TROUBLESOME CREEK: A MIDWESTERN (1996)
This is a film that comes from the heart, so it is fitting that it has been picked up by that always heartfelt PBS series, "The American Experience." The title was almost inevitable. It refers to a twisty, unpredictable creek on the Iowa farm of Russ and ex-schoolteacher Mary Jane Jordan, but also to what banks call the "Troubled Accounts List" of loans.
The farm is in rural Iowa, near the town of Rolfe. It has been in the Jordan family since 1867, when a former Union soldier moved to Iowa. The current owners have been capable and have done well for the last forty years. From the 1950s to the 1970s there was steady progress, which also means expansion, and more equipment -- and more loans from willing banks. Then troubled times came in. Farmers, who in Abraham Lincoln's day were the overwhelming majority of Americans, had dwindled down to six million by 1960. By 1990-91, when "Troublesome Creek" was filmed, they were fewer than two million.
Bank loans can be a way of life for farmers, and were for the Jordans too. Loans and payments were renewed yearly, but then came an impasse: a debt of $200.000 to the new, impersonal, banking consortium that had taken over the old, friendly local bank.
When the filmmaking married couple of Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher in the East, heard that foreclosure was menacing Jeanne's parents, they went to Iowa with the double purpose of lending moral support and documenting the farmers' struggles on film. The main subjects were the older Jordans plus one son who worked with them and another who farmed separately but (see the film) could not make a go of it through no fault of his own. On the periphery --but a significant one-- is much of the Jordan and in-laws tribe.
With Jeanne narrating and commenting, the filmmakers do a splendid job of unobtrusive cinematography. The fact that Jeanne is a Jordan adds immeasurably to the film in the way of reminiscences, changing times, family history, characterizations of parents, siblings and outsiders. All of this comes from the point of view of someone who is loving, deeply involved yet unusually objective too. It's quite a balancing act, yet it comes through naturally and convincingly.
The text and images are sharp, both warm and noting of cold facts, yet never rhetorical or posturing. The Jordans are documented and so is the way of life of farmers, with its special world, values and family tightness. When Jeanne reminisces about her old high school, now closed for lack of students, she tells us of a Date-Your-Dad event when, as she was driven to it by Russ, she worried about what the two would talk about, adding (I am paraphrasing): "With so many children and work, I really never had a one-on-one conversatiom with my father." It's a striking revelation.
The sympathy for the Jordans is made with naturalness and ease also because Jeanne has the luck to have a likable family of articulate, generally well-educated persons, with pleasant voices accents --and photogenic to boot. Nature has done a good job of casting.
Life also added one of those unplanned incidents that filmmakers prize. At the start of the young couple's visit to the farm, a kitten is meowing pathetically from the top of a high barn. There's no way to rescue it, but then, uncharacteristically for baby cats, the small creature makes an enormous jump and lands unscathed into the arms of Jeanne's brother. (We later see it as a grown cat). It is a minor miracle that makes the viewer hope to see repeated as the rescue of the farm. But in real life there is no Deus ex Machina, no sudden inheritance or discovery or oil that will solve all problems at the eleventh hour.
The senior Jordans must come to the difficult, pragmatic decision to hold auctions for their cattle, for their machinery and their private possessions. If this works out, the land and the house can be saved, their son Jim can run it with his own machinery, father and mother can semi-retire in town but with Russ still active as advisor on the farm.
There is steady, genuine suspense before and during those auctions. I will only reveal that the outcome is positive, though the ultimate fate of the farm under Jim remains a question mark.
The film is subtitled "A Midwestern" with the sense of quiet humor that characterizes it. Russ and Mary Jane are avid fans of Hollywood Westerns. They watch them on their television set, and we see a number of scenes, cannily chosen by the filmmakers to illustrate the formula as given by Russ: "Good Guys, Bad Guys, Fights," which of course parallels the Jordans' own situation .
Other humorous touches are many, combined with warm ones, like Mary Jane always finding an excuse for not putting up for auction some of her doodads, or friends driving 120 miles in heavy snow to lend moral support at the auction, or strangers with bad auction etiquette. Then, at the Thanksigiving reunion there's the confusion caused by every member of the large family having a name starting with J.
We have not had any Save the Farm Hollywood movies after the spate of them in the 80s. Most of them were good as they went counter to the romanticizing of farm life in fact and in older idyllic films, but none was as genuine as the insider's job of "Troublesome Creek."