I just got back from seeing Martin Lavut's "Disfarmer: A Portrait of America" and I'm wondering why I didn't make an effort to see this film when it was presented as a work in progress at the Ozark Film Fest or as a completed film last year Hot Springs. It's a great movie, superbly timed and edited, with terrific interviews of down-to-earth Arkansans and New York collectors and gallery owners. It is, of course, an incredible story — a man who claims he was delivered to a family by tornado becomes a misanthrope, changes his last name to Disfarmer (as in anti-farmer, townspeople speculate), shoots 25 cent photographs of the people of Heber Springs and surrounds during the Depression and World War II and becomes, posthumously, declared one of the greatest American photographers of all times. His plates are rescued from destruction by Peter Miller and enlarged and appreciated and a book comes out; then it occurs to collectors to go to Heber Springs and find as many original prints as they can. The originals sell in New York for many thousands. What a story.
The film does the story justice. The contrapuntal critiques are wonderful: in New York, these old-fashioned Arkies in their overalls and funny hats and fish on a line are the picture of a people suffering through the Depression; in Heber Springs, it is noted, nobody knew there was a "Depression on" (to quote "O Brother Where Art Thou"), a sentiment I heard my mother repeat frequently, because Arkansas was so poor anyway. The discussion of the evolution of Disfarmer's work, with the artificial props disappearing and people's real belongings — including a string of fish — appearing. The debate over black-taped white background — is it intentional? Was he exposed to Mondrian? Or was it because he needed the light in that part of the studio and was too lazy to move the background?
The filmmaker not only had some colorful Heber Springs people — and the Russian-born beauty who went there in search of their stories — to include but the images of the photographs themselves, which alone could carry a film, with no narration at all. The detour into the puppet show — its creator was drawn to Disfarmer by one image of two men embracing — about Disfarmer is fabulous. I can't wait to find it and see it again. Unfortunately, today's was the LRFF's last showing of the film.