It's not hard to understand why Chris Ordal's Earthwork has been waiting for release for two years. It's a low-key tale of an artist struggling to do his work -- and it comes at a time when there's not only a glut of independent films fighting for screens -- but a movie-going audience that seems less interested in thought than sensation.
The story of an artist struggling to create his work against economic and societal odds, Earthwork tells the true story of crop artist Stan Herd. A Kansan, Herd uses landscaping elements -- everything from gravel and railroad ties to sod, flowers and trees -- to transform acreages into artworks so massive they can only truly be appreciated from a helicopter or airplane.
The film shows him as a youngster, befuddling his parents with his artistic impulses, and then as a young farmer in the 1980s, capturing the attention of photographer Peter Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie), who photographs his work from above and encourages Herd to keep creating.
But Herd (played with soulful grace by the protean John Hawkes) is, at base, a farmer who needs to make ends meet to support his wife (who wants to enroll in medical school) and son. But, by the early 1990s, his continuing conversations with Kaplan only produce frustration. As an artist, Herd needs to be seen in New York. But as a functioning member of society, he can't afford to take the time to go through the channels necessary to get the funding for a New York work.
Then Herd hears about a competition: Donald Trump is offering to let land on the West Side (site of his former Television City project) be used for an environmental artwork until it's time to build the next apartment house monstrosity there. He's taking bids from artists.
So Stan shows up and offers to do it for nothing -- just the land itself. He relishes the prospect of creating a work in Manhattan and is convinced that he can make it all work without problem.
But the land is a trash-strewn vacant lot overgrown with weeds, stomping grounds to a group of homeless men. Supplies are expensive -- outrageously so. And, in order to get his wife's blessing, Herd has to lie about the Trump deal: He takes out a huge second mortgage loan to pay for both his project and her med school tuition -- and then forges her name on the paperwork, while telling her that the money is from the Trump organization.
Earthwork has something important to say about the way we value true artists in our society (hint: we don't) and about why that creative imperative pushes artists to find ways to do their work. Those aren't small things; they rarely get talked about in our bottom-line society, where the success of art is measured by how much it sells.
Still, Earthwork also can't help hammering home its points, as well as indulging itself in heartfelt clichés. The homeless men that Stan encounters are societal cast-offs, for example -- but they rediscover their own value when the earnest Stan puts them to work making art. They even discover the artist within, overcoming (if temporarily) their own mental-health issues. Ah, the curative powers of art.
On the other hand, though Ordal doesn't really seem to know how to conclude it in a satisfying way, he does manage to avoid familiar happy-ending twists.
The film lives and breathes because of Hawkes, a lank actor with a craggy face, sad eyes and a winning, open smile. The rest of the cast seem almost incidental, background figures in a portrait that stays sharply focused on its central character.
Earthwork is slight and, I'm afraid, slightly forgettable. The best thing it might do is send you to your computer, to look up the amazing work that the real Stan Herd has created.