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As Leni Riefenstahl was glorifying the exploits of Nazi Germany, American filmmakers were busy portraying a nation threatened by choked cities, an impoverished countryside, and environmental calamity. Behind the best of these films was Willard Van Dyke, who founded the f/64 photography collective with Ansel Adams and others but quickly adopted the moving image in search of a more socially powerful medium. Some of Van Dyke’s earliest film work (for Pare Lorentz’s The River) shows a well-developed eye for grandeur: Under grave narration decrying “the ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed…in the greatest river valley in the world,” his shots treat big sky and broad water with quiet solemnity alongside the stars of the show—the lacy pylons and lazy catenaries constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Van Dyke received his first directing credit alongside Ralph Steiner for The City (pictured). Scored by Aaron Copland, the film counters broad pastoral vistas with demonically intense footage of swarms, both human and automotive. Of his prewar films, only in Valley Town is Van Dyke’s camera trained easily on human faces; brought down by automation, the men of a Western Pennsylvania mill town struggle to retool for a new economy. Though he continued to make films until the ’60s—including well-regarded CBS television documentaries—his earliest work remains most influential: Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi films are particularly beholden in both scope and style. Van Dyke’s work, however, lacks Reggio’s pretensions and instead possesses a more honest eye for suffering and a resolute faith in progress. Call his a triumph of the heart. The series runs to Sunday, Feb. 9, at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 842-6799; see Showtimes for details. (Mike DeBonis)