Saturday, November 24, 2012

The River (U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1937/38)

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

I showed The River, Pare Lorentz’ other movie (at least virtually the only other one anybody’s seen!), his 1937 documentary (though for some reason dates it as 1938) for the Farm Security Administration, which had absorbed the Resettlement Administration (for which he’d made The Plow That Broke the Plains) when the focus of the Roosevelt Administration’s response to the Dust Bowl crisis shifted from getting the farmers to relocate to helping them stay there and learn to farm the land responsibly and minimize soil erosion. The River was mocked when it was new (and has been ridiculed since) for the incantatory style of Lorentz’s narration (delivered again, as in Plow, by Thomas Chalmers, who speaks in the earnest style of the narrators of “audio-visual” movies used in schools in the 1960’s — in fact one person who reviewed The River on actually recalled seeing it for the first time as an “audio-visual” movie in high school!), especially when he starts reading off all the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi, the titular river and the subject of the film: “The Yellowstone, the Milk, the White, the Cheyenne; the Cannonball, the Muscle Shoals, the James, the Sioux; down the Judith, and the Osage, and the Platte; the Skunk, the Salt, the Black, and Minnesota; down the Rock, and the Illinois, and the Kankakee; the Allegheny, the Monongahela, Penawba and the Muskegon; down the Miami and the Wabash and the Lickee and the Green; the Cumberland and the Kentucky and the Tennessee; down the Wachita, the Wichita, the Red and Yazoo; down the Missouri, 3,000 miles from the Rockies; down the Ohio, 1,000 miles from the Alleghenies; down the Arkansas, 1,500 miles from the Great Divide; down the Red, 1,000 miles from Texas; down the Great Valley, 2,500 miles from Minnesota, carrying every rivulet and brook, creek and rill.”

Typical of the commentary on this film is Arthur Calder-Marshall’s rather snippy reference to it, Lorentz’s other film The Plow That Broke the Plains, and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath: “[B]oth Steinbeck and Lorentz had shied away from the stark horror [of the Dust Bowl migration], the former into romantic sentiment and the latter into an incantatory use of Indian names. The sordid suffering was covered in the aspic of Art.” It’s interesting to note that despite Lorentz’ use of all the other major creative personnel from Plow on The River — himself, narrator Chalmers, composer Virgil Thomson (whose score is absolutely brilliant, surpassing his excellent work on Plow, despite his use of two schlocky pseudo-folk songs; in one sequence he uses a banjo with orchestral accompaniment to underscore shots of a riverboat, and Charles joked that it was probably the most “serious” piece of music ever composed that used the banjo) and conductor Alexander Smallens — none of the cinematographers from Plow (not even Paul Ivano, the only one of the four on Plow who lasted to the end) worked on The River. Instead the cinematographers on The River were Floyd Crosby (already an Academy Award winner for the F. W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty semi-documentary Tabu in 1931, and the father of rock musician David Crosby), Willard Van Dyke and Stacy Woodard, and Crosby’s influence on the visual style is readily apparent from his off-beat angling and heavy use of the red filter.

The River — even in the context of a photographically lousy print from — is a quite beautiful film, especially haunting in its images of the river itself. Its basic moral is the same as that of Plow: the catastrophes of nature in the Midwest and South — the Dust Bowl of Plains and the Mississippi River floods here — are the fault of human beings meddling with nature in chancy, catch-as-catch-can ways, but the solution is not to leave nature alone and with minimal interference, but to remodel it in even more extensive, but carefully planned, ways. In what up until its last five minutes or so has been a hymn to nature and a condemnation of human efforts to tame it, we suddenly start seeing entire cliffsides blow up and Chalmers’ narration makes it clear we are supposed to approve. The last few minutes of The River are out-and-out propaganda supporting the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the shots of the TVA’s network of dams being built are among the most awe-inspiring in the film even though they bring Lorentz’s style even closer to what in the U.S.S.R. was being called “socialist realism” than it’s been throughout the previous 25 minutes (and all of Plow as well, where for all Lorentz’ clear veneration of Eisenstein, his editing was a good deal sloppier — at one point he cut from shots of the Great Plains to a series of explosions from cannons, and while Chalmers’ narration quickly makes it clear these scenes are supposed to illustrate World War I in progress, for a moment the juxtaposition makes it look like the Plains have come under enemy artillery fire).

Like The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River is a real period piece, sometimes incredibly beautiful (particularly when the images from Crosby and company and Thomson’s music fuse just right) and sometimes banal, and politically problematic now when the U.S. has largely soured on big-ticket efforts to remake nature — and the Left, to which Lorentz clearly belong, is probably sourer on them than anyone else! A TVA-like development would be politically impossible today because the Right would insist that it be done by the private sector and the Left would fight against it being done at all; at least one of the reasons President Obama’s “stimulus” didn’t have the kind of economic “juice” the WPA did was that both environmental and business opposition to major public-sector construction projects had become so entrenched there were woefully few jobs that were really “shovel-ready” — in the 1930’s government had essentially said, “Damn the corporations, damn the environment, full speed ahead,” but at least since the 1970’s that kind of rapid development has been well-nigh impossible (as much as the Right likes to call for it, especially in energy). Lorentz’s films are, ironically, “timeless” in their depiction of environmental catastrophes and very much of their time in terms of what they say we should do about them — and it’s for both of those reasons that they remain interesting.