Over the last several years, my life became a movie.
“Why is there a movie about your life?” people often ask, seemingly wondering to themselves if they have ever spotted me on a sitcom or in People Magazine.
I say, “well, I guess I have an interesting life,” or, when I am feeling more humble, “Taggart Siegel, the director, thinks I have an interesting life.”
“What’s interesting about it?”
“Uhh…I’m a farmer, and I have an interesting farm.“ I answer.
“What’s interesting about a farm?” I will be asked, if the person has this much attention span.
“Farms are endless dramas,” I answer, “fascinating places. They make for amazing stories. And,” I sometimes add, “I’ve been farming over 40 years. I’ve written a lot about it over the last 20 years, and I can’t keep up with all the amazing things that happen.”
My Long History with Taggart Siegel, the Director
I met Taggart in 1980 at an art opening and we quickly became friends. He witnessed the last hurrah of conventional farming and flamboyant cultural life on my farm, and its subsequent plummet into insolvency.
From my story Hip Hip - a conversation between Taggart and me in 1982:
“Taggart,” I said one spring. “I’ve got some chisel plowing to do. Will you ride with me?” We roared up a clay hill on my 1586 International. The chisel plow knifed through the dirt. Clods and stalks swirled. I had to tell him. “This is my last spring of farming, Taggart. The bank’s shutting me down.” Taggart stared incredulously. “But I thought you were rich.” “No, I’ve been on the edge for years. It’s finally caving in.” “But all those parties, and those beautiful places you built...” “That didn’t have anything to do with money, somehow. The earth told me what to do and I did it.” Tears glistened down my cheek. “It’s the end of the line. It’s over. I don’t know how many generations of my family have done this plowing and planting every spring, but it’s ending with me.” I shook. My sweat smelled ancient, like scalded feathers. The chisels sliced into the clay knob. The 1586 howled. Black diesel fumes streamed from the stack. I had never cried in front of Taggart before.
Taggart documented the auction in a short documentary Bitter Harvest. Over the next several years he saw the enduring impact of the loss on my life. Often during this time, his camera was nearby, and he would film our shared adventures. Sometimes I would star in a short film of his. He was present in the mid-80’s when, in Mexico, I began writing and performing my life. In the early 90’s, Taggart watched the painstaking reinvention of what was left of my farm as I started up organic vegetable growing. The farm slowly grew and prospered, and Taggart and I eventually noticed that it was time for a sequel, a counterpoint to the grim documentary he had made of the farm’s demise in the early 80’s.
Camera in My Face What was it like being filmed all these last years for the documentary, farming and living in front of a camera? Being a busy farmer, with 80 or 90 hour workweeks, I sometimes found the added project of filming my life to be overwhelming. Of course it was interesting at times, but the film is about someone who gets a lot of work done, and being filmed kept me from getting a lot of work done. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t on a farm farming for the vegetables, but was on a movie set farming for the camera. Taggart (often with an assistant) spent many months on my farm over the last few years, inhabiting my home and my life - filming, interviewing, and discussing. He amassed over 180 hours of footage in the process.
(Fortunately, for the first half of my life, before Taggart arrived, there were others who found me and the farm worthy subjects for filming. Although somewhat random in frequency, intention and quality, this early footage made it possible for The Real Dirt on Farmer John to chronicle most of my life in images.)
Words versus(?) Images For years, I had thought that my farm and this life I have lived would be primarily shared through my writing; however, since the commencement of the documentary project, I have had to come to terms with film as another appropriate medium for sharing my life.
As a writer and performer, I am the master of my stories, the teller of my life, the prism through which my struggles and joys are shared, but then there was Taggart, another interpreter of my world, planning to share it with others on the screen. Words are my favorite medium. Reconciling cinema with writing - my preferred medium for telling a story - was a challenge for me. Film and the written word tell a story in such different ways, invoke very different feelings in the audience, and challenge and stimulate the imagination in profoundly different ways. (How often does one hear, “Gosh, I loved the book and the film?”)
Taggart and I struggled with the assimilation of words and images. I like films in which someone just sits in front of the camera telling a story, such as Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. I love My Dinner with Andre – a whole film about two guys sitting in a restaurant talking. I like words, the lavish use of words.
And permit me to say, Taggart likes the lavish use of images. He is a genius with images. An impassioned painter in his youth, Taggart continues his rapture with images today. “Don’t say it if you can show it,” he often would say. His commitment to the image was evident in his complete and ongoing willingness to use his camera in this project. No matter the weather, the time of day, the awkwardness of the shot, he would always be there with his camera, experimenting, leaning, walking, running, braving the rain, sitting on the tractor hood facing me as we roared down a lane, perched on the rotavator as I churned through the fields, hanging out of the helicopter…
I will also note here that, when a camera was not on the scene to document highlights and low points of my history, words were used to give the story continuity. “If you can’t show it, say it,” I often would say.
Gradually, Taggart and I came to accept, appreciate and work effectively with each other’s favorite medium. I like the film’s final balance between words and images. I like that some of my favorite lines from my writings are in the narration of the film. Taggart and I are both enchanted by the words of the rural people in the interviews. And I love how the film has been made lyrical and operatic through Taggart’s dedicated camera work.
My Relationship with Taggart Today By the seventh year of this film project, we were experiencing…how should I say it?… tension with each other. So we wrote up a contract committing to remain friends, at least until the film was completed. Imagine that – after 25 years of friendship, we needed a contract to remain friends. A great idea, that contract. My good friend Taggart would agree.