Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Preliminary Notes for the Case Against Ken Burns

As Americans we must acknowledge that our sins are many. Slavery, conquest, the pillage of the environment, inequality--the list hardly bears repeating. But what in our whole storied past have we done to deserve Ken Burns?


Image result for ken burns
Telling us stories we like to hear.
Burns has ruined the historical documentary film for at least a generation. His bloated, tear-jerker, The Civil War, was a monster hit that changed the rules of the game. Where before the American Experience documentaries were tight, disciplined 50-minute films, now they became hours-long, multi-part spectacles. Nothing was left on the cutting room floor anymore. “Interview with an old woman who pet LBJ’s beagle in 1960?! Ratings gold! We have 9 hours to fill after all! Go back and see if you can get her to cry.”

Worse than the length and endless digressions of the Burn’s method is the sentimentality. Burns is forever delving into the feelings (or imagined feelings) of the characters rather their motivations and importance. Historians are replaced by poets and political hacks and novelists (and, always, Dayton Duncan), brought in to narrate a history that they barely grasp. The cringe factor is off the charts.

The greatest sin, however, is that Burns is at heart a consensus historian from the 1950s. The Civil War is wrapped up in a “it was all a tragic misunderstanding” narrative that minimizes the ways it was a fight over slavery and white supremacy. The omnipresence of Shelby Foote, with his endless love of the Confederate heroes, drives this home. Lewis and Clark is similarly cursed with serial plagiarist Stephen Ambrose, who knows everything about Meriwether Lewis (except the fact that he was obviously freakin’ gay) and nothing at all about the Indians or even American expansionism. Real scholars of the period like Jim Rhonda and John Allen Logan were barely present, making room for Ambrose, William Least-Heat Moon and Erica Funkhouser--none of whom know much about Lewis and Clark.

Burn’s huge popularity and influence have made his sins viral. Now every damn thing on PBS is a big budget multi-part week-long extravaganza. Some of these are actually not bad. But their very length assures that they will have less cultural relevance. A five-hour series on the French and Indian War airs once, maybe twice, and disappears forever. It is too long for classroom use, and copyright and encryption on the DVDs ensures it will not be edited or remixed into something useful. The old American Experience was devoted to 50-minutes stories that were shown again and again--I can’t tell you how many times I have shared Demon Rum or The Orphan Trains with a college class. The new documentaries do not have a shelf life.

Honestly, someone needs to write a book with the title of this blog post--The Case Against Ken Burns. It will not be me, as such an effort would involve hundreds of hours watching and rewatching his films. So Dear Reader, I give the idea to you. Run with it, I promise to buy the book. In the meantime, I offer a list of some trenchant critiques to get you started:


Ken Burns’ The Civil War


Ken Burns’ Lewis and Clark


Ken Burns’ Jazz


Ken Burns’ The West as America


Ken Burns’ The National Parks

Ken Burns’ The War


Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait


Overall Critiques and Parodies:



4 comments:

Bill Youngs said...

More academic jealousy of the bigly success of Ken Burns. Failing Northwest History Blogg. Bill Youngs and all 10 of History 590 students who want a good grade for his course!

Hank Vandenburgh said...

Okay, The Civil War was syrupy sweet, and the constant reappearances of obviously bourbon-drunk Shelby Foote didn't help. (Don't forget the effects of almost nauseating- but fulfilling --Ashoken Farewell played to death.) Still I liked it as a respite from the all-too-moralized it was all about race and that's it privileged white people approaches. Hell, I want a confection.

James Harrison said...

The Civil War was a masterpiece of imagery that otherwise rots in archives, or is viewed only by historians. The American public got a fantastic history lesson that explored the impact on both sides, rather than a simplistic white hats - black hats morality sermon which plays to the biases of the modern left. Enough of the breast-beasting, already, that forms the majority of what this blog does anymore.

What really is needed is a documentary about those former Northern idealists, who later became bigots after encountering the migration of the former slaves northward. Their experiences evidently did not quite match their expectations. It is a story that is NEVER told.

James Harrison said...

I'd like to leave one more recommendation. The Spokane downtown library once had a collection of Civil War diaries in its open stacks. They featured memories of soldiers from both sides, and very balanced and instructive.

What struck me was how genteel and old-school that officers from both armies behaved. At first, invading Union forces paid Southern farmers for any provision that they took. Another example: southern society members often hosted parties for Union officers, where wounded, paroled, or other Southern officers on leave mingled graciously with their counterparts. It was a throwback to the age of gentlemen.

Then it turned dark. It culminated with Sherman, whose philosophy was that total warfare, while brutal in the short run, was humane in the long run because it minimized bloodshed overall.

He applied that same mindset againt the western tribes. And, in his mind, it worked fabulously. And, for practical reasons, he had no choice. The Civil War bankrupted the national treasury and eventually contributed mightily to the Panic of 1873, something as terrible as the Great Depression. The Army was only a shell, and there was no other realistic way to keep the settlers and tribal members from greater mayhem.