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Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club – Country (1984)

In This Country, When The Land Is Your Life… You Fight For Your Life - Country / 1984 / Color / 109 min. / Dolby Stereo / Rated PG

Welcome back to Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club, right here on your local Patch!!!

 

If remakes, re-imaginings, adaptations, and pointless cash-cow sequels leave you feeling empty, if CGI effects just don’t do it for you, if you’re left utterly disappointed by Hollywood’s current talent pool (or lack thereof), then Hoffa has the cure that you’ve been so desperately seeking! What Opera did for book clubs, Hoffa’s going to do for film clubs! So dust off that Betamax VCR that’s hiding in your basement and follow along as your personal guide, Patch’s very own ‘James R. Hoffa,’ takes you back to film’s past to discover, review, and discuss many of cinema’s hidden gems. Who knows, you may even end up with a new all time favorite!

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As most of you are probably aware, the U.S. Housing Bubble Burst of 2008 has received a good deal of attention in everything from nightly newscasts, to newspaper and magazine articles, to the focus of pundit analysis, to fiction and nonfiction books, to TV and film documentaries, to movies, to political speeches, to inspiring the Occupy movement, to… well, the list is quite literally endless. In fact, three (3) years later, we're still talking about it today, given the local impacts of and a that have .

If only we had paid a bit more attention to a similar crisis that unfolded across America's Mid-Western heartland in the early '80's and actually learned a thing or two, it's probable that we wouldn't be in the mess that we currently find ourselves in today. Of course, I'm referring to the '80's Farm Crisis, which much like the Bubble Burst of 2008, was described as the worst of its kind since the Great Depression. And while many of you may have heard of Willie Nelson's annual Farm Aid charitable concert, you're likely unaware of just how much in common the '80's Farm Crisis has with today's Housing Bubble Burst.

1984 was a popular year for the farm crisis movie, as no less than three separate and competing films were produced that tackled the issue. Taking interest in the struggles facing many family farms in the early '80's, politically engaged actress and humanitarian activist Jessica Lange set out to expose such difficulties by staring in the definite and quintessential motion picture about the '80's Farm Crisis, Country (1984), this installment of Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club feature film pick!

Filmed on location at an actual foreclosed and deserted farm just outside Dunkerton, Iowa, Country follows the hardships of married Jewell, played by Lange, and Gil Ivy, played by Sam Shepard, as they fight adversity to keep their small multi-generational family farmstead alive and their family together.

 

The Reagan-era '80's have been tough on the Ivy's, just as they've been on many of the mid-west's small rural family farmers. New international trade and subsidy policies caused grain and livestock prices to bottom out and remain stagnant for many years. The cost of seed, fertilizer, and feed are up. And to top things off, the year's critical corn harvest, as well as their son's life, was severely threatened by mother-nature. The Ivy's just can't catch a break, nor can they turn a profit.

 

Just when it looks like things couldn't get any worse for the Ivy's, the government sponsored Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) decides to call in the loans that the Ivy's were enthusiastically encouraged to take out for improvements, equipment, and livestock and secured with the deed to their farm. Unable to pay their debts, the Ivy's face eminent liquidation and foreclosure, just as suffered by many of their former neighbors and friends. After all, to the new administration in the White House, farming's a business, and one that the Ivy's just aren't capable of competing in any longer.

 

But for the Ivy's, farming's not about the money - it's a tradition, a heritage, a way of life, and one they're not ready to give up without a fight. Unable to refinance their debt, Gil starts to feel out of options and in over his head. Eventually, the pressure of the fight proves too much for him, and he retreats, drowning his sorrows into the bottoms of empty beer bottles, leaving Ivy on her own to keep both the farm and her family together.

 

Country offers a compelling look at the '80's Farm Crisis told from the perspective of the family farmers who suffered the very worst of its wrath. Working from writer William D. Wittliff's simple but effectively sincere script, director Richard Pearce gives us an uncompromising inside look into Iowa's rural family farming heritage and the financial difficulties they faced in the early '80's. Back-dropped by the flat and seemingly endless fields, arrow-straight telephone-pole lined dirt roads, and rustic farming communities of pastoral Iowa, Country reveals both the harsh drama filled realities of American farmers during this time, as well as the enduring fight of the human spirit within us all, to its audience.

One of the sheer delights of Country is watching the incredibly strong performances of its cast that gives the film its realistic disposition. Led by an undeniable dynamic between Lange, who's efforts were honestly the best of her career, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and Shepard, the reality of the Ivy's desperation and determination is easily felt by the audience, drawing you deep into their plight. Veteran farmer, cowboy, and actor Wilford Brimley adds a touch of authenticity and personality in such a way that only he is capable of, playing Jewell's father, Otis. Matt Clark is memorable in the supporting role of Tom McMullen, the Ivy's morally and ethically torn loan officer, and Alex Harvey handles the role of Waymond Fordyce, the uncompassionate FmHA district director, with convicted and relentless ease.

Contrary to its setting and subject matter, Pearce opted for a sparsely used synth, piano, violin, and horn heavy new-age film score composed by Charles Gross over an otherwise would be expected country-western soundtrack for Country. And trust me, the film is better off and that much more powerful from such an unconventional decision, as Gross' score works to exacerbate the range of emotion contained within the story. Also noteworthy is Pearce's decision to open and close the film with a radio farm report from the Chicago Board of Trade, as such reports effectively setup the mood and eases us into the atmosphere of the journey that Pearce takes us on.

In Hoffa's honest opinion, Country is by far and away the absolute best of the farm crisis movies produced in 1984, and the only one that accurately depicts the environment, events, and human conditions related to the '80's Farm Crisis. Unfortunately, Country was not heavily promoted by label Touchstone Pictures, and the film ended up being overshadowed by the inferior farm crisis dramas The River (1984) starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, the recipient of four (4) Oscar nominations, and the Sally Field driven Places in the Heart (1984), which somehow managed to be nominated for seven (7) Oscars, securing two wins, including Best Actress for Field. Clearly, both Country and Lange got robbed by the Academy, and as a result, Country was largely forgotten about in the wake of its more popular and financially successful competitors.

While the Academy and cinema going audiences may have snubbed Country, you definitely shouldn't, as this film is THE hidden gem of farm crisis movies and the best film ever made dealing with the subject. Those familiar with Hoffa's political views should be warned that Country presents a very liberal view of the '80's Farm Crisis, as is evidence in the attached preview clip featuring the infamous 'nickel auction' scene. But that doesn't mean that both conservatives and independents won't love Country just as much, so don't let that stop you from seeing this important reminder on the destructive power of real estate based economic bubbles. I'll just get ready for all of the political posts that I'm sure will dominate the commentary board of this review!

In North America, Country was released on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Country is also available for rent on DVD from Netflix.

 

Will Jewell be successful in keeping her family together and salvaging the family farm? To find out, be sure to check out Country today! Then, come back to Patch and let Hoffa and others know what you think about this definitive, heartwretching, and inspirational look back at the '80's Farm Crisis and be sure to tune in for the next installment of Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club!

 

Country / 1984 / Color / 109 min. / Dolby Stereo / Rated PG for language and adult situations.

Film Clip and Poster Art courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. ™ and © 1984 Buena Vista Pictures.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

James R Hoffa February 05, 2012 at 04:39 AM
Speaking of music from the film's, Gross' score from 'Country' was actually released years later in both LP and CD formats. Today, they are hard to come by and usually command a premium price. http://www.ebay.com/itm/Country-1984-Charles-Gross-Original-Soundtrack-LP-/180199465095?pt=AU_Records&hash=item29f4b9a087 http://www.amazon.com/Country-Original-Soundtrack-Charles-Gross/dp/B000000NG7
Randy1949 February 05, 2012 at 05:15 PM
@JRH -- I'd go farther and say that Places wasn't really about the farm crisis, since it took place in Depression Era Texas. it was more a family crisis film that said more about a group of have-nots banding together in a time of trouble. It also had a very understated message about race relations at the time, which was powerful nonetheless. Perhaps that's the reason it sticks with me more than 'Country' because that one was just damn depressing, and I didn't find myself inspired to repeat viewings. I managed to miss seeing The River.
James R Hoffa February 06, 2012 at 11:38 PM
@Randy1949 - You are dead on in your assessment of 'Places' and the prevailing themes featured throughout - it has nothing to do with the '80's Farm Crisis, but does carry over some similar issues. The bigger emphasis in 'Places' was definitely on the race relations issue, as you pointed out, which was not carried over into either 'Country' or 'The River.' But, because it centered around small family farming, many critics lumped it together into the 'farm crisis' sub-genre that was popular during the mid-eighties. Understand that the sub-genre itself is described in very general and generic terms. As there were three farming films produced in 1984, all of which managed to pick-up Oscar nominations, it's been somewhat par for the course in the critic world to discuss, compare, and contrast them with one another, which is why I did that here.
James R Hoffa February 06, 2012 at 11:40 PM
'The River,' like 'Country,' was also back-dropped in the early-mid eighties amid the height of the actual '80's Farm Crisis, but as I stated earlier, tends to focus more on the consequences of natural disaster, specifically of a river flooding and breaching a dam/levee and thereby threatening a small family farming operation. There's also a story line pitting the 'poor' family farmer against the evil and 'rich' corporate developers that would stand to gain and benefit if the dam/levee did in fact fail, as well as conflicting sentiments and support from the government regarding the situation. In that sense, 'The River' provides far more controversy and conflict than 'Country,' but is much less genuine and honest, as it presents itself more like a conspiracy theory suspense than a human drama. Which again may be why many considered 'The River' to be more entertaining than 'County' - although 'Places' obviously topped both with audiences and the Academy. But for a simple and honest looking-through-the-window look at small family farming in America during hardship, 'Country' remains the film for me!
mau February 11, 2012 at 05:41 PM
One of these days you will hit on a movie that I have seen :) I have no interest in farm crisis movies as I grew up on a farm and saw it first hand. As you have referenced in the past, it was the same situation with the farmers as it was with the housing crash. The farming community I grew up with was more or less broken up into ethnic enclaves, dependent when the settlers first arrived to the area. I am most familiar with my family who arrived in the early 1900's and were part of an ethnic farming community. The biggest loss of farms came with 3rd generation US born who inherited the farm from either their parents or grandparents. There were some failures of 1st generation immigrants but those mostly occurred in the first years they were in the country or during the depression. Mostly these immigrant farming communities stuck together and helped each other through these hard times. Most of the 1st and 2nd generation farmers worked with each other, shared farm equipment and kept each other afloat. It was when these farms tried to modernize and go it alone, borrow to expand. is when the problems started. They over-borrowed and over-built. They thought their ancestors were stupid and backward. There were some exceptions one of which was my paternal grandparents farm. That is still being run by my cousin who is 3rd generation. As they have no children, that farm will end when they can no longer do the work.

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