Saturday, April 23, 2011

Film of the year, so far: In EARTHWORK, Chris Ordal gives us crop artist Stan Herd

Hard to believe a film as fine as EARTHWORK has been sitting around for several years (it was made in 2008) before finally getting a theatrical release. Not that it has been exactly idle. This narrative-that-resembles-a-documentary has already appeared at nearly 50 U.S. film festivals around the country (practically one per state), winning numerous awards in the process. It stars John Hawkes, the wiry little actor who was Academy-nominated last year for his work in Winter's Bone, and features a few well known names in supporting roles (James McDaniel, Zach Grenier (shown in the penultimate photo below, with Hawkes) and Bruce MacVittie, among them).

Expertly written and directed by newcomer Chris Ordal (at right), the movie tells the true story of Kansas "crop artist" Stan Herd and the particular project he developed here, of all places, in New York City back in 1994. Alternating scenes that are often dialog-free with others that are dialog heavy, the filmmaker explores the artistic impulse in a manner that few films are able to achieve (Seraphine would be one of these): honestly, realistically and with, I believe, perhaps the best understanding of the artistic personality that I've yet seen. Viewing  Earthwork, you feel strongly the immense need of the artist to create -- but also see the sacrifices that must be made to satisfy that need.

Ordal's film is slow but consistently involving, quiet yet full of incident and connection. As the project takes shape in Manhattan, Herd finds help from some of the homeless who reside in the tunnel near the land on which he's working. (That's McDaniel, above, as one of the most difficult-to-reach of the men.) These people and their own needs remain somewhat mysterious. Bits and pieces of their life float to the surface, however, and slowly we learn.

The filmmaker seems to intuitively understand how much to show and tell and what to leave unspoken and unshown. Things happen -- the first words uttered by one of the men -- simply in passing and without comment. Ordal draws expert performances from his whole cast, too, starting with Hawkes in the lead role. (The actor, shown above, at times looks so scrawny, you fear for his well-being.)

Chris Bachand, above, plays the photographer/graffiti artist in the homeless group, and he, like Herd, is possessed by his art. One of the things the movie makes us understand quite well is that it matters not whether the art is "good" by the viewer's standards. To the artist, it is all.

As the project draws toward it's opening (and near-simultaneous closing: Donald Trump owns the land on which is has been created, and he plans to bulldoze it soon), the need for media coverage and attention becomes paramount, if Herd and his art are to be taken seriously. This artist -- who has mortgaged the family home to raise money for his project -- must now pay back a large bank loan.

How all this plays out is unlike most any other narrative or documentary you will have seen. The experience offers everything: suspense, surprise, desolation and hope. And enormous food for thought. The fact that this is based on a true story seems more germane here than in most movies that make that boast. (I should also say a word for the fine, crisp 35mm photography by Bruce Francis Cole.)

The year is young but as of now this is the film to beat. A model of independent movie-making in every way, Earthwork defines memorable.  It will open this coming Friday, April 29, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles on May 20 at Laemmle's Music Hall. For other playdates around the country, click here.

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