September 25, 2007
Listening to the Real Storytellers
Ken Burns’ latest opus, The War, will run on PBS stations starting September 23. I reviewed it for Current, the biweekly public TV newspaper. The New Yorker has a review, too, by their TV critic Nancy Franklin. There are links to both at the bottom of the page.
Basically, Franklin didn’t like it, I did.
I didn’t like everything about The War. The fourteen-plus hour length risks losing the overall sweep of the war in a torrent of detail. What Franklin correctly calls “a nagging, peskily ever-present sound-track—not to mention too many pop standards from the ‘40s, some where they don’t belong—are distracting. Burns’ bottom-up approach almost totally excludes the war’s military and civilian leaders and its wider context. There’s very little about how people in other countries experienced the war. And Burns really didn’t keep his pledge to integrate stories about the Latino experience of the war into the series.
But some of what I didn’t like was the price The War pays for the big thing I did like about the series. Burns gets out of the way and lets us watch the scenes of the war and listen to the stories of the men who fought it. This kind of transparency is a lot of work. It’s much easier to tell a story with narration and professors than it is to do so through the stories of aging veterans who could be our uncles and grandfathers. But there is virtue in listening to these old soldiers—attention must be paid—and not just waiting for them to finish so that chin-pullers and deep-thinkers can tell us what to think about what we’ve seen and heard.
What The New Yorker’s critic didn’t like was more or less what I did like—the relatively unmediated stories. Here are a few representative excerpts from her review (not all of them in the order in which they appeared):
- Burns talked about focusing on “ordinary” people, while adding that he came to realize that…“in extraordinary times there are no ordinary lives.”…burbling fatuousness…
- Sometimes the men speak of what that conversion cost them, and Burns lets the camera linger when they stop recounting such horrible moments, and their faces tell you everything—that no one who wasn’t there will ever really understand.
- He has been able to elicit from many of the men descriptions of their moment of conversion, as it were, to being dutiful soldiers who were willing and sometimes eager to kill
- As he did in “The Civil War,” Burns brings to the fore an uncannily gifted storyteller and synthesizer, someone who combines emotion and intelligence in seemingly perfect proportions. In fact, he brings two of them to light. [A retired Princeton professor and author and a veteran who has produced a PBS documentary.]. Together, they are the Shelby Foote of “The War.”
- A tedious documentary…merely exhausting… too much of a not good enough thing.
- …the series doesn’t bore, if you are of the school that believes that everyone’s experiences are at least somewhat interesting, and that the experiences of those who went through the Second World War are more interesting than most.
I am. They are. It doesn’t.