Ken Burns’s astounding documentary The Dust Bowl (PBS, November 18–19, 8 p.m.) is about disaster and survival, ruination and renewal. But mostly it’s about clouds and faces.
The clouds are plumes of dust, hundreds of feet high. They roll across the Midwestern plains at a dreamlike speed: unhurried yet relentless. As seen in photographs and newsreel footage, they’re hypnotically beautiful — but only if you’re contemplating them from eight decades’ remove. If you were on the ground in the plains during the thirties, they were terrifying: Black blizzards rolling over towns and farms, burying the land. One witness said that the “Black Sunday” dust storm of 1935 looked like a funnel cloud lying on its side; in certain still photos, the cumulus tendrils jut from the rolling dirt cloud in ways that ironically echo the blades of the mechanical ploughs that destroyed the topsoil and helped make the Dust Bowl happen.
Which brings us to the faces. Some are burned into the public unconscious by photographers employed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s documentation-crazy government programs: Arthur Rothstein’s image of a man and his son walking during a dust storm; Dorothea Lange’s photo of a migrant mother whose family was displaced by the storms. But the majority have been only been seen by loved ones. They’re the images of survivors who were children and teenagers during the Dust Bowl years. Their testimony forms the heart of Burns’s story, and their faces and voices interlock with the photos and film clips in ways that clarify the director’s artistry. This two part special is documentary filmmaking at its simplest and most emotionally direct, so stripped-down that it verges on radio with pictures. But it's the right style for this project, an account of national, self-inflicted environmental catastrophe that's all the more powerful for being understated.
When the story begins, we have no clue how much these people suffered because their accounts seem detached, their tears dried out by time. But once Burns has set the historical stage, he throws a spotlight on their darkest moments, and when they open up and their voices break, their memories pierce the heart. These people lost siblings and parents to the dust. The dirt invaded their lungs and either suffocated them on the spot or jump-started respiratory illnesses that ruined their health over time. Those who weren’t direct physical casualties of the dust storms became economic collateral damage. They lost careers and businesses they’d spent years building, fell into poverty, and were faced with a stark choice: Stay in Oklahoma or Texas or Kansas or Arkansas and hope things somehow got better, or pile into the nearest available vehicle and drive west, to where the shortsighted farmers and their ill-advised enablers hadn’t yet ruined the land.
There are historians on hand to put the events in context and drill down on sociological and political particulars. New York Times writer Timothy Egan, author of the Dust Bowl history The Worst Hard Time, is the series’ most valuable player. He emerges as the Stage Manager in Burns’s dirt-choked Our Town — this project’s version of Shelby Foote in The Civil War, Roger Angell in Baseball and Wynton Marsalis in Jazz. But most of Burns’s witnesses are regular citizens who just happened to be there. Many were kids when the horror was at its peak, and their recollections have a revelatory purity. “We ate so poorly,” says Dust Bowl survivor Clarence Beck, “that the hobos wouldn’t come to our house.” There’s an anecdote about a young man who visited his sweetheart’s father to seek the man’s blessing before marriage and found him sitting in his truck with a rifle in his hands. He had lost everything to the dust and was about to blow his brains out. The suitor talked the man into putting the gun down; the father gave his blessing. Weeks after the marriage, he killed himself anyway.
The lined faces of now-elderly survivors contrast with photos of their childhood selves, and with archival images taken by great shooters employed by the Farm Services Administration: Lange, Rothstein, Russell Lea, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott. They were supervised by Roy Stryker, a former Columbia University economics professor hired to head the Historical Section of the FSA, document the Dust Bowl, and make the case for more “responsible” farming methods that didn’t wantonly destroy the grass that held the plains in place. Stryker’s marching orders to photographers could be the unspoken mantra of Burns’ documentary: “I want to see their eyes. I want to see their faces. I want to see emotion. I want people to look at these pictures and not see abstractions. I want them to see folks struggling with the land.”
Burns’ molasses-slow, folksy-monumental style is easy to make fun of, and the nagging suspicion that he’s chasing canonization by making “definitive” accounts of Great Subjects can make even his best work seem blandly self-important. (Burns’s National Parks was a research dump so meandering that watching it made me feel as though I’d been sentenced to obtain a doctorate from Boring University.) But in his best films — The Civil War, Baseball, parts of Jazz, and now The Dust Bowl — the Burns approach satisfies in ways that more exciting or sophisticated filmmaking might not. The compactness of this program — two parts, four hours — focuses the story and compels the director to make hard, smart choices.
There are odd omissions and elisions, as there always are in Burns’ mammoth historical docs: For instance, The Dust Bowl grows slightly fuzzy in its final hour, so that you can’t be entirely sure how much of the restoration of the plains was due to government oversight of farming methods, how much was due to increased rainfall, whether one factor influenced the other, or if anyone can even say for sure. The documentary doesn’t tell us that Rothstein was a somewhat controversial figure whose most famous photo — the above-linked shot of the man and his son in a storm — was accused of having been staged. And John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath— a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about displaced Okies that became a classic John Ford movie — is barely mentioned. Burns cares about it only in context of the similar novel Whose Names are Unknown, by blacklisted writer Sanora Babb, and treats Steinbeck’s book as meritless because he based parts of it on notes that he borrowed from Babb.
But these weak points are eclipsed by the totality of The Dust Bowl, a work that puts a human face on history while demonstrating a quiet mastery of storytelling craft. Watching it made me appreciate Burns in ways I hadn’t before. He has a formula and applies it to every tale he tells, but it’s a proven formula that focuses subjects that might otherwise become dense and unwieldy, and that prizes personal experience: History as it’s lived and felt by individuals. There’s an electric precision to the way that Burns introduces his key witnesses, fixes their locations on maps, and periodically returns to them as the epic unfolds. At first the structure is merely elegant and pleasing, but towards the end of part one, when cross-cutting kicks in and the storms grow more immense, it becomes symphonic.
More than anything else, The Dust Bowl is about a certain self-destructive strain in the American character that prizes individual will over collective responsibility, stigmatizes real or perceived failure, and stubbornly refuses to learn from mistakes for fear of being thought weak. One witness frankly describes the Okies’ California trek as “a migration of the defeated,” and there are heartbreaking anecdotes about Okies being ostracized and discriminated against because their very presence in California reminded people that their contentment, too, hung by an invisible thread. There are appalling accounts of farmers continuing to use equipment that pulverized topsoil rather than return to more difficult but responsible methods — even after repeated expert warnings that they were destroying the land — because doing so would have been less “efficient,” and because they didn’t like academic pointy-heads telling them their business. “We always had hope that next year was gonna be better,” says survivor Wayne Lewis. “We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different. You just tried harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”
Parts of it seem touched by the spirit of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl bard whose music echoes throughout the narrative. Guthrie was a great artist, but he preferred being heard to being acclaimed, and he didn’t overthink things. He just picked up his guitar, fiddled around with notes and lyrics until they sounded right, and played. This series is Burns doing Guthrie, bringing a lifetime of experience and craft to bear on a story of people struggling through hard times. He’s picking up a guitar and telling us a story — a great one.