PickettThe action takes place in Coombe End Farm, in Somerset. Charles Carson looks like your average farmer. He lives on his own, after both of his parents and his wife passed away. There is nothing particularly remarkable about an lonely old man suffering from advanced Alzheimers. Until someone found his homemade tape with the feature film Life on the Farm. The viewer reactions (captured by British documentarist Oscar Harding) give you a clue of what you are about to see: “This is dark, but friendly dark”, “He was ahead of his time”, “We’ve been collecting weird VHS tapes since 1991 and by far this is the weirdest one we’ve seen”, or the more brazen “I can’t tell you whether this guy is a genius or a psychopath”. Charles’s amateur register casually combines the mundane with the extraordinary to superb, often shocking results.
The most striking element of Life on the Farm (the film within this film) is Charle’s consistent focus on the death of his loving family members, as well as on the birth and death of the farm animals. He nonchalantly poses with the corpse of his 89-year-old father Stan and also of his 94-year-old mother Millie (who passed away a few years apart). The captures the burial of his cat Pandy, while gently playing with his lifeless body: “You’d never think he’s dead, look”. A cow gives birth to multiple calves, and Charles flourishes the placenta to the camera as if it was a handcrafted painting. Cardboard skeletons driver his tractor. He adds cutaway speech bubbles to pictures of people and animals (both living and dead) in order to forge some sense of livelihood. He ties the whole film together with his own narration, his voice deep and dispassionate, in stark contrast to the puerile commentary and gimmicks.
Charles became an instant, posthumous online celebrity after clips from his only film were made available on YouTube. He even won the Found Footage Festival in the year of 2019 (more than a decade after he passed away in 2008). The Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher speculate that the British farmer would be extremely proud of his achievement, and they are probably right. There is little doubt our eccentric, amateur filmmaker wished to memoralise his family, his animals, his farm and his very own existence. There is real warmth and affection in the eerie images. What is never obvious is whether he wilfully injected his films with an element of creepiness, or if that was an inevitable consequence of his sheer naiveness. Would he be offended that many people found his creation bizarre and funny? Was Charles a Florence Foster Jenkins of the film world, or did he have a profound sense of sarcasm and self-deprecation? That we will never know.
A Life on the Farm (the documentary) combines extensive footage from Charles Carson’s Life on the Farm with talking heads interviews with a string of media personalities: Canadian comedian and filmmaker Derrick Beckles, American publisher Davy Rothbart, British film producer Peter Shaw, Joe, Nick, and many others. The filmmaker himself is also one of the film characters, often appearing in front of the camera. That’s because his family had a real-life connection with Charles. These people punctuate the film with witty remarks and vibrant reactions. A cringey, otherworldly and yet heartwarming documentary.
A Life on the Farm is in cinemas on Friday, September 8th.