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Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA

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In the depths of the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a bold stance in allocating federal money toward putting artists – artists! – on the U.S. government payroll. The legacy of that ambitious plan, the Works Progress Administration or WPA, gets examined in the engaging documentary Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA.

The WPA was a sprawling umbrella for a bunch of different federal programs – some accomplished basic things like road construction and building new structures. Others had a more vague purpose of putting people to work while boosting the morale of a cash-strapped citizenry. For Enough To Live On, writer-director Michael Maglaras focuses on the WPA’s arts programs, efforts that relied on the talents of visual artists, writers, performers and photographers. During the program’s glory years of roughly 1936-41, the arts programs resulted in hundreds of public murals, plays and musicals, sculpture, paintings, posters, educational texts and books providing a picturesque guide to the customs of all 48 states in the union. When one considers the fierce opposition the WPA faced during its entire lifespan, the sheer volume of what got accomplished is remarkable – and much of it still holds up (I still enjoy the historic murals at my local post office, for one).

Enough To Live On casts a wide net, packing a lot of info within 98 minutes. It’s a bit like an episode of PBS’s American Experience, although instead of a wide variety of expert commentary there’s just one historian and an older gentlemen who supplies eyewitness memories of volunteering for the WPA as a youth. Mostly it relies on Maglaras’ own narrative, a comprehensive historic overview with some subtle opining on what made the WPA succeed in its day and why it was important. Maglaras himself does the voice-over narration as well – I thought he conveyed a lot of gravitas, although my viewing partner found him self-important. The film delves into a lot of cool, relatively overlooked WPA projects, such as the Index of American Design, a cataloguing effort that required more than 20,000 detailed watercolor renderings of examples of classic design from America’s past. Famous names are mentioned here and there, although I most enjoyed hearing about lesser-known figures such as the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. The film is handsomely produced with plenty of examples of WPA art, presented in beautiful, color-saturated images. Come to think of it, the only thing better than this documentary would be for the WPA itself to come back.

The 217 Films DVD release of Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA sports great picture quality with sharp, detailed reproductions of the art being discussed. The dynamic visuals in the movie carry through to the package design, a slim digipack with appealing design used on the package and the accompanying 12-page booklet. The DVD is available for purchase at 217 Films or Amazon.com.

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WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

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