The Farmer's Wife, which opens this season's Frontline on PBS, is a thousand-acre documentary that neither details nor examines but rather gathers, like eggs - some cracked, some rotten, some chocolate, some golden - scenes from the difficult life of a young Nebraska farm couple, Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter. It comes on looking like a genuine Television Event, not in the least because it is long - though at six and one-half hours (split over three nights), it is still not as long as a season of The Real World, and only half the span of An American Family, the spirit of which has been promotionally invoked by the Frontline flacks. Nevertheless, size does matter; as in other lengthy works - Ulysses, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - the extra space lets the substance breathe, like wine does. We are going to be here for a while, such dimension says, so get comfortable; unplug the phone, put away the papers, surrender. Although the essentials of The Farmer's Wife - plotwise, pointwise - could be communicated not ineffectively in the space of a Dateline segment, director David Sutherland has bigger fields to plow; he wants to demonstrate eternal verities and complicated undercurrents, to illuminate the rough course of True Love. If scenes go on longer than they "need" to, if dead air is left to hang, if we keep coming back to where we've been before, it's all meant to make the experience less like TV and more like the movie you live yourself. To create the familiarity that breeds not contempt - not just contempt, anyway - but compassion.
The film - it's called "a David Sutherland film," but was shot, quite handsomely, on video - follows the Buschkoetters as they fight to keep their farm, stay married and raise three girls on $11,000 a year. It's not a drama of big events but of continuous pressure - money pressure, time pressure, air pressure - on a life with no leisure but only periods of absolute exhaustion that briefly pass for peace. It also concerns power shifts within a marriage, the will toward self-improvement, and the hope for self-realization, which isn't just for city folk anymore. The couple are sharp observers of their own malaise; yet the more we learn of them, the more unknowably complex they seem - they remain essentially mysterious, as does their world of wheat and weather and cows and cats and huge, strange, earth-nudging, crop-cutting machines. The Farmer's Wife as a result is less a report than a poem, built out of quietly brilliant images of farm and family, land and sky, and subtly delineating the metrical differences between adult time, child time and animal time. It leaves as well a strong impression of the unbreachable, awful integrity of the individual - that every man is an island, imperfectly mapped, often misread - and how much work it can be merely to be understood. "I just wish that everybody could be in our shoes," says Juanita of those who judge them - their critical families, impatient creditors, better-heeled neighbors, the guy from the FmHA - as you, viewer, may yourself on the evidence here presented. It is neither the whole truth nor nothing but the truth, since there is necessarily much unshown and what is shown has been arranged for drama, and quite beautifully arranged at that. The film's best effects are cumulative and subtle; you don't notice you've been set up until, six and a half hours down the road, hot tears roll down your face simply because a house is being painted.
But hey. There's nothing the matter with a little manipulation. (That's why you turn on TV in the first place, to be jerked around - in a nice way, of course.) Obviously, though it is emotionally true and full of unscripted incident, The Farmer's Wife isn't completely real: Reality lacks underscoring; it's diffuse and unfocused and unframed. Like any film, this is the product of dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions - art decisions - about where to put the camera, what footage to use and where to cut; and it is subject as well, from the word go and in spite of every attempt by the filmmakers to blend into the wallpaper, to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. (See also: Brooks, Albert: Real Life.) And though no one in it can strictly be said to be "acting," we are all, after all, born dissemblers and, even without a camera to play to, put on faces right and left. Anyway, the purpose of drama, even documentary drama, isn't to transcribe the world, but to distill its essence, to crystallize the vague outlines of human desire or discontent into something which, though artificial, articulates our actual yearning, enlarges our understanding. This is why Shakespeare is more valuable, morally/practically speaking, than the evening news, and why we make millionaires out of actors.
Laurence Olivier, ladies and gentlemen, to complete this little transition, Laurence Olivier. Commonly called the century's greatest actor, a sobriquet applied so reflexively, and overlooking so very much, that one can't really take it seriously - and yet one does, just as one trusts Coca-Cola - Lord Larry is currently the subject of a short retrospective, at the Museum of Television & Radio, of some of his later works. While his last decade and a half on the movie-house screen was largely undistinguished, or worse - Clash of the Titans, The Betsy, The Jazz Singer, don't pretend you don't remember - Olivier made wise use of television, where, after retiring from the stage, he did most of his remaining good work, playing Williams, Inge, O'Neill. The MTR series, which includes his King Lear and a 1961 Pinter one-act, serves up superior TV and a chance to see a master craftsman in settings worth his attention.
Ending this Sunday, September 20, is John Mortimer's bittersweet Voyage Round My Father (1982), which suggests that the writer's bombastically eccentric pa was the model for his well-known fictional barrister, Horace Rumpole. Olivier, though sometimes short of breath, is never less than sporty. He plays the blind father with a complete lack of show, has a spectacular laughing jag, and gets to rehearse his own demise. Alan Bates stands in for Mortimer, which is no bad thing, and returns along with Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell in Pinter's The Collection (September 23 through October 11), concerning four people and an affair that two of them might or might not have had, developed in a series of creepy-funny pas de deux (and one brief trio). ("You're a wag, aren't you? . . . Do you know what I'd call you?" "What?" "A wag.")
The superdelightful courtroom romance Love Among the Ruins (October 14 through November 1), from 1975 and the series' only American production, represents the sole teaming of Olivier and Katharine Hepburn; for old-school measure, George Cukor directs. Cukor goes a bit mad with color here and there, and sometimes seems to move the camera just to have something to do while his stars get down - in their late 60s, Olivier and Hepburn are still spunky, sparky, sexy - but is generally content to hang back and let the good times roll. The setting is Edwardian but the energy nearly screwball.
Eight years later: King Lear (November 4 through 29). Olivier, on the far side of 75, returns to a role he played in his youth, the monarch too zoon old und too late schmart, feeling that "my frailty suited the old man." (Ian Holm tries the part on for size next month on PBS.) Not his last film, though his final Shakespeare. Here again, he's called upon to echo his own debilitation, and while the fact that Lear's distress is to some degree Olivier's is at times disquieting - mortality is not supposed to afflict movie stars - there's something inspiring in it as well, a calm desire at the end of things to explore, and exploit, the end of things. With Diana Rigg, John Hurt, Leo McKern (Rumpole!), Dorothy Tutin, and as true to life as real life ever is.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1998 and 2011