Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns stirs up dark memories in ‘Dust Bowl’
(AP) – The reverence shown to filmmaker Ken Burns has reached epic proportions. He’s the crown jewel of PBS, the documentarian of America, the source for more Americans’ understanding of history than any other.
With Academy Award nominations and Emmy Awards to his credit, Burns has had TV audiences toe-tapping through “Jazz,” unexpectedly hooked on “The Civil War,” trading statistics about “Baseball” and marveling over “The Brooklyn Bridge.”
Now comes a tougher assignment. Viewers will be put to the test by “The Dust Bowl,” a two-night, four-hour exploration of one of the darkest times in U.S. history. Unlike Burns’ “Civil War” film, which similarly concerned an ugly period, his “Dust Bowl” has fewer colorful heroes, fewer dramatic turning points, more protracted bleakness and suffering and more monotonous visuals of arid land. It would be naughty to call it dry. But the lack of personalities leaves the viewer groping for an angle. The overwhelming nature of the event begins to feel overwhelming on the couch, too.
Burns still deserves great respect. But have a decanter of something nearby for “The Dust Bowl,” premiering Sunday, 6-8 p.m. with “The Great Plow Up” and continuing today, 6-8 p.m. with “Reaping the Whirlwind” on PBS.
Burns sifts the causes of the catastrophic dust storms of the 1930s, calling the Dust Bowl “the worst manmade ecological disaster in U.S. history.” It’s a lesson more relevant now than ever. This wasn’t just bad weather, it was the tragic fallout from a human mistake. Human impatience and greed led to a disrespect for the land, which ultimately led to climate changes that lasted for a miserable decade.
The dust storms ruined families, killed humans and livestock, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, and appeared as if it they marked the end of the world.
Along the way, songs by Woody Guthrie, photography by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and other Dust Bowl photographers, and of course “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, convey the cultural response to the cataclysmic events. But mostly this is history as cautionary tale. There are roughly 20 years left of the aquifer that lies under the Plains, the experts advise. “Lose the water and you lose the land.” Can it happen again? the film asks and answers. Emphatically yes.
Through Burns’ familiar interweaving of witness’ accounts, actors’ readings of letters from the period and historians’ input, the film explains what happened. Wheat-mad farmers in the 1920s overplowed an area the size of New Hampshire on the Plains; then came extreme drought, extreme high temps — the worst in recorded history on the Plains — and the result was dust storms in the 1930s, storms “of Biblical proportions.”
It really must have seemed like the end times, with ruined land and nothing to eat, followed by plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits. More than a few wondered alou d whether it was punishment for their sins.”We were just too selfish and were trying to make more money off of the wheat, and it didn’t work out,” says one survivor.
The photographs are breath-taking, with sand drifts 10 feet high over fences, and children in aviator glasses with cloths wrapped around their faces staring out at the camera. Music from the period, notably Woody Guthrie’s, is an asset to the film, as is Peter Coyote’s narration. Burns details Franklin Roosevelt’s dilemma in dealing with desperate farmers — who didn’t want to have to ask for help — and the federal programs that resulted. One horrific, heart-breaking personal tale after the next drives home the point: these individualistic, anti-government folks were reduced to seeking assistance from the feds. And the government saved them. As usual, Burns’ historical piece finds resonance in current events. The debate over the role of government, the purpose of “relief” and the relationship of the bureaucracy to the people continues. When is it appropriate for the government to bail out, literally or figuratively, citizens or corporations? In the ‘30s, the government got into agriculture as never before and hasn’t left.Unlike most of Burn’s earlier work, the “Dust Bowl” project only tangentially treats matters of race. The second-class citizenship of the “Okies,” who were treated like blacks in the South, is noted. But this is a story of man’s disrespect for the earth more than it is a story of inequality among humans.
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