Red River, High Noon, Gunsmoke — Westerns, where the bad guys sometimes won but never prevailed. Troublesome Creek, a Midwestern, is the story of the Jordan family’s struggle to save their Iowa farm. From fighting the Crooked Creek Gang to fighting off the bank. A cliffhanger about history, loss, irony and the settling and unsettling of America.
1996, 88 min.
Produced in association with PBS American Experience, BBC Storyville, ZDF/ARTE
“Superb!” – Rolling Stone
“Pushes the documentary envelope… exquisite… a pioneering work.”
– LA Weekly
“Filmmaking at its finest.” – Boston Globe
– New York Times
“Absolutely and completely what it ought to be. A family portrait, a quiet ode to quiet courage, a crystallized moment in the history of this country. Moving, heartening, funny, depressing, nourishing.”
– The New Republic
“Lucid… feisty…Jordan and Ascher know that true stoic understatement is heroic—it contains emotion rather than covering for its absence.”
– The New Yorker
REVIEWS – click to expand
“Superb!” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Two thumbs up! Stunning!”- Siskel & Ebert
“Filmmaking at its finest” – Betsy Sherman, Boston Globe
“Abosorbing…sardonic…elegaic.”– Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“Moving, revealing and funny. It will prove difficult to forget.” – Sunday Times (London) — Critic’s Choice
“Pushes the documentary envelope… exquisite… a pioneering work.” – LA Weekly
“Absolutely and completely what it ought to be. A family portrait, a quiet ode to quiet courage, a crystallized moment in the history of this country. Moving, heartening, funny, depressing, nourishing.” – Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic
“Among the most popular, best-loved movies wherever it has been shown.” – Gerald Peary, Vancouver International Film Festival
“Lucid… feisty…Jordan and Ascher know that true stoic understatement is heroic–it contains emotion rather than covering for its absence.” – Michael Sragow, The New Yorker
“Every complimentary epithet imaginable is applicable to Troublesome Creek… complex, poignant… This film does what most great works of art do — it reflects the human condition with humour, candour, compassion and grace. Don’t miss it.” – Alison Stewart, Syndey Morning Herald (Australia)
“Eloquent… contains moments of almost overwhelming poignancy
and irony.” – John Anderson, Newsday
“Passionate… Impressive…” – TV Times (London) — Critic’s Choice
“About the mutable nature of everything in American life.” – Tom Keogh, Seattle Eastside Week
“As beautiful as it is heartbreaking, suspenseful and finally affirming.” – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
“Filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this.” – Derek Davis, Philadelphia Forum
“A jewel…Rare is the film the caliber of “Troublesome Creek.” – Full page editorial, Des Moines Register
“Rich and thoughtful… unfolds with the ease and emotional impact of a work of fiction. “– Dave Kehr, NY Daily News
“One of the great documentaries of the year.” – Wellington Film Festival
FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
Sundance Film Festival – Grand Jury Prize & Audience Award
Sundance Tokyo Film Festival
Sydney Film Festival – Audience Award, Best Documentary
San Francisco Film Festival – Audience Award, Best Documentary
New England Film Festival – Best Independent Film
Heartland Film Festival – Crystal Heart Award
Full Frame Film Festival
Munich Film Festival
Oslo Film Festival
Vancouver Film Festival
Bilbao Film Festival
Brisbane Film Festival
Seattle Film Festival
Wellington Film Festival
Charlotte Film Festival
Hot Springs Film Festival
Philadelphia Film Festival
Vermont Film Festival
USA Film Festival
& other festivals
Angelika Film Center – NYC – Theatrical premiere
Theatrical runs in over 100 U.S. cities.
American Experience, PBS, US
Independent Film Channel, US
Storyville/Fine Cut, BBC, UK
& other markets
In the spring of 1990 when Jeanne’s father Russ called us in Boston and said this might be his last year of farming we were in shock. The farm had been struggling financially for years but that’s the state of the art in farming. The truth remained that this farm had been in the Jordan family for 125 years. It had survived the dust bowl, the Depression, two world wars and Ronald Reagan. Now Russ was saying it was time for a change.
That’s how Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern began. In the hours and days after Russ’s call we decided that as filmmakers this was one we couldn’t pass up. We didn’t really believe Russ would give up farming but whatever happened in the next year would be part of the farm’s history. And unlike all the other pivotal moments stretching back over the years, kept alive only by storytelling, this moment could be captured on film.
We started with some equipment and only enough money for a little film stock. We made four filming trips until the summer of 1991. Shooting Troublesome Creek involved no script. We filmed life as it took place, with no re-enactments. During that time we couldn’t afford to process the negative so we had to freeze it. For over a year, Troublesome Creek hibernated in the basement, between the chicken and the frozen peas.
We continued work on other projects while we wrote grants. After numerous rejections (for awhile we were collecting them but it got too depressing), the breakthrough came when the Iowa Humanities Board gave us their largest grant. Seven other Midwestern state humanities councils then joined in (all affiliated with the NEH). These and other grants gave us the money to edit. Finishing funds were provided a few years later by the BBC series FINE CUT and the PBS series THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
We shot 27 hours of footage that became a seven hour assembly which finally resulted in an 88 minute film. In a documentary like this, no matter what you thought you were doing at the outset, you find in the editing room that the footage tells you what film you’re really making. In this precarious moment on the farm we found themes emerging of family, marriage, aging, loss and survival. We hope Troublesome Creek can help audiences understand the fragile nature of small farming and the tensile strength of a family’s humor and love. And we hope that they’ll find something of themselves in the Jordan family.
February 19, 2008
Russel Jordan 1919 – 2008
Jeannie’s dad Russ died this morning. He had been in a nursing home this year, getting slowly weaker. Last night, he was in good spirits and said, “I think I’ll sleep good tonight.” He was still breathing early in the morning, but never awoke.
Russ always said he didn’t know what was in store when we die, but he was sure we’re in for a great surprise. We’re hoping his surprise involves Mary Jane.
Steve’s Eulogy from the Funeral Service:
I’m Steve Ascher, Jeannie’s husband. Russ wanted people from the family to say something today. It’s asking a lot of a child to speak at their parent’s funeral; it’s maybe a little easier for a child-in-law. So I’m kind of representing everyone, I hope, in what I say. Also, miraculously, Russ wrote an over 400 page journal about his life, which gives us a chance to hear directly from him – still talking to us, as he will be for the rest of our lives.
I met the Jordans in 1988. I had fallen in love with Jeannie in Boston, and this was my first chance to see her Iowa world and meet her folks. Russ was more than a little intimidating, what with the eyebrows and all–you husbands know what I’m talking about. But Mary Jane couldn’t have been warmer and it seemed like I’d passed muster. Jeannie and I got married the next year, but it wasn’t until 1990, when Russ and Mary Jane agreed to let us film what would be their last year of farming that I really understood who the entire Jordan family are. We were filming one of the most difficult moments a family could face, and we saw them demonstrate incredible resilience, strength and love. It’s an astounding act of trust to let someone film you, and because they did, we embarked on one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and – I know because they tell us so– just as meaningful for a lot of people who see the film.
Russ was a man of contradictions. Read his journal, you’ll hear his inner doubts and deep modesty, beginning in his teen years. “By this time, I was pretty well convinced I wasn’t too popular and also that I wasn’t too bright.” This from a man many of us consider one of the most charismatic, wise and able people we’ve ever met. Spend an evening with Russ, and you’d hear an ace storyteller, with unbelievable comic timing, the driest delivery and word-for-word recall of conversations that took place sixty to eighty years before. Spend another evening and you could see him sit silently for hours while life swirled around him. Was he thinking, dreaming — brooding? Did he just need a private place to escape to, even if it was just a chair? He wrote in his journal, “When you find yourself married twelve short years and already six kids sometimes plotting against you it’s a rather sobering thought.”
Russ’s contradictions made filming him so fascinating. He had opened his life to the camera, but would only reveal himself in glimpses. Ask him a simple question, like “how are you doing” and you’d get back a joke about that banker with one glass eye. Jeannie and I always felt bad about bringing him and Mary Jane back to see the house in Rolfe, which was so destroyed. But Russ channeled his pain into that incredible line, “Well, actually I’ve enjoyed about all of this I can handle.” Would that we all had that much dignity and wit to call on when times are tough. His ability to turn what some might see as failure or defeat into a moral, and then financial, victory is at the heart of the film. For all the ways that heroes from old Westerns were an inspiration to him, he can take his place among them as a leader who inspired his family with deep reserves of courage, tactical shrewdness and pure poise.
Russ and Mary Jane thought we were crazy to throw so much time and money away on a film about them, which they couldn’t imagine would interest anyone outside the family. Fortunately they were wrong. Really wrong! Audiences fell in love with them, and identified strongly with the story of the Jordan clan from 1867 to 1991. So did the juries at the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards. It was crushing to all of us that Mary Jane didn’t live to experience how much her life meant to people around the world. But, though he missed her deeply the whole time, Russ came with us to Sundance and to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and got to see the impact he was having. He may have gone just a little overboard in the modesty department when he wrote: “I was very fortunate to be able to have a very small part in it.”
At the Academy Awards he describes seeing actress Laura Dern: “The high point for me was when Laura Dern and her escort Jeff Goldblum came up and she told me how very much she liked the family movie. Also about that time a man asked if I was Sean Connery. I didn’t tell him I was but I didn’t tell him I wasn’t either.”
Russ goes on: “By the way, our film was beaten out by Steven Spielberg and Ann Frank’s diary but it did take an impressive film with a millionaire’s backing to get the job done. It was an event that I never in my wildest dreams would ever have anticipated I would even be a part of. If anyone can imagine a crude Iowa farmer in this setting, you’ll have to use your imagination to the fullest. I missed my long time sweetheart but I was beginning to be resigned to that by this time.”
For Jeannie and me, the awards were great, but what’s most powerful is that Troublesome Creek may take a place in history as a document about a way of life that was once everything in America but may someday be gone altogether. Russ’s death makes that so much more real. But as he wrote: “Some people that seem impressive say that the Jordan family film will be used for many years to come to document the changing of the agricultural scene and hopefully might have a bearing on the outcome, which will affect everyone who eats.”
Though Russ had a public side—the film star, the school board president—everyone knew that the private side, his wife and family were everything to him. He dedicated his journal to his family “with unconditional love.” He wrote: “With a partner like Mary Jane you could expect to have kids that couldn’t be surpassed. I’ll freely admit that Mary Jane raised the family as I was fully employed trying to make ends meet and that wasn’t always easy. One thing I noticed is they didn’t move to Australia to get away from us. That’s a comforting thought.”
Russ was comforted not just by thoughts, but by the most amazing group of children and grandchildren who loved and cared for him until his last day. They all gave so much. I want to mention in particular two: Judy, who organized and wrangled his finances and practical life, and Jim who showed up devotedly day after day to feed him, make him comfortable, and enjoy his company. If Russ wanted something, Jim made it happen. Because of the children, Russ could stay in his home as long as he did, which meant the world to him.
I’ll close with a song that Jeannie asked to be played: I See the Moon. Mary Jane sang I see the Moon to the kids when they were little, and when she was dying and could barely speak, singing it was one of the last things she did. The song is about lovers who are separated by distance but, the singer hopes, drawn together by the same light. Like Russ and Mary Jane, who fell in love on a Ferris wheel on an August night in Wiota in 1939, but after only one date went nearly a year without seeing each other, each shyly hoping the other hadn’t forgotten them. The song might have another meaning too. The last thing Jeannie asked Russ was if, after he was gone, he could try to send some kind of signal to let us know he was ok. If any of you saw that incredible lunar eclipse on Wednesday night, the moon glowing with the most luminous warm light… he may just have found his sweetheart again.
Paul Byrnes, film critic and former Director of the Sydney Film Festival reflects on the impact of the film on Australia, and vice versa. Sydney Morning Herald
FULL CREDITS AND FUNDERS
A film by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher
Produced, written and directed by: Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher
Cinematographer: Steven Ascher
Editor: Jeanne Jordan
Music: Sheldon Mirowitz
Sound editor: Victoria Garvin Davis
Mixer: Rick Dior, Sync Sound
Sales representative: Louise Rosen
Legal: Sandra Forman, John Sloss
Agent: Phyllis Kaufman, Writers and Artists
Publicity: Paola Freccero, Shannon Treusch, Clein+White
Theatrical distributor: Artistic License Films, Sande Zeig
Iowa Humanities Board, Missouri Humanities Council, Ohio Humanities Council, Illinois Humanities Council, Indiana Humanities Council, Kansas HumanitiesCouncil, Minnesota Humanities Commission, Nebraska Humanities Council, Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, Charles Engelhard Foundation, Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, BBC “Fine Cut” and WGBH “The American Experience”.
APPEARING IN THE FILM:
RUSSEL JORDAN. Career in farming began behind a walking plow at age 10. Can remember everyone he’s ever met and every joke he’s ever heard. Was once runner-up in Abraham Lincoln look-alike contest.
MARY JANE JORDAN. Russ’s wife. Iowa state 4H president who taught school then raised six children. Collects everything under the sun.
JON JORDAN. Their youngest son. Works with Russ at the start of the film. Lived in L.A. for a few years, working as an actor and fireman, where he learned to rescue building-jumpers.
JIM JORDAN. Their oldest son. Lives on a rented farm with his family at the start of the film. Wife Gini teaches elementary school. A newspaper once described them as “downwardly mobile.”
PAM JORDAN. Their oldest daughter. Formerly farmed with her husband, Jiggs (Gary).
JUDY JORDAN. Their second daughter. Formerly farmed with her husband, Joe.
JANET JORDAN. Their third daughter. Kindergarten teacher.
TIM WOLF. Banker who takes over the family’s account during the time of the film.
Dean once exhorted a bunch of farmers to bid with “follow me boys, you’ll all be wearing diamonds.”
JEANNE JORDAN. Filmmaker. Russ and Mary Jane’s youngest daughter. Grew up on the farm but is now the only one in the family not living in Iowa.
STEVE ASCHER. Filmmaker. Jeannie’s husband. Definitely did not grow up on a farm (father was a psychiatrist in New York City).