Ken Burns’ Dustbowl Blows Too Long

The Dust Bowl
Directed by Ken Burns
Public Broadcasting System
November 18-19, 2012
* *

If Ken Burns were an undergraduate student, his professors would take him to task for padding his work. Last week’s Dust Bowl would have made a superb one-hour show; alas, at four hours it’s redundant and tedious. Even more unforgiveable for what Burns rightly called “the greatest man-made environmental disaster” in U.S. history, it ultimately bores its viewers. And this isn’t my assessment, rather that of the students in a university course I teach titled “From Roosevelt to Reagan,” who have studied the Dust Bowl and were primed to view it. Just two of twenty managed to get through all of it, which put those two one up on me; I feel asleep for about 15 minutes the first night.

Burns is a nonpareil researcher and, once again, has unearthed several personal narratives that had the potential to humanize the tragedy. For a ten-year period between 1929 and 1938, every state in the union except Vermont and Maine experienced periodic drought conditions. Higher-than-normal temperatures, winds ripping across prairies that should have sported grass rather than plowed fields, unscientific farming, and no water made for storms analogous to Hurricane Sandy, except that they were made of dirt, not rain. Soils blown from Montana routinely blocked out the noonday sun in Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, and Washington days later. Burns focuses his attention on the Panhandle region of Oklahoma, where it intersects with Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.  Through diaries, interviews, and newspaper accounts he further refined his study to a handful of families that he uses as avatars to propel us through the “Dirty Thirties.” Not a bad idea. Nor is there any faulting his historical data.

Burns’ problems are threefold. First, he’s been recycling the same filmmaking techniques for decades, so there’s very little we don’t see coming from across the metaphorical prairie. Second, he steadfastly refuses to work with editors that would pare his work. Third, he knows how to research, but not how to draw conclusions.

If you’ve seen anything Burns has done since his Civil War series, you know how The Dust Bowl looks. iMovies has a special application in which a still is displayed in tight and then the camera pulls back; it’s called “The Ken Burns Effect.” Add some talking heads (Dust Bowl survivors, grandchildren of survivors, and some academics), and an omniscient narrator—Peter Coyote in this case–and you pretty much have the film’s structure, look, and modus operandi. There is some archival film footage, but it’s not in the best of shape, hence the screen in static for most of the time. And for God’s sake, if Burns uses Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” as the soundtrack for one more film, I will dig up Foster, reanimate him, and underwrite his lawsuit to recover royalties from Burns!

The repetitious filmmaking methods wouldn’t be nearly so noticeable if Burns didn’t repeat everything else. The film feels like it was made by a hoarder afraid to let go of anything. Here’s what the film tells us: the Dust Bowl was preventable and man-made; it was bad; people struggled to survive and some didn’t; it was really bad; children’s health was adversely impacted more than that of adults; it was really, really, really bad; the government tried to help, but met with limited success; things were just awful; the Dust Bowl transformed the region; oh-my-God it was terrible. Burns is so enamored of his human sources that he allows them to say the same thing over and over again. I admired the attempt to personalize the tragedy, but once we get the scope of it, what more is there to say, really? Is there any point to comparative catastrophes?

The inability to think like a scholar is what ultimately trips Burns. First, by choosing the hardest-hit region of the country, he gives us a view of the Dust Bowl that is both skewed and myopic. It looked quite different, for example, in the Cotton Belt, where many of those blown out were black sharecroppers. (Burns doesn’t have a clue on how to do Black history; nearly all of his work is lily white.) Burns is certainly right that the Dust Bowl was very, very, very bad, but it didn’t last ten years in most of the nation. Second—as several students pointed out to me—Burns truncated government actions. We hear informants tell us about how President Roosevelt tried to help but, oddly for such a long film, he crunches all of New Deal into a recited litany that occupies just a few minutes and does so in a manner that elides programs that occurred in 1933 with those that take place five years later. He also gives the same weight to programs that delivered direct aid with spectacular failures deemed overly radical (like resettlement villages and attempts at collective farming). What we don’t get from this is why farmers continued to idolize FDR even though nothing seemed to work.

The other thing we never see is what really happened: small farmers were destroyed by the Dust Bowl and corporate farming took over the prairies. This was already underway dues to forces that contributed to the Dust Bowl that Burns ignored: technological change (hybrid seeds, the internal combustion engine), post-World War I government farm policy, corporate tax breaks…. Draw a straight line (the first dot of which was first drawn in the 1870s) through the 1920s, into the Dust Bowl, and to the final destruction of family farming that occurred in the 1980s. Burns doesn’t tell this story because he has a Whiggish view of history—one in which some mystical indomitable human spirit triumphs over potentially soul-crushing adversity. Would that it were so. Burns confuses history’s actors with its forces; usually the latter are more powerful. Reality: the Dust Bowl was so awful that what came next looked very little like what went before. One could almost say, “From dust ye came and to dust ye shall return.”—Rob Weir

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