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'The River' Runs Through It: The Legacy of Pare Lorentz

By Betsy McLane

Film still from Spike Lee's 'When the Leeves Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts', featuring a Black man in a suit playing the trumpet while walking next to a trash-filled sidewalk.

Huge storms pound the middle third of the United States. The Mississippi overflows its banks, flooding towns, killing and displacing people, destroying economies and ecosystems. The nation wonders what to do.

A man, backed with respectable financing, steps forward to direct a powerful documentary that reveals the essence of this tragedy and brings it stingingly home to the public. The film is greeted with wide acclaim, compassionate outcry and no little shame about the fact that Americans have let this disaster happen to their land and to their own people. In 2006 it was Spike Lee and When the Levees Broke. Seventy years earlier, it was Pare Lorentz and The River. Lorentz's film was produced to explain unconscionable resources mismanagement and to explore public policy; Lee's was made for similar reasons, and was funded by a profitable commercial enterprise noted for its success in documentary: HBO. Lorentz's was funded by a public agency that had never been involved in filmmaking: the US Federal Government, in the form of President Franklin Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration, run by a forward-thinking member of Roosevelt's brain trust, Rexford G. Tugwell.

There are at least a dozen notable documentary films about Katrina and its aftermath, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of personal video diaries on the subject. That so many individuals were spurred to examine the causes and the effects of this American tragedy speaks to the fact that timely video response has become a preferred means for communication, and to the unsurprising fact that documentarians are often driven to bring difficult problems to public attention.

Our 21st century documentary community is regularly reminded–and reminds itself–of its value in examining society's problems. It is true that more documentary films are influencing more people than ever before; more filmmakers are creating work about all manner of subjects, and distributing them in radical new ways. Audiences are stirred to action, or at least made aware of important issues. It is also true that the social conscience of the documentary tradition is long, mostly honorable, and existed well before the Sundance Film Festival. Massive technological changes, which in turn affect the funding, distribution and aesthetics of documentaries, have made the 2000s a very different time than the 1930s, but despite the passing of decades, important continuities in the documentary ethos remain.

Lorentz, self-proclaimed as "FDR's Filmmaker," is one of many pioneers who created inspiring, beautiful and theatrically exhibited documentaries of immense social import. Each of his films–four major completed works–confronts pressing societal concerns of the late 1930s and the 1940s. The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), The Fight for Life (1940), Nuremburg (1945) and, most eloquently, The River (1937), are inextricably important to the world's documentary heritage.

Lorentz was born in northwestern West Virginia in 1905 in the tiny town of Lorentz (so still named) and was deeply immersed in the ways of the countryside. He remembered his father as a man who "fought endless battles trying to keep the bass from being killed off. I grew up among such people." The love of nature inherent in his Southern upbringing was genuine and lifelong, and perhaps finds contemporary resonance in another concerned Southerner: Al Gore, as profiled in An Inconvenient Truth

After a couple of years at West Virginia colleges, Lorentz made his way to New York City and eventually became a columnist and film critic for newspapers and magazines. While working for Newsweek, he put together a picture book, The Roosevelt Year (1934), which he had initially conceived as a newsreel. Decades later, a collection of his film reviews, Lorentz On Film (1975), was published.

As is often the case, Lorentz got his opportunity to make a film through the connections of family and friends. He did not come to film as his first love, nor through apprenticeship or formal training. When he was hired to run the first US government film agency, Lorentz had no experience in filmmaking. In fact, he witnessed film editing only after Plow was fully shot and he entered the cutting room. But this did not prevent him from writing and directing masterworks of the cinema. 

Being a writer, Lorentz approached the challenges of filmmaking through research that then inspired impressionistic outlines. As with many documentaries, then and now, there was no official "script." He drew from government data, of which there was plenty. For Plow and The River, there were official reports about the country's dreadful abuse of national resources (over-farming, extreme logging, tearing up the prairies, depleting the soil, building towns in unfit locations) and the results of these abuses (the Dust Bowl, impoverished farmers, flooded towns and cities, displaced families, a lost economy).

Another resource, the Farm Securities Administration, sponsored still photography of Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and others under the supervision of Roy Stryker. Neither of these media–the written word or the still photograph–had the power to evoke passion in the same way as film, as both Tugwell and Lorentz knew. 

Lorentz next headed into the field to capture on film what he had envisioned in words. As the best filmmakers do, he surrounded himself with some of the most talented cameramen available. The Plow That Broke the Plains was shot by Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz and Paul Ivano; Stacy Woodard, Floyd Crosby and Willard Van Dyke shot The River.

A major difference between The River and most of the Katrina documentaries, particularly When the Levees Broke, is that Lorentz's film was designed solely with theatrical exhibition in mind. Lee's film emphasizes the human story, a narrative choice at which television excels. He uses many close-ups and interviews to carry emotional weight, and stock footage to provide the backstory. 

Lorentz's work has almost no close-ups, and does not focus on personal stories. In The River, his main character is the Mississippi itself, which is awe-inspiringly dramatic and beautiful in its rage. Two of the reasons for this were the equipment available, and the dominant documentary aesthetic of the 1930s–which was established by the John Grierson school of filmmaking. But much of the power of Plow and The River rises from Lorentz's own somewhat romantic view of the world, and his desire to break away from the didacticism of Grierson to create his own film form. 

From the beginning, Lorentz's concept of film included sound and music. Words were not used as typical narration, but as hypnotizing blank verse spoken over images and music. Night Mail (1936) by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, produced by Grierson, with its linking of image to poetry by W.H. Auden, was a likely influence on Lorentz. A Benjamin Britten score propelled Night Mail, and Lorentz found an American equal in Virgil Thomson, who wrote the music for Plow and The River, combining American folk tunes and hymns with original themes. This same technique is echoed in When the Levees Broke, as Terence Blanchard's score acknowledges the great musical traditions of New Orleans. The intimacy and passion in Lee's interviews, possible because of technology that was never available to Lorentz, preclude the need for narration in Levees.

In some ways Lorentz's films combined the best of both the Robert Flaherty and Grierson traditions. Like their work, Lorentz's films screened in commercial theaters. Lee had an exhibition outlet in HBO before filming started. The support given to him by HBO's President of Documentary and Family Programming, Sheila Nevins, and staff insured that Levees would be widely reviewed and watched. Most other chroniclers of Katrina are not as fortunate, and neither was Pare Lorentz. Not one of the Hollywood studios would distribute The Plow That Broke the Plains or The River. Their reasons, just as today, were both financial and political; the films were not feature-length, but too long for shorts, and "the Republican Party and other groups opposed to the New Deal might insist on a similar treatment for their output of cinematic propaganda," according to Business Week, July 11, 1936. Of course, Lorentz's films are propaganda–and government-sponsored propaganda at that–but then, most good documentary can in some way be labeled as propaganda.

Lorentz overcame this Hollywood boycott as many documentary filmmakers still do. He took his shows on the road, garnering good reviews in initial screenings; The River opened at a gala premiere in New Orleans, as did Levees. Lorentz then used reviews and testimonies by theater managers to get other movie houses to take the picture. This strategy worked successfully, especially in the Midwest where audiences reportedly clamored to see the films. Many independent theater owners showed The River, generally to rousing public and critical appreciation. Lorentz was hailed as the new rising son of American documentary, but The River was to be the peak of his artistry.

Lorentz next conceived a radio project, Ecce Homo, which was broadcast by CBS and BBC. Some footage was shot to turn this script into a film, but the final project never materialized. In 1938 Lorentz was made director of the newly formed US Film Service.  He made The Fight for Life, based on a book of the same name. This look at the struggles of a hospital maternity ward used professional actors and natural participants, and provided an unsentimental view of the pain that often accompanied childbirth. Shot both in Chicago and on a Hollywood sound stage, the film became controversial both for audiences and within the government. Hollywood was bringing pressures on Congress to stay out of the film business, and the melodrama of Fight for Life struck a different chord than land reform.

While making this film, Lorentz was supervising two other projects that became part of the documentary canon, hiring Flaherty and Dutchman Joris Ivens. The Flaherty film, The Land, relied on the documentarian's usual methods–two years of wandering and shooting to capture a poetic vision of the American farmer. Ivens' The Power and the Land extolled the virtues of rural electrification through co-ops as only an ardent Communist such as he could. None of these three films resonated with the public as did Plow or The River. The Film Service became mired in increasing Congressional controversy, and as the world hurtled into World War II, support for New Deal arts projects disappeared. Lorentz resigned in 1940, and the US Film Service eventually morphed into the Office of War Information, which used Hollywood talent, not the documentarians of the 1930s, to create its propaganda.

Lorentz enlisted and spent the war making navigational films for the US Army Air Force. From 1941 to 1945, he was the chief of the Film Section of the War Department's Civil Affairs Division. He supervised Nuremberg, a film that used footage of Nazi war atrocities and the Nuremberg trials to try to explain to the German people the extent of the horrors of their government's policies. This film was kept from the US public until the 1990s, although it was required viewing for Germans who wanted to receive food ration cards during the post-war occupation. Although he lived until 1992, Nuremberg was Lorentz's last film.

Lorentz's is a film legacy of compassion for the American land and its people. His belief in artful cinema that could respond to large questions about government social policies was shared by many of his documentary contemporaries. Yet only he managed to create such work with direct funding from that government. Certainly FDR's policies and Tugwell's support played a large role in that accomplishment, but it was Lorentz's own considerable charm, his intelligence and aesthetic sensibilities, and his hard work that made the films possible at a time when access to filmmaking and distribution was limited to a very few powerful companies. Footage taken from Plow and The River continues to be used in films today, but the lasting impact of his works as touchstones to American history and as artistic inspiration for future documentarians goes far beyond that.

It was imperative to Lorentz to create works of art, as well as force, to be seen and heard in the 1930s, and it is imperative for documentarians in the 2000s to understand his legacy, to create work of quality that will also live for decades.

Betsy A. McLane is director emeritus of the IDA and the author, with Jack Ellis, of A New History of Documentary Film.