Empty Quarter: Exploring Rural Oregon

Empty is right, and that's not a put-down. This sparse black-and-white documentary by Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty places a stationary camera in southeastern Oregon, where few people work in agriculture and mining these days. Interviews are heard over the black leader that punctuates each static vista of crawling harvesters, tired farmworkers, swarming cattle, a woman folding laundry, and even a few rodeo cowboys (who still wear their jeans defiantly high). Though a dam provides some irrigation water, the parched land speaks for itself. This is the hostile terrain bypassed by the Oregon Trail; for the pioneers then, as for the Pearl District's Stumptown coffee-drinkers now, prosperity lay along the fertile coast and green river valleys west of the mountains. The boom times here, if there ever were any, are past. "Everybody's making money but the farmer," says one voice. And from another, "It's unusual to find a second- or a third-generation family on a ranch." Without a narrator or explanatory intertitles, we're left to guess what corporations have bought up the old spreads or where the onion crop goes (McDonald's? Walmart?). Empty Quarter provides a fairly bleak farm report, and it also resists the consoling aesthetic of a landscape film. There's no musical score, no beauty, just hints of birdsong and the sound of wind passing over arid scrub and sage. So it was before we came; so it will be when we pass.

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