“There we are, that’s life on a farm,” says Charles Carson, grieving sweetly over his dead cat that he holds up to the camera, dressing it with a poppy fastened to a necklace. It is Remembrance Day in England and the poppy reminds us of the cycle of life. And here is this odd man, putting his dead cat into a box of English Apples that the cat used to love crawling around in. He’s spreading cat nip around the box, so his other cats will come and honor their dead relative. One jumps on his back, and we’re given a freeze frame as Carson humors himself, “don’t break my back now!”
You can imagine every moment of Charles Carson’s life going this way. A lonely widower who wants everyone to see all the strange facets of life on his Somerset farm. He says it again and again, variations on the same phrase. That’s just life on a farm. And he kept making the same movie, the same two hour home movie for the folks who lived near his farm. He would make the same movie with slight differences, including material of the recipient or their family and wrapping it around a “that’s just life on the farm story.”
Someone dies next door. In their belongings is found one of Charles Carson’s video tapes. So begins the short and convoluted road for The Found Footage Festival coming by these tapes, the joy found in their VHS mundanity in public exhibitions, and the two directors here, from the festival, setting out to make a simple documentary about the man behind the tapes.
The peculiarity doesn’t end with cats. Likewise, Carson stages his mother after her death. He wheels up her chair she’s been for so long confined to, takes a picture with some cattle that seems to be smiling, and like an awkward surrealist, adds a speech bubble to the cattle thanking his mother for all the years of work. That’s life on a farm. He then does the same thing with his father.
Whatever we think of this is likely beside the point. The real point is how everyone grieves a little differently. How this man wanted to share his vast love for the familial structure of the farm by preserving the relationships he felt in life after the subject’s death. It’s a fascinatingly weird thing to shoot. Many folks would have a sense of self doubt. Maybe you shouldn’t keep your deceased relatives and stage them after a few days of life.
The eerie home videos can even be explicit in their own way. If some cattle is giving birth, Carson gets his camera right in there. He wants to show everything flowing out of the creature and even the slow hard to watch birthing process. He proudly holds up a cow’s afterbirth like everyone should want to see it. Life on the farm.
He doesn’t document only what is most pleasant about the rural life in the England countryside. Carson is interested in birth and death, the natural ecosystem that shapes a sense of place and time to which he belongs. He singularly belongs to this space, these videos, this process.
What’s refreshing about it all is the lack of commercial purpose. These are home videos shot on cassette about one man and his farm. They are not for him but they are entirely him and nothing else. Sometimes he forgets to turn the camera off, walks away, and has to come back for it. Those are the great moments. The thing is, while the original work is excellent in its mundanity, the normative talking heads approach interspersed with clips from the videos may never match that original joy. The natural way of shooting, how the farm, home, and movie set, have become indecipherable in their exact purpose and function. It’s life on the farm but is also life as dioramic expression of isolated systems and how an influence over the spaces we inhabit can be positive, sweet, and sure, sometimes creepy and overreaching. That’s life correctly captured on camera.