Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ken Burns' "The War"

So I watched the first hour, then turned it off to bundle the kiddiwinks into bed, and didn't really feel like turning it back on. All I could think about was, it's a Ken Burns® film.

In the course of sighing over another PBS doco some years back, Michael of 2Blowhards blog had this to say:
Over the years, I've taped a bunch of PBS shows on good topics, and there on the shelf the tapes still sit. I'd love to know more about their subject matter, but I know in advance what the shows are going to deliver: yet more mournful piano and guitar music, yet more shots of sunsets and water, yet more sepia photographs, and yet more earnest academics denouncing racism -- more brain-dead hours in someone else's church.

Burns' work is snappier than that, I admit. In his film The Civil War, he was limited to panning into, out from, or across old photos, so that when the moving footage of the reunions appeared toward the end it had quite an impact. With this war, he can splice the endless supply of footage into whatever collage his vision desires. The visual points of emphasis, the cinematic exclamation points, are just what you'd expect, if you're familiar with his work.

Thing is, I don't see what supposed to be so new and different about it. I've been listening to Burns on NPR's chat shows this past week, giving his the-making-of interviews to the hosts on Weekend Edition and such. He makes much of the democratic aspect of the film--it isn't going to be just some grand biopic of famous generals and politicians. Plus, it's going to show the war's real gore and grue, which nostalgia has bleached out of nation's memory.

Eh? Has anyone ever seen a WWII documentary, at least since the fortieth anniversaries, which didn't have crusty old vets and gracious old ladies, reminiscing about how it was in the long, long ago? And has everyone forgotten that documentary that one of the broadcast networks aired for the sixtieth anniversaries, with all the unedited battle film clips? (If you didn't, suffice it to say that death by flame-thrower is not instantaneous.) Other than Burns' trademark black title boards and his innovative framing of still photos, I just didn't see what was supposed to be so different about this one.

But, if it's time to dust off the oft-told tale of The Greatest Generation yet again for a new crop of young people, then all this can be ignored, and they can watch it and be duly edified. As only PBS can edify, if you believe them.

Addendum: If you think you might not be able to go the distance on "The War", here's an overlooked gem of a song that will make the same points for you, in much less time. The faux-period jazz that Wynton Marsalis composed for The War is pretty cool, but this would have been a perfect backdrop against which to roll the credits.

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