How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree? That's the musical question that hovers over American Farm, Jim Spione's documentary about his family, which has been working the same piece of land in Ritchfield Springs, N.Y. ' near Cooperstown ' for the last 150 years. Contour Meadows, named for the innovative plowing technique that Murray Ames adopted long before his neighbors did, managed to pull through the farm crisis of the '80s. But Langdon "Lanny" Ames, Murray's son, who's run the place for 40-odd years and lived there his whole life, is nearing the end of his tenure. And when Lanny goes, the farm goes, not because it isn't capable of squeezing out a profit but because none of Lanny's kids ' three sons and a daughter '- has any interest in taking it over. They've all seen Paree.
Actually, they don't appear to have gotten much farther than Orlando, but that was far enough. Young people simply aren't going into farming these days, and who could blame them? It was always a hard life; now it's a hardly possible life. But Spione isn't all that interested in farm issues per se ' consolidation, government assistance (or lack thereof), foreclosures. He's interested in his relatives, who've been enacting one Faulkner novel after another in their very own Yoknapatawpha County. Using old photos and home movies to supplement the interviews he did with key family members, Spione has woven the various strands of his ancestral heritage, which reaches back five generations, into a rich tapestry, a portrait of a whole way of life.
If only because he represents the end of the line, Lanny assumes a prominent place in that portrait ' the last of Jefferson's yeoman farmers, democracy's only hope. A man of few words, Lanny still gets up and milks the cows every morning, despite a chimpanzee gait that suggests a lifetime of back-breaking labor. Speaking of labor, he delivers a calf in one memorable scene by reaching inside its mother's uterus and yanking it out with a rope ' all in a day's work. It's left to us to decide what role Lanny played in his children's decisions to seek their fortunes elsewhere. He isn't exactly the touchy-feely type, and religion may have had something to do with it. Whatever the cause, Spione's documentary offers a wonderfully personal look at that great American institution, the family farm ' once an ideal, now barely an idea.