What's Playing at the Roxie?

When his parents bequeath to him a cowboy painting called The Scout, we're probably meant to see Chris as a failed cowboy hero, determined to do right by his damsel in distress though she's as spiteful and ferocious as a mythic fury. In the end, who cares? If a movie is as affectless as this one, you give up trying to "read" it. What's wrong with Normal Life isn't just its skewed notion of normality, but its underfed imitation of life.

Life spills over the banks of Troublesome Creek, the next attraction at the Roxie. This semitragic, frisky, and inspiring documentary has the low-key charisma that fact-derived fiction films like Normal Life hardly ever match. Unlike jeopardy-driven feature filmmakers, our finest documentarians, like Troublesome Creek's Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, root their work in character, no matter how public, topical, or dire their subjects. When their people fix on cowboy icons, it matters.

A lot of patient craft has gone into this record of the final months that Russel and Mary Jane Jordan spent on the Iowa farm that by 1990 had been in the family for almost 125 years. But the main attraction of Troublesome Creek isn't the narration's lucid exposition of the agricultural crisis or the way the camera drinks in the country's pastoral beauty in sun or snow. It's the embattled couple itself -- which the co-directors would be glad to hear, since Jeanne Jordan is Russel and Mary Jane's youngest daughter. By subtitling this engaging work "A Midwestern," Jordan plays off her folks' affection for the stirring morality plays of Hollywood westerns. But Troublesome Creek also registers as an antidote to "midwesterns" like Fargo and Normal Life, with their inarticulate clowns and stunted lives. The Jordans' farm is in Iowa, but they present the same stoic face to the world as the Minnesotans in Fargo, and they pepper their conversations with a similar number of "You betchas." The difference is, Jordan and Ascher (her husband) know that stoicism and understatement are heroic -- they contain emotion, they don't cover for its absence.

Russel watches his westerns on the tube with rapt absorption, moving nary a hair of the furry black eyebrows that leap out from under his bald pate; you may think him simple or maniacal until the intensity of his gaze seeps into the celluloid. Russel, like many other farmers, fell prey to the boom and bust that started when agriculture soared in the '70s. Banks encouraged farmers to improve their land, then panicked when farm growth stalled and deteriorated in the '80s. With the help of his younger son, Jon, Russel has been laboring under the burden of increasing debt, and his bank, now part of a regional banking corporation, has decided to call in his loans. At the same time, his older son, Jim, who's been farming on rented land, has discovered that his place will be sold out from under him. So Russel comes up with the daring scheme at the center of the movie: He'll work the farm another year, then sell off all its assets, pay off his debt, and let Jim move in. It isn't a surrender, it's a tactical retreat, and that distinction gives this film its feisty heart.

Jordan and Ascher intercut her parents' contemporary fight with snippets of the westerns they watch happily on TV. Although it's easy to see the Jordans vs. the bank as the good guys vs. the bad guys -- a reflection of mainstream cowboy fiction -- that isn't the ultimate emphasis either of Jordan's film or of her western clips, from classics like The Gunfighter, Red River, and High Noon. These movies and the Iowa of Troublesome Creek have a shifting moral climate, and Russel is trying to master it as manfully as Gregory Peck or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. The banker who spews gobbledygook about a "risk rating system" isn't the devil, he's an instrument of a soulless streak in our political economy. In a world that's become as alien to the family farmer as outer space, Russel, to borrow a Right Stuff term, maintains an even strain. He's got the unassuming gallantry that used to be an essential part of the American character: It shines from his face whether he's watching his cows being bid on or waiting in a clinic for his Parkinson's treatment. And Mary Jane, who fills her day rounding up money on the phone and surveying household collections that will soon be gone, controls her nerves and keeps her chin up. When she does break into tears, they're as cathartic for us as they are for her. Jordan and Ascher know how to lay in personal details without softening the sharp edges of the story. Jon's exuberant intelligence when he relates how a man can get so mad that he loses his peripheral sight, and Jeanne Jordan's unsentimental wistfulness as she recalls the rare alone-time she spent with her father en route to a school "Daddy Date Night," linger in memory along with the spectacle of the sad, triumphant auction. The auction itself displays Americans at their best and worst: The superbly efficient auctioneers can read the slightest ticks or gestures as bids and keep the process personal; most buyers chat genially with the family about the quality of the equipment, but a couple of them break auction etiquette and reduce a piece to scrap metal on the spot.

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