Oh Ken Burns, how I loathe, ye. For over 30 years, you’ve been painting American history with a saccharine brush and I’m beginning to wonder when our collective teeth are finally going to rot and fall out from the over-consumption of your sugar. You, sir, are just as toxic as high-fructose corn syrup and making our brains as obese as our bodies.
If you, Canadian reader, think that seems a little harsh, I urge you to stop and think about it for a moment. Did you see The Civil War ? I did. As an adolescent in the American South at the time of its release, I saw it many, many, many times. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that watching this tripe constituted the whole of my grade 8 American history education. I saw it and it was good -so sweet and delicious. I still remember the maudlin strains of the fiddle music and the touching voice over overlaying the pan-and-scans of the bearded but heroic sons of the south. And who could forget the charm of Shelby Foote! What I don’t remember from The Civil War , or rather from Ken Burns’ The Civil War , is slavery. Turns out, it wasn’t an important topic!
Ever since the smash hit of The Civil War, Ken Burns has been parading an ever more sentimentalized version of the facts of American history before the PBS-watching public. And Ken Burns is large – he contains multitudes (surely Walt Whitman , the 47 part series will be coming soon to pubic television screens near you). Ken Burns doesn’t even really try. He just snatches up every key cultural figure, topic, and touchstone in a kind of documentary version of search engine optimization. Just look at the titles – Jazz , Baseball , Thomas Jefferson , The Statue of Liberty , Mark Twain , Lewis and Clark , The Brooklyn Bridge, The National Parks, The Dust Bowl . It’s the America box set, 900 hours on VHS!
I’ve regarded Ken Burns with suspicion for some time, so it was with some trepidation that I secured my ticket for The Central Park Five at last year’s edition of TIFF. I thought there was a slight possibility that his daughter and co-director Sarah Burns had a little more sense. I was wrong – Burnsism is apparently a genetic disorder with no known cure. I should have known that (I’m looking at you, Ric Burns), but still… this was no The National Parks . The Central Park Five revolved around a very serious topic that ripped New York City apart and exposed the still beating evil heart of institutional racism in America. Rather, it should have been about that. I won’t again go into the ugly specific about this “documentary” but it will suffice it to say that when Ken Burns’ skinny butt appeared on stage for the Q&A, my first thought was: if I move fast enough I could probably kick him in the balls before anyone could stop me.
But here’s my real problem with Ken Burns – his films are made pretty damn well. Just in terms of filmmaking, the pan-and-scan across beautiful historical photos is eye-catching and quite moving. While I’m proposing something very different with the title of this piece, “The Ken Burns Effect” is an industry term. It even has it’s own Wikipedia entry. Despite the evil that Burns continues to perpetrate on the annals of history, he did pioneer a pretty special way of making historical documentaries. It’s just a crying shame he chooses to abuse the power of his own invention.
The good news is that the “Ken Burns Effect” funnels down to other filmmakers and documentaries. These are the heroes of the effect who are happy to use the Burnsian techniques, minus the crap. One recent case in point is another movie I got to see at TIFF last year, Men at Lunch . This lovely little doc examined the roots of the very famous photograph of high rise workers have a lunch on an I-beam as it floats high above Manhattan. That’s a romantic subject, for sure, and the doc is pretty romantic. But it doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of the subject matter – the exploitation of the Irish immigrants doing this work, the outrageous physical risk involved that often resulted in death, and the fact that some of these men went home and beat their children. It might not be pretty, but it seems a helluva lot more truthful than anything Ken Burns has ever produced.
So Ken Burns is dead, long live the Ken Burns Effect – just hopefully in more judicious hands. If we all agree to ignore the man himself, like an internet troll on a forum, no one will have to get Burns-ed again.
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE