Pare Lorentz

Government Issue

I finally got to see a couple of films I’ve been reading about for years: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River by Pare Lorentz. I’m not sure what I think just yet. Maybe it’s my dislike for modern poetry, but I just didn’t find them as poetic as they’re cracked up to be. Visually, they are outstanding for the time. Verbally, they sort of grated on me— of course, the critics call them “Joycean.”

Maybe it was just the deadpan tone— sort of like watching one of those Prelinger Archive training films. However, the content was different. Not quite propaganda but certainly not objective, the first US Government funded documentary films are fascinating. I ordered them from a site called, which connected me directly with a company that consumptive (I think) linked to a few days later . . . . strange how all this works. But then I’m wandering.

I miss that. Wandering, that is. I’ve been feeling far too focused and industrious lately, rather than just rambling on with blog entries. Maybe it’s getting into the time-line phase with my research site that took it out of me. There’s so much I want to get down. But for now, I should stick to the topic at hand.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was my favorite of the films. It uses some pretty innovative montage techniques to contextualize the agrarian vs. industrial debate of the time. It reminded me of someone else I need to know more about— Ralph Steiner, who did the camera work. He was the man who trained Walker Evans in using the view camera too, by the way. The River was disappointing to me, but as I read through I’ll Take My Stand I can see how much it dealt with the problem of the south in relatively sympathetic fashion. The preface of the collection of Southern essays sets the opposition firmly: “Agrarian versus Industrial”

It amazes me how much these polemics miss the real point at stake— there is nothing inherently evil about technology. However, there are dehumanizing aspects to any technological growth which need to be highlighted and addressed. The controversy still rages today. I love to side with the humanists— but it is never an either or choice that must be made. Being a Luddite is no answer at all. The real problem is sucessfully integrating tools into our mode of living without losing something essential in the simpler mode that preceded it.

But even as I write that I wonder about the mythic “simplicity” of life close to the land. I personally find indoor plumbing to be much “simpler” than dealing with outhouse maintenance. Cooking with wood fires also seems to be much more complex. Maybe it’s just that the change from one mode to the other decenters us to the point where we always take the previous version as being simpler, when in reality it is not.

I’ll have to give Pare Lorentz credit for the slant of his films— he does not avoid the truly complex nature of the changes that the USA was dealing with in the 1930s. They are not monolithic pieces of cultural propaganda. His films are quite complex, and deserve much more than the scant words I’ve generated about them here. I suppose I should think about it longer, but damn it I miss writing!