Thursday, October 5, 2017

A few thoughts on Ken Burns documentaries

The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  that was shown on PBS the previous two weeks is a triumph of historical reportage, the kind we've come to expect from the meticulous and thoughtful Ken Burns and his production team.  Some columnists made note that this presentation would not likely achieve the kind of immediate and powerful reception by the American public as did his marvelous The Civil War, produced in 1990.  The reasons stated for this is not only the obvious division that still remains over the Vietnam Conflict, but mainly because we have become a society that no longer seems to rally over a single television event.  We are scattered to our own interests, and with a wide array of cable TV options and Internet offerings -- which did not exist in 1990 -- we are not compelled to bridge the gap and sit around the TV like a national campfire and listen to old ghost stories.

This is, coincidently, the same reason there are fewer classic film fans and will be in the future: without common exposure in pop culture, i.e., more TV channels showing them, they cease to be part of our common experience and memory.

The Vietnam War is an often difficult program to watch, at least for those who remember those years, but it is also remarkably cathartic and brings an unexpected sense of closure.  It also leaves a taste of foreboding, as many of the issues of the government wanting in candor, and sometimes unashamedly corrupt, continues eerily today.  What I found most interesting was the use of a single narrator, the actor Peter Coyote, in the series.  In a way, it reminded me of another one of my favorite documentary series, World War I, which was produced by CBS in the 1964-65 season, and narrated by the wonderful Robert Ryan.  Both series have their moments of starkness and bleakness, and yet gentleness in powerful moments, and these two actors lend so much in their delivery of the narration.

Conversely, what made The Civil War unexpectedly delightful was the use of many actors and actresses voicing the comments of historical figures.  Burns used this tactic as well in his excellent The War (2007) documentary series on World War II.  We discussed this series in this previous post, about how interesting and effective was his refraining from using classic film footage, or popular music of the day to embroider the story of World War II.  It was a good choice for that series, for reasons stated in that previous post.  However, The Civil War heavily relied on music from that period to flavor the piece, and Burns returns to this in The Vietnam War with a deliberate and effective use of music from that era.

As far as exploring our common experience and memory as classic film fans and as students of this most important media explosion of the twentieth century, I'd love for Ken Burns and his team to make a documentary series about the Hollywood studio system.  To be sure, there are fewer left to interview for their personal experiences, but there must be a great deal of interviews and anecdotes already recorded, and archives rich with information on the cultural phenomenon of the studio era.  Presented in a long and leisurely many-episode series, with current actors and actresses to do voiceovers where it applied -- that would be something.

I understand Mr. Burns is tackling the subject of country music next.  Now if he could only mosey on over to Gower Gulch.


Caftan Woman said...

We need teachers, and we need audiences willing to learn.

Our scattered viewing habits allow for many new and previously unheard voices. It will be interesting to see where this leads.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A very good point, CW.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, that is a very good point about our being scattered. Nowadays you are more likely to find excitement over a "viral" YouTube video than something like this. But there's still plenty of good stuff being done and people watching it. There are subscription channels, though I don't have any, and still programs that excite people. I will keep my eye out for this one, perhaps it will be available on DVD.

I remember when the Civil War documentary was on - so powerful! I bought the DVD. Our vice principal asked me if I could record it, though we weren't doing US history at the time, and when the school was closed down I made sure to give him the tapes.

And a few years later, when all the women at my workplace were drooling over Mr Darcy every Monday morning after the latest episode of Pride And Prejudice had been shown. Yes, we were still gathered around the box at that time... :-)

Yvette said...

You make very good points, Jacqueline. I will probably not watch this particular documentary (though I love Ken Burns and the work he and his team do) primarily because I lived through those times and just don't want to be reminded. I can't help it, that's how I feel. Though I may change my mind as more time goes by. However I did love THE CIVIL WAR - such brilliance. I wonder if these documentaries are shown in schools? If not, you have to wonder why. This is the perfect way to expose students to the past. Especially in today's visual video-centric world.

I have no interest in country music either and wonder why Burns is going there. Oh well, maybe he likes it. :) I love your idea of a documentary on the Hollywood studio system - done now while some participants are still alive and memories aren't that far gone. GREAT idea.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sue, Mr. Darcy was an excellent reason to eagerly await the next episode.

Yvette, I don't know if these docos are shown in schools, but that would be great.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yvette, the schools where I have worked would probably show those documentaries if they were covering those periods of history, but only to older students, who would be less likely to wriggle, and probably not the entire series, as even the older kids would be wriggling by then!

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