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Thursday, January 10, 2013

THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936) / THE RIVER (1938)

Pare Lorentz only directed two documentary shorts, but they’re two of the most famous and influential works in the form. THE PLOW focuses on what we now call the Dust Bowl era of the Great Plains in the ‘30s and THE RIVER looks at crises and possible solutions in the cycle of floods along the banks of the Mississippi. Largely shot silent and held together with spare narration and Virgil Thompson’s equally spare arrangements of folk songs & hymns, they were government sanctioned ‘visual briefs’ made for Depression era audiences. But they have little in common with modern field reports on current events, the classic story-driven work of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty or current ideas for documentaries as even-handed teaching aids. (Yuck!) Instead, they function as poetic visual essays, lightly stitched impressions closer to a non-narrative nature study like KOYAANISQATSI/’82 then to a multi-part PBS prestige item. And they get it all in in about half an hour. A recent edition of the pair from the Classical Music Label NAXOS keeps the old, original soundtracks as an alternate, but offers a spiffy modern (if a bit faceless) re-recording of the wonderful music & plain-spoken narration as the default audio. Just be sure to access the Special Features to watch the complete original ending of PLOW.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ken Burns recent PBS documentary (THE DUST BOWL/’12) is basically an expansion of PLOW, but a richer second feature would be Elia Kazan’s wonderful, scandalously unsung WILD RIVER/’60, which centers on the human cost of the TVA project referred to in THE RIVER. Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick & Jo Van Fleet make the most of Paul Osborn’s lovely screenplay, and rapturous location lensing from Ellsworth Fredericks does wonders for Kazan’s visual style.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Wrote these up about five years back. Oops! Oh well, pretty consistent thoughts, and now with a helpful Double-Bill suggestion and an unusual poster from a book tie-in.

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