This is in fact more than one film. It is of course Oscar Harding’s documentary A Life on the Farm, but within that is its subject, another film (or films) entitled Life on the Farm (no indefinite article) which forms its starting point and principal subject. These amateur videos shot on VHS camcorder by ageing farmer Charles Carson in the 1990s at his family property, Coombe End Farm in the Somerset village of Huish Champflower, are now found footage, exhumed for the different perspective of a later generation.
One of these videos was given to Harding’s grandfather, who was a neighbour of Carson’s, and then kept in storage by Harding’s aunt, only to be rediscovered by Harding a decade or so after he had seen part of it aged ten – up until the point where his father insisted it be switched off as unsuitable material for children. Here that forbidden fruit – and some newly emerged offshoots – are replayed and reexamined both as time capsules of a lost way of life, and as evidentiary records of an individual’s sometimes jaw-dropping idiosyncrasy.
The title of both Harding’s and Carson’s films come with layers of irony, for here it is not just life, but its end, that is being celebrated and commemorated. While Carson liked to document the daily routines on his farm, including the birth (and afterbirth) of calves shown in graphic detail, he ominously declares to camera that “Beef is beautiful”, and that his parents ate beef every day of their lives, all with a young cow still in shot. Here the end is implicit even in the beginning, and every newborn miracle is someone’s future dinner.
More bizarrely yet, Carson seems to derive great pleasure – or is it catharsis? – in capturing the dead on film, be it his cat Little Pandy, or his beloved father Stan and brother Frank. When his mother Millie dies, Carson keeps the corpse of Millie at home for several days, placing it in her wheelchair about the field for the cows to see one last time, and photographing (and comically labelling) these macabre tableaux for posterity – as well as for the Christmas cards that he sent to all his neighbours. These strange acts of preservation might evoke shades of the ‘mummy’ love from Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960) or the real-life case of Ed Gein that inspired it, but Carson was an ever benign, ever cheery man finding his own way through the oblivion of loss through the distancing (and immortalising) lens of a camera.
In a second video which Carson submitted to Camcorder User Magazine for an amateur video competition, and which the magazine’s former editors Jake Day-Williams and Robert Hull would years later upload online, the old farmer, now living entirely alone on Coombe End Farm, places cardboard skeletons all over the property, simultaneously as comic props, farmhand companions and a memento mori of his own – and everyone’s – eventual fate. Of course now these films – and Harding’s documentary – preserve in images the memory of Carson himself, who died in 2008 before his videos, performative yet intimate, would win any public notice let alone acclaim.
With commentary from found footage experts (Joe Pickett, Nick Prueher, Derrick Beckles, Dimitri Simakis, Lehr Beidelschies, Nic Maier, Davy Rothbart), an undertaker poet (Thomas Lynch), a true-crime podcaster/author (Karen Kilgariff), a psychologist (Dr Ciaran Mulholland), and various friends and neighbours (Reverend Chris Marshall, Peter and Valerie Shaw, Denise Broom, Wilfred Evans, Charlies Norman, John Ridgley, Reg Hendy), A Life on the Farm reveals different facets of Carson: clownish oddball, committed carer, industrious agriculturalist, outsider artist and humanist philosopher. While the documentary begins by encouraging us to laugh at Carson’s homespun peculiarities, eccentric mannerisms and utterly unguarded on-camera persona, by the end it offers a rounded, sympathetic portrait of a kind man who invites all of us into his little world as a microcosm of the human (and animal) condition.
strap: Oscar Harding’s found footage documentary is a funny, moving portrait of an eccentric outsider artist as barnyard philosopher
© Anton Bitel