A Life on the Farm

When 10 year-old Oscar Harding’s grandfather passed away, a very strange videotape made by his neighbor Charles Carson was found, a tape so bizarre Oscar’s father turned it off at so as not to disturb the young boy.  Years later Oscar recovered the tape from an aunt and found it so intriguing, he showed it to Found Footage Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher backstage at one of their shows.  They declared it the craziest they’d seen since they began collecting in 1991 and a Kickstarter fund was begun to create a documentary that would look into the making of the video and the man behind “A Life on the Farm.”

Laura's Review: B

Within a scant 75 minute running time, Harding, who directs, divides his film between clips of Carson’s work, which also included still photography he turned into personal postcards; commentators including a psychologist, podcaster Karen Kilgariff, actress/photographer Koo Stark and the Found Festival guys; and many friends and neighbors who knew him.  It all adds up to one fascinating portrait of a man Kilgariff describes as having a ‘touch of Ed Gein.’  But while Harding tries to grab our attention at the onset with some of ‘Farm’s’ more lurid aspects, his documentary shifts into a more compassionate view of someone truly special.  One interviewee says he can’t decide if Carson was a genius or a psychopath, but as things progress we witness someone who conquered the advanced technical challenges of special effects, editing and laying down musical tracks back in the early 90’s and whose self described ‘Self Take Photos’ may have been the forerunner of the selfies.  Another describes his comic touch as ‘Monty Pythonesque’ while Carson’s proud display of his cobbled together riding mower likens him to Canada’s Red Green.

While it is initially shocking to see Charles introduce us to his dead cat Pandy before burying it and even more disturbing to witness his self portraits with each of his dead parents, his mother’s corpse even wheeled out into the pasture to spend a few days with her beloved cows, we begin to think his attitude about the cycle of ‘life on the farm’ might be healthy, something now described as the ‘Death Positivity Movement.’  He displays obvious pride and admiration for both Stan and Millie Carson, noting the flowers his mother tended for fifty years at Coombe End Farm and showing us his dad’s service portrait stating ‘There’s Stan Carson, Millie Carson’s husband, a nice gentleman.’  There is a lot of recitation of full names, including his own.

Neighbors fill in more details, noting Millie’s background as a teacher and her ability with languages and musical instruments.  Charles himself, we learn, worked for decades at an agricultural college before returning to the farm to care for his ailing parents, something which affected his marriage to Helen.  Another neighbor leans against a fence reminiscing about seeing a skeleton driving a tractor in circles in the distance, then realizing Charles was filming.  We learn he had a brother, Frank, who ‘went a bit scatty,’ running around the farm brandishing a sword and died on the toilet.  In typical reserved British fashion, both brothers are described as ‘slightly’ eccentric.

A female neighbor shows us the many cards she’d received from Charles, still portraits mounted on heavy backing with greetings and sayings applied in comic panel balloons.  She also recounts how he became more reclusive after the deaths of parents and brother and how many stayed away because of his eccentricity, painting a sad picture of a man who had opened his life for all to see.

Harding, who tells us Carson’s footage of his grandmother was all he’d seen of her, has a surprise in store at the end of his documentary, something revealed at the end of a tape Charles had reused.  “A Life on the Farm” is perhaps best described as Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Brother’s Keeper” crossed with 2022’s “Brian and Charles.”  I hope Charles Carson would be chuffed by his newfound fame.

Robin's Review: B

Drafthouse Films' "A Life on the Farm" will be available on demand beginning May 9, 2023.