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Ken Burns the Dust Bowl

Ken Burns the Dust Bowl

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Published by: whentheycome666 on Nov 24, 2012
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Ken Burns The Dust Bowl: Blowing San . . .
 
Ken Burns'
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,
 Baseball
, was pretty good if you are a baseballhistory fan.
 Jazz
, 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,
The War
, 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
 
 increase the rainfall of the arid region.The dust storms of the 1930s disabused those who mightotherwise have been tempted to perpetuate this myth. Yearafter year for a decade, these dust storms buried hundredsof thousands of square miles of land in many feet of air-borne dirt. There was literally darkness at noon. The sweatof man's brow was caked. Then the myth of the gardenshifted: from the hard-working farmer to the scientificplanner. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration(AAA) of the United States Department of Agriculturebegan to preach a new gospel of works: the plow wasdestroying the soil. The nation needed government-mandated soil conservation, voters were told.The Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture was ordered by its director, Rexford GuyTugwell, to create a propaganda film promoting thisviewpoint,
The Plow That Broke the Plains
. It was writtenand directed by Lorentz, a 30-year-old former WestVirginian, who had been a New York movie critic, aWashington gossip columnist, and a political reporter. Hehad never before made a movie. He had written a pro-Roosevelt picture book,
The Roosevelt Year
(1934).The movie cost a minuscule $6,000 to produce, but wasincredibly successful artistically. As a propaganda film, itwas in the tradition of Eisenstein's
The BattleshipPotemkin
, a silent movie defending the Bolshevikrevolution, and by Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 promotion of Hitler and the Nazi Party,
Triumph of the Will
. (Riefenstahldied in 2003.) It was so successful that PresidentRoosevelt established the United States Film Service in1938, with Lorentz in charge.
The Plow that Broke the Plains
was so blatantlymisleading in its splicing together of scenes, some of which ecological historian James C. Malin says werefaked, that a United States Senator and other critics forcedit out of circulation in 1939. The narrative suggestednothing specific in the way of a restoration program forthe land. It ended with this evaluation: "The sun and windswrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture." Inthe script, the plow is not blamed for the erosion of thesoil, but this theme is communicated visually. As Lorentzlater wrote, he relied primarily on pictures and music; hewrote the narrative only after the pictures and the musicwere finished.The following is from a pro-Lorentz author. It describesthe pre-1941 New Deal propaganda program foragriculture.During the second half of the 1930's, the United StatesGovernment embarked on unique project, a publicrelations campaign to keep the American people informedabout the New Deal and the necessity of its programs.
 
 Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration,the Government first sponsored radio and photographycampaigns, which produced some of the most famouswork of artists including Walker Evans, Dorothea Langeand Ben Shahn. Some of the photographs that Evans tookwent into the critically acclaimed book that he workedwith James Agee to produce,
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration decided toproduce films as a method of getting its message to awider segment of the public. The films produced under theauspices of the Resettlement Administration represent theonly peacetime production by the United StatesGovernment of films intended for commercial release andpublic viewing ever. They also heralded a new directionfor American documentary filmmaking because of thesophistication with which they were made. These filmswere known as the Films of Merit, and the first of themwere directed by Pare Lorentz.The Resettlement Administration was an exercise ingovernment-funded population control. It moved peopleoff the land and into urban areas.The Resettlement Administration was founded on May 1,1935 as part of the second phase of the New Deal. Dr.Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Under-Secretary of Agriculture,was appointed as its administrator. The goal of theResettlement Administration was the relocation of impoverished farm families and poor city families. It alsofocused on the prevention of unprofitable farmingtechniques and improper land use, as well as thepreservation of natural resources. Finally, it wasresponsible for the creation of three "Greenbelt"communities, suburban housing developments outside of Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, intended toprovide improved living conditions for city dwellers. Likemany other New Deal agencies, it was founded on thebelief that a control of social conditions would producebetter lives for American citizens. . . .Lorentz came to the project with the first film alreadyconceptualized. Dr. Tugwell originally envisioned that theResettlement Administration would produce a series of eighteen films, the first of which he suggested should dealwith the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA had beencreated in May of 1933 and was charged with buildingdams and establishing flood control, projects thatdovetailed with the Resettlement Administration'scommitment to environmental conservation. But Lorentzwanted to make a film about the Dust Bowl, an idea thathe had unsuccessfully pitched to the Hollywood studios ayear earlier. Lorentz was able to convince Tugwell tomake this film, which became
The Plow That Broke thePlains
. But Lorentz' second film for the RA would exploreTugwell's idea.
The River
, which many film critics arguedwas an even greater artistic success than
The Plow That 

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