Sometimes not a great notion


Last night I caught about 30 seconds of Ken Burn’s latest paean: “The National Parks”, which was quite enough.  I already feel as though I’ve watched the entire series. “The National Parks are the enduring treasure of the great experiment that IS the United States….”  Substitute “Jazz”, “Baseball”, “The Brooklyn Bridge”,  “The Statue of Liberty”, the works of “Mark Twain”, buildings by “Frank Lloyd Wright”, the legacy of “Lewis and Clark”, “Susan B. Anthony”, “The West”, the experience of being black in America…

It’s not that these subjects aren’t fascinating and historically significant, it’s that he’s putting them all through the same Ken Burns sausage-grinder.  I loved watching this treament perhaps twice: Civil War, Lewis and Clark – great stuff, tear in my eye.  But not everything can be THE sepia-toned emblem of the great notion/dream/experiment that is America.

What next?  Pike’s Peak, Amelia Earhart, the automobile, Father Coughlin, Vaudeville, Vietnam, Kennedy, Television, Robber Barons, Country Music, Los Angeles, Newspapers.  What is this guy going to homogenize next? I don’t want to see these archived in his gimbel-eyed  exhausted style.  They deserve a fresh attack.

To me there is something about the narrative style of documentaries that invites corruption, after all, they are always “telling” you something, and leaving other things out.  If somehow a documentarian could focus not on substantive events, but on patterns, might this be more revealing?

I remember watching David Frosts’ interview with Nixon, where Nixon utters a heartfelt mea culpa, saying that he had let the country down. He seemed genuinely aggrieved.  I can’t imagine this coming from a modern politician (“Were errors in judgment made, yes…”)   Assume Nixon is neither good nor bad, and I know this is hard to do,  then you are free to focus on his ambition, and the way it manifested itself compared to a dessicated clinician like Barack Obama.  Can Nixon’s way of doing it not succeed today?  Why not?  These are  interesting questions to me and are not dependent on the question of right and wrong.

There was another quote from the “National Parks” documentary:  “50 years from now my grandaughter can visit this place and it will look to her just like it looks to me.”    I think Ken Burn’s wants us to feel that we are dots on a timeline of an immutable “American” (thus special) narrative.  While this is comforting and makes us feel kinship with historical figures, I don’t buy it, with history, things are never as they seem.  Burn’s intellectual contribution is fading and curling at the edges.


  1. wow that’s kinda harsh.

    first, what is a gimbel? (as in “gimbel-eyed”?)

    my issue w/ his docs is length. (12 hrs WTF?!?!?) i have a short attention span, am impatient and have trouble sitting through even entertaining flicks.

    i think he takes a more academic approach to doc-making. he’s not catering to general public but stays true to his high standards. (even if it ends up being 12hrs!)

    but, his content is supposedly well-researched. i think his bro who works w/ him is a proper multi-degreed historian. u have to respect that they research like banchees.

    if you are going to be that harsh w/ criticism, i’d respectfully request that you submit your version of a documentary to show him and us how it should be done. imho. 🙂

  2. ps – we really can’t criticize this national forests doc w/out seeing it. heh. but hey this is the innertubes we can say whatever we want.

    pps – i dare mr. burns should do his next doc on (the subject of) the innertubes!

  3. i think the worst thing about ken burns is that he got a stupid special effect named after him and the “ken burns effect” is on by default any time you try to make a slide show using an iLife app. i know somebody who videotaped ken burns while using the ken burns effect in real-time though, which is kinda funny. but still. seriously. ken burns effect???

  4. Well if I follow miss betty’s advice I will be very busy writing novels and producing documentaries. “Gimbel” means “jaundiced” but it is a word I apparently made up out of whole cloth. Kilgore and I joke about it, maybe it came from a Nathaniel West novel.

    I imagine a Ken Burns special affect to auto-play banjo music while panning a photo.

  5. that’s pretty much what it is. some dumb music is on by default also, so when you first look at your slideshow you get the happy surprise of crazy music and random pans… no specific direction… and you can’t control how it pans. so you are pretty spot-on.

  6. could not agree more with the burns critique. i think we spoke about this in person. i think if i watch one more of either burns’ movies i will just shoot myself before reading.

    but i am not sure your pattern idea works out either. i think perhaps we just need to return to good ole gonzo. history is all lies anyway.

  7. Not sure where this hatred of America is coming from but it seems too apparent in your writing. Having said that your take on history does remind me of a feeling I used to get sometimes listening to my aunt talking about ‘the good old days’. She recalled how great times where after the war and in the fifties and they seemed it. I was jealous to have not lived then. But there is not a single look back. I imagine a black man reminiscing on those times might be looking into a different history. btw – this is how I write when Im trying to sound smart.