By Caitlyn Collins | May 20, 2011
Director: Chris Ordal
Writer: Chris Ordal
Starring: John Hawkes, Bruce MacVittie, Chris Bachand, Zach Grenier
I greatly admire people with green thumbs. I finally live in a space where I can grow a few things, and somehow, despite my best efforts, I’ve managed to kill most of what I’ve planted this year. I am proud to say my basil and my cactus are still alive! Two of my friends have these amazingly verdant vegetable boxes. I envy their ability to pick a few tomatoes or cut some chard whenever they need it. I love to cook and therefore really appreciate the finer qualities of fresh, homegrown produce. But really I’m just amazed that people can take a few minuscule seeds and produce luscious landscapes. When I think of gardens, New York City doesn’t spring foremost in my mind. I’ve been to New York City numerous times and each time I find something new about the city. But had I come across Stan Herd’s Earthwork in 1994, I think I would have been completely taken aback. Actually, I think that would still be my reaction.
Earthwork is based on the true story of Stan Herd (played by John Hawkes) a Kansas farmer-turn-artist. The film opens up with a young Stan riding on a tractor with his father on their Kansas farm. Next, we see Stan drawing picture of a house with sun shining in the right corner as rays of light reach the ground below. He then reproduces this image as an earthwork, which is astounding when seen aerially. This sets the framework for writer and director Chris Ordal’s take on an interesting period in Stan Herd’s life.
The story is unlikely yet the kind of tale often associated with New York City. Stan’s photographer friend, Peter Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie), convinces Stan after seven years that he must take his ideas to New York. There he will find fortune and fame as an artist. Driven by the desire to have his work recognized, as well as the opportunity to make a proposal for a piece of land owned by Donald Trump, Stan leaves his wife and son home while he travels to the big city. Stan, complete with cardboard portfolio and cowboy hat, finds himself in a conference room full of people in black business suits all vying for an opportunity to utilize the Trump land before it is turned into condominium foundation. Desperate for the project, Stan negotiates for use of the space by only asking for the price of the value of the land. Realizing this will be the cheapest proposal, the executive has Stan sign a contract then and there.
With keys in hand, Stan heads over to his new work space. The land is strewn with litter, the surrounding walls are tagged with graffiti, and there are several homeless gentlemen wondering the property. Determined to start right away, Stan begins to clear the area of debris. He returns the next morning after a restful night in a hotel room to see the land is once again covered in trash. Mayor (Zach Grenier), one of the men occupying the space, gives him some advice after he stumbles upon Stan waking up in the field one morning. Curiosity gets the better of the men, and each decides to help Stan in his artistic endeavor. El-trac (Sam Greenlee), Ryan (Chris Bachand) and eventually Lone Wolf (James McDaniel) all aid Stan in removing the trash, plowing, pulling weeds, planting and watering.
Since Stan took a small fee for his work, he decides to take out a second mortgage on his house on a trip back to Kansas. He does this unbeknown to his wife, telling her it’s “Trump money”. As she heads back to school, Stan returns to NYC to continue his project. It’s full of trials and tribulations as well as the inevitable realization that this might mean absolutely nothing to the world beyond the borders of his Earthwork. The press coverage that was supposed to bring Stan his fame is trumped by the infamous O.J. Simpson police chase.
Stan’s story is an inspiring and someone heartbreaking one and Chris Ordal’s direction beautifully captures the sweaty toil of each worker striving to make this one small plot a better place. Ordal’s story focuses primarily on this one event and the tireless effort put into it by the artist and his helpers. It’s disheartening to think that where once a beautiful Earthwork full of produce and perennials is now the home of some Trump tower. And sadder still that the foolish antics of O.J. Simpson were more captivating than coverage of this amazing piece.