American Experiences

I have a feeling that someone at the PBS show American Experience is looking at our current economic situation and programming accordingly. These three excellent documentaries can be seen there and are available elsewhere.

TV/DVD: Riding The Rails — During the Great Depression, some four million Americans left home in search of everything from work to adventure, a quarter million of them children and teens. They traveled by hopping freight trains. The myth of the rail-riding hobo meets reality in this fascinating and frequently emotional account that mixes personal recollection and historical context, laying bare the dangers, desperation, hunger and loneliness as well as the occasional milk of human kindness that helped sustain these wanderers. Onetime travelers, now elderly, tell their tales with moving emotionality to reveal how their lives and souls were forever changed by the experience in this award-winning film.

TV/DVD: Civilian Conservation Corps — A perfect companion to the above movie, this documentary explores how the Roosevelt New Deal program put four million men to work in the midst of the Great Depression in a program dedicated to conserving and renewing our natural resources. Of course, not unlike current day rhetoric, opponents tarred the CCC as both socialism and fascism, yet the tally today shows how it changed and enhanced the national natural landscape, reviving parched and depleted farmlands, reforesting the wild, and helping to fashion national and state parks into the recreational destinations they are today. One striking aspect to this film is how different the populace was then as opposed to today, making one wonder if such a large-scale public works and economic relief program — and one that was efficiently started and run with visible positive results for both the nation and its participants — would even be possible. The filmmakers make the perhaps slightly overstated case that this was the birthplace of the environmental movement, but with the Louisiana Gulf oil spill wreaking havoc on our Southeastern coasts, the need for a citizen corps to help mitigate the mess seems once again pressing.

TV/DVD: Into The Deep: America, Whaling & The World — Like tobacco — a fact to remember next time you are bothered when someone lights up — whaling was one of the economic engines that drove this nation’s founding and early growth. It was also where, like above, a large and desperate underclass turned for economic survival. This Ric Burns film strips away any romantic notions for a cold, hard look at a cold, hard life in the whaling ships. It also taps into the first major incursion of the economic rape and plunder of the oceans that presages today’s environmental aquatic crises. And threaded through it all is the fascinating tale of how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick went from a literary failure on its original publication to becoming a classic work of American literature. A long-lost industry and culture are vividly recreated in this telling look at an important element of our nation’s history.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010


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