Documentaries and Connections
By Michael Getler
November 21, 2012
Two — what I thought were — very powerful documentaries aired on PBS stations in the past week or so.
One was Ken Burns' gripping chronicle of "The Dust Bowl," a decade-long environmental catastrophe that, literally, "nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation" during the 1930s. It was broadcast on Nov. 18 and 19 for two hours each evening. A week earlier, on Nov. 12, an hour-long documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney took a hard look at some of the extraordinary wealth concentrated in a tiny corner of this country in a film titled "Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream." It was part of the long-running PBS series "Independent Lens."
I thought I'd get a lot of mail about both of these programs. Actually, I got very little. Maybe it was because the election was just over and people were taking a break from writing or venting. Had the films run before Election Day, my guess is that the ombudsman's mailbox would have been full with emails from viewers seeing all kinds of political agendas at work.
As is always the case, a great deal has already been written elsewhere about Ken Burns' latest work. Much less has been written about "Park Avenue." My effort here is not to review these two completely separate and different programs, nor to combine them as some sort of package. Rather it is to say that it was, for me at least, impossible to watch each one without absorbing very clear themes that were relevant to the 2012 election campaign.
The four-hour Dust Bowl documentary was long and repetitive, both visually and audibly. Yet I could not look away from that screen for even a minute. The archival film and images from that desperate era not so long ago were stunning. And the on-camera interviews with dozens of survivors provided a powerful reminder of the grit, courage and compassion of American families caught up in a combination of disasters that were, in part, man-made — a plowing frenzy that ruined the land, a devastating decade-long drought and a depression. It was vintage Ken Burns and made for extraordinary television, in my view.
But it also conveyed within this powerfully documented drama of recorded history, themes that were also unmistakably contemporary. These amazing narratives of the 1930s, with perhaps one or two exceptions, were told by white families from America's heartland, not minorities. They were tough individualists, not big-government types. But they were shown to benefit from government scientists and engineers who helped design new plowing and planting techniques to restore topsoil, from newly created government agencies such as the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and they connected with a wealthy, patrician President Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York who had an ability to speak their language.
"Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream" was much different. It had an attitude, a point of view from the get-go. But that is what Independent Lens and another PBS series, POV — meaning point of view — are about. They are both edgy, independent documentary and investigative programs meant to put a face on contemporary social issues.
"Park Avenue" is focused on one apartment building on New York's Park Avenue and based on a book by Michael Gross titled "740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building." The building in Manhattan, as the film states and The New York Times reports in its review of the program, "is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States" and is a "particularly glaring example of wealth disparity in New York." The upper reaches of Park Avenue in the Bronx are among the poorest in the city.
But the focus here is not so much on the comparison but rather on the staggering wealth of some and on "how a tax-break benefitting hedge-fund moguls became law and why all efforts to roll it back fail," as the Times review noted. Whatever else producer Gibney has accomplished, the Times reviewer writes, "if you were still on the fence about whether to despise the superrich, this will almost surely make a hater out of you." The film also focuses on the role of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) as the "chief culprit" preventing rolling-back of the tax-break.
As a viewer, I thought the film suffered a bit from the use of an intentionally rigged game of Monopoly to make a point, and that a comment by book author Michael Gross in an interview that "some rich people are just dicks" detracted unnecessarily from a serious effort to capture an amazing accumulation of wealth by some, far beyond historical norms, that has become an important part of today's polarization and yet is rarely treated with such depth and intensity on national television.
What follows are just two letters, both about "The Dust Bowl." One raises the issue of a political agenda in a critical way. The other is very long but seemed to me that it didn't deserve to be shortened.
The Dust Bowl series is absolutely amazing and gut-wrenching. Sadly PBS has chosen this moment to somehow promote a hard-left agenda who in its own passive-aggressive way promotes the left-wing ideals of our current Obama administration. I have been unemployed for 4 years and still I feel that this obvious pandering to a nanny-state government is nothing but an insult. It is so clear that you are comparing our devastating economy of today to the Dust Bowl and FDR to Obama. Give me a break. Obama is not an FDR. You're comparing a struggling farming economy to a union-controlled agenda? The starving Okies to Illegals breaking every law in our country and DEMANDING services that should be used for Americans? The entire show is a propaganda to promote more government. That somehow we can't figure things out on our own. That people in NYC and LA know better than those in the heartland? I pray that congress cuts your budgets for any shows that promote this type of rhetoric. You should be standing for the people NOT for more government support.
The historical perspective is truly enlightening and makes me realize that as difficult as times are for my family we know nothing of true struggle. I will continue to help my own children grow and be resourceful and I hope that PBS can work towards more balanced viewpoints. Much of what Ken Burns produces is quite good, however maybe it's time you seek out other filmmakers with a more diverse viewpoint.
L. F., Los Angeles, CA
'The People of The Plains'
Please convey my profound gratitude to Ken Burns for his "Dust Bowl" documentary. I am 4th generation Plains people, and a scholar who has, as an avocation, studied everything I could about the Dust Bowl. This documentary finally sets the record straight; as we say down home, "he done us proud."
My dad's Uncle Jon & Aunt Hazel stayed on the homestead place near Dover OK. But, Grandpa (Uncle Jon's brother) and Grandma went to Long Beach because the cable tool drilling era ended with the invention of the rotary table drill rig. He found work in the ship yards, and she ran the salad line at the shipyard cafeteria. Grandma's sister Mary stayed in Enid, OK, and they only reunited a few times during the next 30 years. My Grampy (maternal) worked for the CCC or WPA creating city parks, which meant my mother's family could stay in OK, and the parks remain a proud reminder of my family's history. But others were not so lucky. My (maternal) Great Aunt Belle, put off the land near Garber OK, felt forced to go to CA, and I have a picture of her standing by a corn field in Pasadena, CA, her hair bleached white by the sun. Landowner become migrant worker. Because all of this seemed to illustrate how far the mighty had fallen, almost no one in my family talked about the Dust Bowl.
It seems to me that the disdain for "Okies" became something of an internalized shame of being failures, of losing the things they valued most — their families, their land, their livestock, especially the line of horses you'd bred and trained for years, and the breeder cattle which more than anything else signaled you would have a future. Then, as a child in the 1950s, I lived in west Texas, and vividly remember the horrid dust there. Mother taped the windows and all but one door closed, and still the floor would be covered every morning. She had to vacuum out the bathtub so we could bathe. We'd rush out to bring in the clothes drying on the line — then have the mess of wet, and now dirty, laundry hanging everywhere indoors. This lack of cleanliness, which really was thought to be what defined Godliness in my family, nearly did mother in. Thus, I can from years of study, direct experience of little Dust Bowls times, and living among people of the Plains attest to the veracity of the Dust Bowl documentary.
However, there is one thing about the documentary that is sadly lacking: a realistic sense of the sound of the wind. I recall having the measles and being kept abed until the illness ran its course. Meanwhile, the wind blew for two full days and nights. Howling, wrenching, relentless wind that came under the door with a ghastly screech, made the windows rattle and pulled off screens, and seemed likely to take the roof off or tear the house down. I am horrified to think of living through such winds in a chicken coop or other insubstantial dwelling. As bleak as the tale told by the documentary, it understates the horrors which the sound of the wind compounded.
Also, please convey a special thanks for not lingering on Steinbeck's silly book and giving it the misguided acclaim that others accord it. From my heart (and meaning no disrespect to fiction writers or to intimate that Steinbeck meant to be disrespectful), as a child of the prairie who loves it as no other place in the world and who has a deep love and abiding respect for the people of the plains, Steinbeck's book smeared good people who worked their hearts out to try to live their dreams to make something of themselves and contribute to society. When I read it, I feel unclean, worthless, and almost physically ill, evincing a thorough-going and visceral distaste for his text, a sentiment many educated, intelligent people who come from the Plains share. The acceptance of Steinbeck's characterizations has always struck me as just so much more stereotyping of Plains-folk as inferior to "real" Americans, a strange misunderstanding about those who cannot be so easily pigeon-holed.
Bless you for recognizing Sanora Babb's social work and her writing, which is far truer to Plains-folk altogether than Steinbeck's. I have always been sorry that my mother's mind departed her body before this book was published, as she too was a 1930s social worker (in OK) and Sanora's writing would have been most welcome to her. People of the Plains, which the documentary has made so evident, proved enormously resilient and deserving of respect for their survival during the Dust Bowl. This documentary provides a welcome recognition for these qualities, and of this important chapter in America life.