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!
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!
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.