Ken Burns The Dust Bowl: Blowing San . . .
The Dust Bowl
: Blowing Sand in Our EyesGary NorthNov. 22, 2012
Commercialism: "Something done magniﬁcently that should not have beendoneat all
."Ken Burns is a gifted producer of documentaries. Hisseries on
The Civil War
was an artistic triumph. It hasshaped the way documentaries are made. His subsequenteffort,
, was pretty good if you are a baseballhistory fan.
, whichI reviewed in 2001, was lesssuccessful artistically and in terms of its impact. That hadto do more with the demise of jazz than with Burns'creativity. He told the story well. After 1940, the storyturned dark.His series on World War II,
, was as ﬂat as stalebeer. He never found a way to tell the story of the war. Hefailed to ﬁnd representative chronological incidents thattold a coherent story with an identiﬁable theme. The ﬁlmis a series of chronologically interchangeable stockfootage from the War Department that Burns strungtogether by means of letters and diaries that did not carryany theme that I could detect. The documentary wasmostly noise and nostalgia.His most recent effort,
The Dust Bowl
, is a visualmasterpiece. The script is compelling. Peter Coyote is agreat narrator. The interviews with survivors addauthenticity. But it has one major defect: it is asophisticated propaganda ﬁlm in the tradition of PareLorentz's 1936 ﬁlm,
The Plow That Broke the Plains
. Theﬁrst half of that classic ﬁlm is available onArchive.org.Burns even uses a clip from the movie.
LORENTZ OF ALMOST ARABIA
Lorentz was a paid propagandist. The New Deal put himon its payroll. He had a message: the Great Plains wereturning into a desert. The New Deal alone could save theplains from becoming Arabia. To understand what Burnshas done, you must understand who Lorentz was and whathe did.During the great westward expansion into the Great Plainsof the United States, 1840-90, two myths competed formen's allegiance: the myth of the uncivilized wildernessvs. the myth of the garden. Both myths were based onenvironmental determinism. Beginning in the 1840s, someobservers argued that the arid plains would make savagesof civilized men. But as the American population movedwestward, another myth slowly took shape, or more to thepoint, was shifted from the East to the Midwest: the mythof the garden. The coming of civilization would somehow