Monday, October 1, 2007

The War and The Movies

Ken Burn’s magnificent documentary, “The War” is as good a summary we will likely find on American involvement in World War II. However, I wonder if this documentary is not getting quite the chatter that his excellent documentary on the Civil War did some years ago. That film revived an interest for many non-Civil War buffs that had not been seen since the centennial commemorations of the early 1960s. Perhaps because it made the Civil War new to them. But when it comes to World War II, we may think we already know all about it. I wonder if this is because of the movies.

All the 1940s home-front melodramas and “battle” depictions from soundstage war zones Hollywood fed to us, and which have been left to succeeding generations on video and DVD, are fascinating souvenirs of an era. But that is all they are. They are not documentaries, only stories, and if younger people take them too seriously, or view them too romantically, or dismiss them as nonsense and thereby dismiss the whole era, they may not know anything about Navajo Code Talkers, Japanese-American internment camps in Colorado, Japanese-American fighting units, segregated black fighting units. They will know about the fear, and the anxiety, and the consuming self-defensive patriotism of that era, and those are important things to know, because they are part of the American experience of World War II. But they are not the whole story.

A recent Christian Science Monitor article in which teenagers were interviewed upon viewing Mr. Burns’ “The War” remarks on how much they did not know about that era (which, not surprisingly, was considerable), and also indicated the teens’ rather blasé attitude about that era, particularly a remark made by one young man who insisted, “We’re much more sophisticated these days.”

In some ways, perhaps, especially technologically, but sophisticated does not necessarily mean mature. While the Baby Boomers have been called "the Me Generation," the succeeding Gen Xers and Gen Yers have carried self obsession and self importance to an art form. It is disappointing that this moving and illuminating documentary on World War II should be dismissed by teens as something as invalid and corny as possibly an old Hollywood film. Perhaps Hollywood’s Technicolor way of sanitizing the struggle and making it sparkle like a song and dance number was a double-edged sword. It made the people of that era forget the anxiety for two hours and inspire them to go back out for more. But it slaps a simplistic label on that era and makes young people today disdainful and condescending of that era and those people who lived it.

I have never understood film critics’ common remark that an old film does not hold up to today. Those films made back then were not intended to “hold up” through the ages. They were directed towards the audience of the day, and never expected to be scrutinized on video and DVD generations later. Most of the classics of literature, though they may be revered, would never be published today, either. They do not “hold up”. Yet, we do not question their importance to our culture. Quite possibly sixty years from now today’s popular vampire erotica novels will cause some bewilderment and even disdain to future generations. Tattoos and eyebrow piercings are going to get huge laugh. We should not be too stingy with our empathy. We’re going to need it ourselves someday.

World War II is too large a story to be capsulized in one effort, even by the talented Ken Burns, which he himself acknowledges. It is rather more like a mosaic, a vast jigsaw puzzle. Old Hollywood films of that era are an important part of the puzzle, as are radio programs, newspaper accounts, newsreels, the documentaries of Frank Capra, phonograph records, diaries and letters home. It was a war well documented. But that doesn’t mean we know all about it. With all that documentation, we were still missing a piece, and that is what Ken Burns has supplied. Though his trademark scanning across the faces in a photograph gives us a feeling of intimacy with the subject, it is this very voice from the distance of more than sixty years, this ripening of memory, this fermenting of emotions by those involved that can only take place after a very long time that gives us the viewpoint we were missing.

It is a perspective of objectivity. Burns’ narration does not get emotional; he leaves that to the elderly interviewees. Yet though objective, the film is still empathetic.

To be empathetic, one must sometimes accept what one cannot understand. Burns’ successful Civil War documentary enlightened the viewer on a world of slavery and of slaughter. To connect with that documentary, one must accept that slavery was a common way of life to a particular segment of our Southern land-owning population, a way of life that could only lead to war. One must accept that Americans in both the Union and Confederate armies were passionate about sacrificing their lives for their beliefs and for the hopes of the future, willingly lost thousands of lives in single battles, battle after battle. One cannot begin to understand the American Civil War without accepting that they felt compelled to do this. If one dismisses it with disdain or condescension, one learns nothing.

One cannot begin to understand America’s involvement in World War II without knowing about the savagery of battles kept from the public at home, without accepting the self-defensive patriotism, the racism, the naïveté of self-sacrifice, a “Loose Lips May Sink Ships” poster, a cornball chorus of “In Der Fuehrer’s Face.” If one dismisses it, any of it, as lacking in sophistication, one learns nothing.

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