherland stresses how grueling their schedules are, but doesn’t even clarify the tasks involved in running a farm day by day. His rhapsodic, generalizing conception of what’s important about them takes precedence over what’s important to them. For instance, we learn that Darrel hoped to be a hog farmer, and yet our first and only sight of the pigs he’s been raising comes when they’re loaded onto a truck to be sold for quick cash.

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.