Tuesday, November 14, 2023 at 7:30pm
Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains + Joris Ivens's Power and the Land

361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn

The Plow That Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz, 1936, 16mm, 25 mins
Power and the Land, Joris Ivens, 1940, digital projection, 38 mins

The Plow That Broke the Plains and Power and the Land occupy a peculiar place in film history, at once famous and unseen—famous, insofar as they represent key episodes in the development of the documentary as an aesthetic and social form, and unseen in that we cannot recall a single recent screening in New York of either film. It’s especially surprising that showings are so infrequent when one considers their primary aims and political contexts, and how deeply they resonate with the exigencies of our moment. The goal of these films was to articulate the ecological catastrophes and ambitious infrastructure projects of the New Deal era to a mass audience, and their productions were animated, in part, by internal tensions between the leftist and liberal imperatives of those involved.

The Plow That Broke the Plains, a searing vision of the Dust Bowl, its history and its aftermath, was made under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration (later succeeded by the Farm Security Administration), the same office that had enlisted Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to photograph rural life in America. Journalist Pare Lorentz was brought on to direct, and the production team featured several members of the New York Film and Photo League and the collective Nykino, including Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, and Paul Strand. With dramatic cinematography of the battered prairies and a stirring original score by Virgil Thompson, Lorentz’s effort far exceeded the comparatively dry standards of the government information film, offering instead what he called “an emotion that springs out of the soil itself,” writing that “our heroine is the grass, our villain the sun and the wind, our players the actual farmers living in the Plains country.” Hollywood refused to distribute the film despite rave reviews, and so it became one of the earliest instances of a successful independent release, with Lorentz himself booking the film at theaters around the country. Audiences responded strongly to the film wherever it traveled. After a screening at the Rialto in New York, Lorentz overheard one moviegoer tell her companion, “They never should have plowed them plains.”

Lorentz later became head of the United States Film Service, and was tasked with producing a documentary for the Department of Agriculture. He tapped Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, who had become well known in progressive circles for his anti-fascist film on the Spanish Civil War. The topic at hand was the ongoing progress of rural electrification via farmers’ cooperatives, and Ivens dramatized the process by focusing on one Ohio family, the Parkinsons, to portray how this initiative changed and improved fundamental aspects of their daily lives, illustrating a broad social transformation through a representative instance. The film used only non-actors, playing versions of themselves, with poet Stephen Vincent Benét scripting a narration inspired by the region’s local dialect. What emerged is a moving and quite lyrical example of the possibilities that this synecdochal approach held for nonfiction filmmaking, as well as its limitations. The Film Service would be abolished by a Republican-controlled Congress the very year Power and the Land hit theaters, effectively ending the golden age of government-sponsored film in America. While this experiment with cinema in the public interest may have been short-lived, both The Plow That Broke the Plains and Power and the Land still glow with urgency, inviting us to ask what forms of documentary are needed to confront our present crises, and those still to come.

Print of The Plow That Broke the Plains courtesy of Skip Elsheimer.

Tickets - Pay what you can ($10 suggested donation), available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm. No entry 10 minutes after start of show.