Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Dust Bowl (Florentine Films/WETA/PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on the first half of The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns’ latest slice of elegiac American history from PBS — oddly, KPBS was showing it at 8 p.m. and then repeating the whole program immediately afterwards at 10 — and I had set the DVD recorder to record it on the first go-round but caught it “live” on the second. Burns’ vision of the Dust Bowl is not merely a freak set of accidents that caught the farmers of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado unawares but a man-made environmental disaster of terrific scope, the end of a 50-year process in which overly optimistic farmers bought the propaganda of greedy land merchants and set up stakes in an arid area — not really desert but not all that good arable land either — then chewed it up with their plows and took advantage of a few good, rainy years until the rains stopped just about the same time as the national economy collapsed completely, in 1931 (until then the plains were producing bumper crops of wheat and the farmers were pretty much insulated from the effects of the Depression), and farmers responded to falling prices by planting more and more wheat, thereby just digging their holes deeper because rising supply meant prices fell even further.

The Dust Bowl is an obvious cautionary tale for today — the failure of just about everyone in American politics and economics to respond to the potential catastrophe of human-caused climate change is the obvious modern parallel, especially since instead of working on a transition to renewable energy the U.S. is now boasting that it’s producing more fossil fuels than ever before and is poised to become the world’s leading oil producer by 2020 (thanks to the insanely destructive “fracking” process) — but that’s a lot clearer in the quote by Dust Bowl survivor Wayne Lewis on the PBS Web site than Burns made it in the film itself (probably because he’s dependent for his production money on the very giant corporations that are making money off the economy the way it is and have no interest in the wrenching changes needed to stave off global warming): “We want it now – and if it makes money now it’s a good idea. But if the things we’re doing are going to mess up the future it wasn’t a good idea. Don’t deal on the moment. Take the long-term look at things. It’s important that we do the right thing by the soil and the climate. History, is of value only if you learn from it.” What came through most strongly in The Dust Bowl is the sheer orneriness of the people who stuck it out year after year — one survivor called the residents of Oklahoma’s thin sliver of land atop the Texas Panhandle, nicknamed “no-man’s land” and the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, “next-year people” because no matter how hard they were hit by whatever was going on that year, they were always convinced, or at least held out the hope, that “next year” would be better. One New York reporter who encountered the worst storm of the Dust Bowl — the big one on April 14, 1935 (“Black Sunday”) — and actually coined the phrase, said that farmers in the area lived by three words: “If it rains … ” Thanks largely to the enduring popularity of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, our collective memory of the Dust Bowl and the “Okies” focuses primarily on the people who left the region and desperately hit the roads to seek their fortunes elsewhere — whereas Burns seems deliberately trying to revise that history and make his focus the people who stayed, who stuck it out and tried as best they could to weather (pardon the pun) the crisis and bring their lives back to normal.

 The Dust Bowl focuses on individuals like Caroline Henderson (who settled in the Oklahoma “no-man’s land” as a single woman in 1906, married a man she hired to dig wells on her property a year later, and contributed a column called “The Homestead Lady” to what was then America’s most prestigious magazine, The Atlantic Monthly) — indeed, the only people listed on imdb.com’s cast listing are Carolyn McCormack, who reads Henderson’s letters and columns on the show; Patricia Clarkson, who does the same for another pioneer woman, Hazel Lucas Shaw; and Peter Coyote, who narrates (as he’s done for most of the Burns movies since David McCullough gave it up) — and for some reason the PBS Web site contains a lot of background information on the film and some of the haunting still photos used in it (apparently only two home movies of the big April 14, 1935 dust cloud exist — evidence that these were people who even before the crisis were making pretty marginal livings and couldn’t afford to film themselves) but does not offer a cast and crew credits list. It’s an intensely moving film but the individual stories come through more strongly than the social lesson — and at the very end of part one there’s a familiarly twangy voice telling a story about how he met some people who were leaving the area because after years of living through the dust crisis they’d finally given up. He remembered that as they took off, they said, “So long, it’s been good to know yuh” — and the voice remembered how he had taken that line and written a song around it. Then the voice, which of course belonged to Woody Guthrie (this is from the series of recordings he made for the Library of Congress, both as storyteller and singer), went into the song — and the Los Angeles Times reviewer said that at that point the movie perked up because pretty much all we’d been hearing musically up to that point were doleful renditions of pioneer folk songs like “Home on the Range” and “Shenandoah.” (I recalled to Charles getting the Woody Guthrie CD reissue that contained one of his earliest songs, “A Picture from Life’s Other Side,” and reflecting on the basis of that piece of bathos that if it hadn’t been for the Dust Bowl Guthrie would have spent his entire career as a mediocre Jimmie Rodgers imitator handicapped in that regard by his inability to yodel.) — 11/19/12


Part two of The Dust Bowl was more of the same — intensely moving in its personal stories, a bit muddled in its attempts to draw comparisons between the Dust Bowl and more modern environmental catastrophes (it’s telling that KPBS showed the first part right after a NOVA program about Hurricane Sandy called “Inside the Megastorm,” a scheduling quirk which said more about the commonality between the Dust Bowl and the big storms of the 2000’s than The Dust Bowl itself did) and quite forthrightly (bothersomely so to conservative viewers — of the three people who have posted reviews to imdb.com so far, one said that for 30 years Burns has been making these documentaries with an “agenda,” then added, “If Burns were not affiliated with PBS I may view his documentaries more open-mindedly” — giving away that he dislikes the movies at least in part because conservative propagandists have told him to mistrust anything he sees on PBS) says that the Dust Bowl was a failure of private enterprise and “The Market” and only government intervention was able to save the area for agriculture. What’s most striking about the Dust Bowl is the extent to which it followed a pattern that’s been repeated again and again and again in human history in general and American history in particular: find a natural resource, exploit the hell out of it, then watch helplessly as the resource collapses and nature responds against the arrogant attempts of man to manipulate it for our own purposes.

We’ve seen it in the vast exploitation of fossil fuels, in which like the Prodigal Son we ran through our patrimony in about 150 years and rather than heed the warning signs from nature that it’s time to get off our fossil-fuel “jones,” we’re delivering ever more ferocious insults to the earth (including literally injecting it with toxic chemicals in what’s called “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking” for short) to get the last shards of oil, gas and the rocks containing them out of the earth so we can burn it ever more quickly and thereby consign the human race to globally warmed oblivion even sooner. We’ve seen it in the outright denial of human-caused climate change — the percentage of Americans who believe human activities play a role in climate change has plummeted from 71 percent in 2007 (the year Al Gore won the Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth) to just 44 percent today — and we’ve heard radical-Right propagandists on talk radio actually proclaim that as a political victory for their side. The Dust Bowl had similar origins — farmers cultivated marginal land with destructive means (particularly shifting from the Lister plow to a cheaper version that turned the soil less deeply) and seized on a few relatively wet years to get away with it until nature dried up the skies and the area’s endemic high winds took the bone-dry soil with them — and the pattern, with land speculators and so-called “Sunday farmers” (people who bought acreage in Oklahoma and the states bordering it without actually visiting their land or knowing jack about farming) bidding up the land in a classic bubble that, like all economic bubbles, eventually burst, is all too much a part of how capitalism in general and American capitalism in particular generally operates. One of the most poignant stories in The Dust Bowl is of the patriarch who mortgaged his own homestead in 1928 to buy enough land so he could give each of his five sons (he had nine children altogether but he obviously intended his daughters to be taken care of by the men they would marry) 640 acres, and instead he ended up living in a series of houses he either got foreclosed out from under or had to rent.

What’s fascinating about his tale is that on the one hand he had an idea of the continuity of the generations and the need to plan ahead to secure the well-being of his family past his own lifetime, but at the same time he was attempting to do that by practicing the same kind of farming his neighbors were, which was good at extracting value from the land in the short term but ultimately destroyed it in the long term. We live in a country which, despite its long-term attachment to a largely mythologized history, celebrates the new, the quick, the short-term money-making strategy, which in our own time has become the shibboleth of “shareholder value” and the idea that a business enterprise is only worth what people will pay to own stock in it, and any idea of building and maintaining a viable business for the long term has fallen by the wayside. Mitt Romney and his company, Bain Capital, was a pioneer in the idea that businesses were merely poker chips in a giant speculative casino, that could be put together or taken apart based on the immediate need (and greed) of financial speculators: the idea of making a profit and maintaining a viable business that preserves roots in a community and pays its workers enough that they can afford its products is so-o-o-o-o 20th century. We’ve become a country that blows up its mountains to obtain coal, injects the earth with toxic chemicals to release oil and gas whose combustion will just speed up the environmental apocalypse policymakers in both government and the corporate elites deny is even happening, and crusades against any effective (or even not-so-effective) regulation of corporations in general and the financial sector in particular on the ground that we must “unleash the private sector” if we’re going to have shared prosperity. Seen today, the story of the Dust Bowl is a microcosm of so many bad habits and destructive policies that have become the orthodoxy of our time — Mitt Romney may have lost the election, but he and his side long since won the ideological war, to the point where the big debate in Washington as the so-called “fiscal cliff” looms isn’t going to be whether to cut the social safety net (already shredded by years of deregulatory hegemony in both major parties) but by how much, and whether the top income tax rate (easily reduced by super-wealthy individuals) should be 35 or 39 percent — in the 1950’s it was 90 percent and in the 1960’s it was reduced to 70 percent (a cut which the Right of the time, including the editors of the Reader’s Digest, proclaimed as socially irresponsible because it fostered inflation!), and Americans enjoyed a greater level of shared prosperity than they do now.

The Dust Bowl suffers from the usual problems with Ken Burns’ documentaries — the sentimentalism and the elegiac tone (maybe the conservative commentator to imdb.com had a point; like some of the later Roman historians, Burns obviously works from a point of view that says his country’s best days are behind it) — and the personal stories are absolutely astonishing (the tale of Caroline Henderson, who arrived in Oklahoma in 1906, set up a homestead as a single woman, married a man she hired to help her dig a well a year later, and stayed on her farm through boom, bust, disaster and recovery until 1965, when she reluctantly left her land to live with her daughter, a doctor, in Idaho, would make a marvelous dramatic film, an epic for the ages, and if there’s any actress out there who wants the role of a lifetime and has the prestige and clout to set it up … ) but don’t always mesh that well with the social commentary. The second part gets more into the federal response, which essentially relied on soil scientists working out ways the plains land could be farmed effectively without drying up and blowing away during severe and sustained droughts (they involved contour plowing, which is a term that isn’t explained very well in the movie; the Wikipedia page on it says it means “the farming practice of ploughing across a slope following its elevation contour lines. The rows form slow water run-off during rainstorms to prevent soil erosion and allow the water time to settle into the soil. In contour ploughing, the ruts made by the plow run perpendicular rather than parallel to slopes, generally resulting in furrows that curve around the land and are level. A similar practice is contour bunding, where stones are placed around the contours of slopes” — though quite frankly in land as flat as the Oklahoma and Kansas plains it’s hard, at least for someone like me who in Woody Allen’s phrase is “at two with nature,” to tell where the natural slopes you’re supposed to contour or terrace around are; they also included letting some of the land go back to its native grass and planting trees to serve as natural windbreaks) and using a combination of carrots and sticks to get farmers to use the new techniques,

One of the fascinations of The Dust Bowl is the ongoing tension — again, characteristic of American history in general — between the ferocious idea of “independence” (there are plenty of stories here, as in just about every era of American history and in particular every economic and social crisis, of people drawing back at receiving government help because they were “too proud” to admit that they needed it) and the desperation with which people with no other help turned to the government, the federal government in particular, and pleaded, “Save us.” It’s indicated by how Kansas and Oklahoma, two of the most reliably Republican states in the U.S., voted for Franklin Roosevelt in both 1932 and 1936 (despite the fact that the Republican nominee in 1936 was former Kansas Governor Alf Landon … but then Mitt Romney didn’t carry Massachusetts either, come to think of it, though the term “home” is so inapplicable to Romney’s lifestyle I remember joking grimly that he would have won the election easily if he could just have carried all his home states). The Dust Bowl was a disaster that was caused at least in part by the abuses of private enterprise and was solved at least in part by the collective wisdom brought to bear by a strong, activist national government — no wonder a story about it today, especially from a source like PBS which they want to defund completely, sticks in the craw of the Right! The film also proceeds from the unusual assumption that the most interesting story of the Dust Bowl is in the people who stayed behind and endured it (which were three-fourths of the total) rather than the people who fled, who have become the master narrative thanks largely to the success of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and the film John Ford made from it. (Ironically, the narration of The Dust Bowl points out that Steinbeck’s central characters, the Joads — a name I suspect Steinbeck picked because it sounded like “Job” and reinforced the central metaphor of his novel, which was as much or more religious than political — were dispossessed cotton farmers from Eastern Oklahoma and therefore not from the Dust Bowl at all.)

One of the quirkier stories told in the movie is that of Sanora Babb, a writer who was hired by the Farm Security Administration of the U.S. government to document the Dust Bowl and ended up writing a novel and getting a meeting with Random House owner Bennett Cerf — only by the time her novel was ready for publication, The Grapes of Wrath had become such an enormous hit Cerf decided it had eaten up the market for a Dust Bowl story and Babb’s book, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, two years before Babb’s death (and to make it even more ironic, Babb’s reports to the Farm Security Administration had been key sources Steinbeck used for his book!). Interestingly, Babb was also the long-time partner of Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe, but couldn’t marry him until 1948, when the California Supreme Court ruled the state’s law against interracial marriage unconstitutional. And Woody Guthrie, who made a brief appearance at the end of part one, predictably becomes a more important figure in part two — indeed, two segments of his actual voice, heard in recorded interviews, are used in the film — and though we only get a few snippets of his songs it’s bracing to be reminded of how much faster and less sentimental his performances were than the way these songs are performed today, now that they’ve become official Monuments of American Culture. It’s also nice to be reminded that he didn’t start out as particularly radical; it was the experience of living through, and then fleeing from, the Dust Bowl that radicalized him and led him consciously to shape his career as a folksinger of “the people” (there’s a haunting image of a crudely lettered poster saying, “Hear WOODY Sing,” aimed at fellow Dust Bowl refugees, promoting a free concert) and have the same sort of uncertain love-hate relationship with the music and entertainment business we’ve seen in other socially conscious performers since.

Overall, The Dust Bowl is a compelling movie, relatively short (just four hours — a far cry from the mega-productions with which Burns made his mark: The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) and compact, hinting at the modern-day parallels without shoving them in our faces, the sort of film that should be shown in contexts where you can discuss it at the end, a haunting movie perched between individual stories of sacrifice and struggle and a broader social tale with a moral lesson — though it’s possible conservative audiences could read the history of the Dust Bowl differently from the way Ken Burns does, not as a demonstration of the need for community and an aggressive government response to disasters but as the farmers’ justly deserved punishment for their hubris and something that wasn’t really a problem for anyone not directly involved. It’s ironic that even within Franklin Roosevelt’s Cabinet there were people like Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who said, basically, let the plains farmers die and nature reclaim their land — though Roosevelt sided with his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace (who because of his dissent from the Cold War consensus a decade later became, and has remained, one of the most reviled figures in American history), who pleaded for a major government effort to restore the plains to farmland with scientific methods and offer relief to its people. The parallel with the argument between Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, who said the way to deal with the Depression was to let it run its course and not even try to stop it or offer relief to its victims, is inescapable. — 11/20/12