Friday, September 28, 2007

Ken Burns, Liar

The War is a documentary film, but one that reminds me not so much of a brilliant scholarly work, a single-volume history, a collection of primary material artfully organized, or even a popularized retelling of a story so much as a clips show. There's nothing about the story that hasn't been done better elsewhere, and possibly even more economically if you cut out all the commercials on the History Channel and its brethren. I won't get into quibbles on the history, as I did previously with (the much superior) Civil War and Baseball, because that's beside the point. If Burns' mission was, as he's intimated in interviews, to correct the misapprehensions of American high school students that World War II was fought against Russia, he could've used a few Cliff Notes devices to get the point across a little more succinctly. If the true motivation of the film, as one suspects, is to explore the "why we fight" theme for "the good war" in an age of diminishing moral clarity about the use of armed force by nations (which is itself a relativistic assessment), then he's buried his lead rather ham-fistedly. (Embarrassingly so: the script uses foreshadowing in a way that would get a 10th-grade English essay a "B", with one-off lines about a soldier enlisting in 1942 'who would find out why he fought in 1945' -- is there going to be a concentration camp liberation in the last episode, by chance?) If the point of view was supposed to be the close to the ground social web of a Studs Terkel, the backgrounding which takes up over half the movie is inexplicably discursive. If it's to provide that survey course everybody in this country needs in World War II 101, then the bullet points got messed up during the transfer from PowerPoint.

If, as the term "documentary" suggests, it was meant to be a collection in the first person -- Burns has also cited the rapid disappearance of World War II vets to the march of time as a reason for doing this project -- then perhaps it should've spent more time with veterans who hadn't already told their story elsewhere, much more thoroughly. The starkest example is Quentin Aanenson, the fighter pilot who touched on virtually the entire American campaign in Western Europe (and ended up on the ground as a forward air observer and close attack coordinator, so had the unique combination of a bird's eye and a worm's perspective). Aanenson did a magnificent, DIY documentary 15 years ago, "A Fighter Pilot's Story", which was a remarkably gritty, grim, and honest description of a job overly associated with glamour and gung-hoism. So in the Burns version, we get a watered-down cut-and-paste, better photographed and produced but already distinctly a third-person second-sourcing even when Aanenson is being interviewed directly.

What did PBS do with the release of "The War"? It pulled the DVD of "A Fighter Pilot's Story" from sale last month. That should describe in detail the educational motivations of the network.

All that said, my text today is the lying that passes for documentary film-making. I'm not speaking of specific historical facts; as I said, mine is not to quibble on this front. It's the Burnsian technique of mixing still photos, narration, sound, soundtrack, and in this case, archived film amongst his set-piece interviews. (This is a common issue, one not unique to Ken Burns, of course, but whenever there's a well-spoken of documentary, the fact that it is mostly artifice and very little in the way of on-screen truth-telling should be brought up.)

The problem is this. The viewer hears a narration about men in a particular battle, while a picture taken from another battle is shown. That's a lie. It creates the false visual association of what the picture conveys with what the narrator is talking about. Perhaps the picture is an accurate reflection of that experience, perhaps it isn't. But the viewer isn't given the fact that it's not a "matching" picture to make up his or her own mind. Similarly, nearly every time you hear an explosion, a ratatat of a machine gun, or another sound in this film you're hearing something that's been pasted on to the film, not something that was recorded at the same time and place as the visual image displayed. It's no different than, say, Saving Private Ryan, or even Sands of Iwo Jima; it's a war created in post-production. The experience of the sound of the war, of the moment, might match what the sound editor and director have inserted, but I doubt it.

This is not documentary. It's a form of historical fiction, which no matter how well-researched or well thought-out to convey the larger truth of the situation, is simply an act of artifice. As such it's also ahistorical, a form of narrative that's about the filmmakers' understanding and not the topic at hand.

How do I know this? To even the amateur historian, there are plenty of tells. Some of the footage and stills is familiar. To the simply observant viewer, there are plenty more tells. Describing the ascendancy of Major General George Patton in the Tunisia campaign, for instance, we see a picture of Patton surveying a dusty battle field -- wearing three stars, the mark of a Lieutenant General. In footage of the D-Day landings in June, we see stock footage of Navy personnel apparently supervising the bombardment -- wearing winter clothing. We have pictures of "H Hour" at Omaha Beach, which are all from the third wave or later (the lack of photos from the first waves has been a well-discussed issue; the combat photographers in the first wave lost their equipment or spoiled their film, leaving only one partial roll of pictures.) I noticed at least a half dozen more such anachronisms in a very short period of film, and as I said, I'm an amateur.

One might argue that a filmmaker without access to a true visual record of a specific event isn't obligated to do more than provide a backdrop to the verbal text. But by the same token, it would then be OK to provide erroneous captions to photos in history books if one is missing a really good photo for the text on the opposite page. I don't buy it.

Can you footnote a TV show? Yes -- by simply having accurate date and place descriptions attached to photos or film when they're played. This would at least break up the associative array in the viewer's mind when they hear one thing and see another.

But this is rarely done, because it breaks up the visual continuity of the film. That's what this ultimately comes down to: the filmmaker who wants a flow, a pace, a visual feel, who uses the pan and the fade and the wipe and the timed edit, because those are his or her tools to create an emotional response in the viewer.

And that, in turn, is the bottom line here. When documentarians and historians sacrifice accuracy for beauty, they're creating something that, fact-based and reality-driven though it may be, is intended for emotional consumption, not analytic consumption. It's as much a work of fiction as any John Wayne shoot 'em up.

I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of Ken Burns' work, which has had some real virtue to it over the years. But there's a difference between recreating the Civil War, which in the collective consciousness is entirely a fourth-hand memory, and World War II, which is still available as a first-person. One thinks the money and time spent on this documentary would've been better spent getting lower-tech, archival interviews with surviving vets and Americans of the era, doing real first-person documentary work, maybe a higher-effort version of the many Oral History projects that are proceeding spottily in the country (as has been done quite well for holocaust survivors). If the point was to put together a survey, the way the Civil War did, there wasn't perhaps quite enough of a rethinking of the canonical recounting of the War, the point of view or voice, or the basic (and now nearly dreadfully famliiar) film technique for making that story. In a war that arguably had even higher stakes than the Civil War -- not just the future of the country, but of the world, at stake -- the dreadfully desperate situation doesn't seem quite so vivid. The World at War, forty years old now and done for a foreign audience originally, actually still has a more direct approach to the topic.

The controversy over the "inclusiveness" of Burns' talking heads (even if they aren't historians, but participants, they're still talking heads) misses the point that there's so much clutter in this film, which is neither a good survey nor a good first-personer, nobody's going to learn the real social history of the war accurately from it, anyway. A braver filmmaker might've trusted himself to stick to only interviews and maybe still pictures of the interviewees and their families, and left them to speak for themselves without the all-too-available action footage of combat. (That in itself is a kinetically-charged succubus to a movie maker - soooooooo sexy, visually.) Or alternatively, to put together that good single-volume modern semi-revisionist history to show to our high school kids, made it a bit more exciting and ignored the artifice of pretending to be an inclusive first-personer, simply rifling his interview subjects for the goods and using what works. (The number of truly boring and unilluminating anecdotes left in this movie is rather startling.)

Here, I think, is the real point of the film:

Burns closes the film with a picture of his dead WWII vet dad, the man who never told Ken his own story. The Spielbergian-missing-father psychological motivation for making a film is a little too pat, of course, although it's very, very tempting. But look at how PBS is positioning this: it's a nostalgia trip, launched during fund-raising season, aimed not at the World War II generation or even at today's callow and misinformed youth, but at Burns' generation, the Baby Boomers who need to have that emotional connection with their own parents affirmed as their parents die off and they in turn become the senior generation. That's what this film plays as. And if that happens to get more corporate sponsors from that generation, or pledges during pledge drive week...

No comments: