"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Another Rec

Oh man, for my drive up to Oregon I downloaded this Radio Open Source interview with Ken Burns by Chris Lydon, one of the great and stately warhorses of public-interest radio. I love listening to Chris do his crazy intellectual thing, and he consistently gets really interesting people to open up in interesting ways. His show is cool.

Anyway, Ken Burns talks about his WWII documentary "The War," which I haven't seen, and it's really an insanely great conversation. They spend minimal time talking about process and other stuff, as Lydon being pushing him on the dangers of nostalgia and sentimentality regarding the horrors of war. In response Burns goes on an improvisational 3-minute solliloquy about the higher emotional states which defy explanation or logic, the necessity of such transcendent forces in art, and the fact that if you want to receive this blessing, you have to risk both abject failure as well as collapse into sentimentality and simple nostalgia. He also has a great -- and vicious! -- attack on the corrosive nature of irony, and calls the History Channel the Hitler Channel. Bravo.

The listening experience left me with my head buzzing about Art with a capital A, and a new respect for Mr. Burns. Worthy.


I love Lydon, and I'm psyched that he's back on the air after a 6 month hiatus. And I have not yet seen The War.

But I've got to say, I really dislike Ken Burns. He butchered the history of Jazz in his miniseries from a few years back, and from all accounts, The War isn't much better.

Ken burns doesn't really give a shit about race or class in American from what I can tell, his versions of history don't stretch much beyond whatever storybook narrative he's already got in his head.

It's really a travesty because he's so critically respected and when it comes to having a visual record of American culture and history, it's hard not to see how he's writing what will become the "definitive" versions - meaning those that are respected and mainstream enough to get watched in high school and college history/film classes for decades to come.

I'm going to give the Lydon podcast a listen for sure, and I have much respect for Burns as a technician, but I'm highly skeptical of his capabilities as a historian.

I haven't seen Jazz either, nor am I anything more than a happily ignorant consumer of the music, so I can't make much of a judgment there. Still, it makes me think of the essay I just read in Air Guitar about Chet Baker. Basically Dave Hickey talks about Baker's life, etc, and how he was critically maligned by the mainstream press for being a drug-user and blowing a promising young career as a crooner, and by most professional Jazz Critics for essentially honing his style of standards rather than venturing into new territory. It's hard to serve either master, and I'm skeptical of the meaning of latter-day jazz.

My sense from the critique of the War you link to is that it seems overtly politicized (e.g. "Latinos are excluded from the story," as if this were an intentional discriminatory choice; and the implication that Burn's film features only White Males, which isn't true).

The lack of comprehensive perspective is something he speaks to in the interview both from a formal aspect -- they were pursuing local communities, specifically those with good archival records -- and from a higher level, in that it's impossible and in many ways undesirable to attempt to "get everything" in any single work. Any honest global accounting of WWII would be more about Russia than us, etc.

It seems clear to me that Ken Burns doesn't attempt to deliberately confront or create change around issue or race or class -- there's no activist agenda -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. His stuff is very Main Street, Mom, and Apple Pie, true, but on the other hand radical polemics generally make bad histories (e.g. Howard Zinn) and worse documentaries.

Finally, from what I know of his work and process, I don't think he's the kind of documentarian who assembles (forces) the pieces to fit his/her own idea (e.g. Dig!), but, rather more like Errol Morris, is willing to let the human subject(s) guide the story.

Well, I can't really speak to how good the War is, and I still havn't heard the podcast. I'm really interested to hear what Lydon said about nostalgia, because it really strikes me that it is Burns' artistic coin. W/r/t the war - you may well be right about the overly politicized view in the article I sight, and I can certainly take your point about Polemics and Zinn. Not having heard the interview or seen the film, I'm not comfortable straying much more afield here.

I do have more to say about Burns in relation to Jazz, though.

W/r/t Jazz - you can be skeptical of latter day Jazz, but he's not even skeptical, he's outright dismissive of anything post Mile's Davis's Kinda Blue. Even masterpieces of Mile's later career like Bitches Brew gets raked over the coals. Burns definitely comes down on a single side in a long running argument about the meaning and evolution of Jazz, and it's not even as if he tried to show both sides and tell people that such an argument exists. For him to come out with the definitive history of Jazz and make such an egregiously biased piece speaks highly ill of him to me. And that's just at the later end of the series. Burn's interpretation of Jazz is also highly connected to a certain type of Jazz musician and sound. Can you really tell me that in an entire history of Jazz there's no room for single mention of Jazz guitar or Django Rheinhardt?

You may say that his style is to let the human subject guide him, but he has a choice in who those subject are. In this instance, it seems he relied almost exclusively on the guidance of Winton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, the two pillars of Jazz music and criticism whose line he basically parrots throughout the entire series.

There's a lot to learn from his Jazz documentary, but it also presents a horribly skewed picture. At what point, as a documentarian and really a public historian, does Burns have to take some responsibility for that?