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Michael Malone, Portrait of an American Organic Farmer

By: Darida Rose

When most of us go to the supermarket, we have only a vague notion of what the little ‘USDA Organic’ or equivalent logo means on packages of food. Are organic potato chips healthier than regular ones? Who knows. Is organic lettuce grown on a tiny farm by hippies, or on vast industrial farms owned by multinational corporations? In Gary Beeber’s new short film, Michael Malone, Portrait of an American Organic Farmer, we find at least a few answers to these questions. The film is by no means an attempt to explain the principles of organic farming or to give an overview of the state of organic farming in the US. It doesn’t even have any definite polemical point of view. It is simply, as the title suggests, a portrait.

The film is based on a series of interviews, mostly with Michael Malone, but also with some of his employees and his partner. Malone is immediately striking. The first thing he says on camera is that he grows food that people put in their mouths and swallow, and, he says, “I’ve had sex that’s less intimate than that.” This statement could be taken in many ways, and raises a lot of questions. But it does alert us to the fact that we’re in for a fun ride with this guy.

We get a bit of Malone’s life story, but only a bit and in no particular order. This is not a biopic. We learn that as a child he grew his hair long after seeing the Beatles on TV. He then suffered all sorts of mistreatment by peers, the police and by employers. Is this what set him on a path to living outside the system and supporting himself and his family by growing his own food? It may well be, but he never tells us so. We learn that Malone has been farming this land for forty years, but we don’t get a clear picture of what he was up to before that. Which is fine, since that is not the point.

Beeber’s film is, again, neither a biography, nor a simple expose on the world of organic farming. The real aim, I believe, is to present the mindset of those who have devoted themselves to producing healthy food. Indeed, Malone at one point calls himself an artist, saying that he has already refused to do anything that is either morally or aesthetically ugly. When he made the comment about being an artist, he was speaking about his farming, and he is of course correct. But in a broader sense, what we learn about Malone is that his entire life, and his way of life, are works of art. Like all great works of art, Malone’s life is difficult to pin down or define in any easy way. There are contradictions. He raises organic chickens and carrots, and refuses to use fertilizer in order to keep his soil pure, but at the same time, we find him chain smoking filterless Camel cigarettes, lighting one from the butt of the other. He is also not hostile towards the large industrial food producers of America, saying that they do great things too by feeding people. But he can guarantee that his food is fresher and healthier. His food is so much healthier, in fact, that he can’t handle eating at restaurants. He singles out eggs in particular as being consistently awful compared to his own eggs.

Gary Beeber, the filmmaker is also an award winning photographer who’s had exhibits all over the world. After watching the film, the fact that Beeber is a photographer makes perfect sense. The film is very much like a photo. Beeber is also a devotee of Eugene Atget, the 19th and early 20th century photographer who was famous for documenting the streets of Paris. He also mentions on his website that he prefers monotone to colour. Tone-wise this is also true of this film. It doesn’t rely on plot swings and tension building to hold the audience’s attention. We’re just allowed to let Malone be.

Michael Malone, Portrait of an American Organic Farmer has been an official selection of numerous film festivals, and has won awards at the Phoenix Shorts film festival and the LA Indie Film Channel Festival.

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