Posted tagged ‘Ken Burns’

The Perfect Game (Ooops!) (Still Catching Up on the Backlog)

June 4, 2010

I was over at Balloon Juice the other day, vacationing from outrage on a baseball thread, when someone commenting on why we seem to care so much about Perfectogate offered props to Ken Burns for his baseball series.  That show, the writer said, explains why we love baseball so much, or rather, why it appears to be such a good metaphor for America.

Well, as readers of this blog know, I’m not much into sloppy metaphors. Certainly, you can look at the history of the game and at least pull out strands of the great threads of US history — Robinson, Jackie for an obvious example, and more subtly, Curt Flood.

But Burns is an easy sentimentalist, too ready, IMHO, to do that “essence of America” stuff, even as he oh-so-painfully-slowly pans or zooms on another picture of Robinson, or the Babe or whoever.  Most of all, just as a story teller, Burns lost something after The Civil War.  I’m not a huge fan of that series, though I found it riveting on first viewing.  I think it fell too deeply into the Southern sentimentalist trap, though I understand that with the extraordinary performance of Shelby Foote and the narrative power of the marvelously chosen diaries and letters, some of that, at least, was inevitable.  I’ve made enough films to know that when you have good stuff, you use it.

But that adulation that followed that series — and more pertinently, the virtual blank check Burns received from his GM contract and the leverage it gave him over PBS mean that he could now do without any kind of critical oversight.  No executive producer for him, not really.

Now, I’ve worked with EPs who no doubt made my work worse.  Bad ones are out there, no doubt. But it’s still true that no one is their own best editor.  You saw the effects in baseball, from the numerology of nine programs (innings) and eighteen hours that felt much longer, to the kind of lazy “seriousness” captured in this, from Burns:

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has remarked that we suffer today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal and collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else — our bright past and our dim unknown future — what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization — passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity? Baseball provides one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime.

Oh FSM.   You see what I mean.  Who knew baseball was the DNA of American civilization.  Does that make steroids an oncogene?  Crappy metaphors, easy equivalences (baseball endures; we endure; therefore baseball explains our endurance to ourselves…or not), and always that weighty, wordy portenteousness, the wrapping of a tired old cliche of a thought in 157 words in the hope that the verbiage would mask the banality of the argument being advanced.

So no:  baseball is a metaphor for baseball.  Individual aspects of baseball are deeply instructive, often more than metaphors. See Stephen Jay Gould’s classic piece on the lessons to be learned from Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak for the transformation of the mythic appreciation of baseball into something much more useful:  baseball can provide models, in the scientific sense of the term, tools to help us better understand what’s going on around us.

Ken Burns?  He managed to turn baseball into a dirge.

There, I feel better.

Last, as I added to the comment thread in which the mention of Burns goaded me into screed-dom, I do have an answer as to what to read if you want to engage in the generational significance of baseball, and its role during a certain time in the making of the country in which we now live, I can’t recommend highly enough George Higgins’ wonderful memoir, The Progress of the Seasons.

Yes, I know it’s a Red Sox centered tale, which will make it anathema for many — but at least it was the bad old Sox, which might make it go down better.

But Higgins (of Friends of Eddie Coyle fame and much else besides) is not only one of the great regional writers of the last few decades, but also a wonderfully sentimental-without-being-sloppy observer of how links transfer from fathers to sons to grandsons.

I’m in my early 50s now, roughly the age Higgins was when he published Progress….  I’ve just had to confront athe loss of a beloved uncle, the last of that generation in my immediate family, so his theme holds me strongly.  (His is a boy book, I guess, in that it centers on male relationships, but I’d argue it’s a human book more than a gendered one; we all go through these transformations, these sudden shifts in scale, dependence and responsibility.)

Back to the thorn that provoked this post.  Given that baseball, like all big time sports, has become a matter of rooting for laundry, Higgins’ account of the way baseball could construct a family story does what great story telling should do, and what Burns, for all the hours and millions he devoted to his telling, did not:  Higgins tells a singular story, a glimpse of one family of Boston Irish, a telling centered in space to the evoked memory of old Fenway Park, and in that wholly particular story enables his readers to glimpse something of why the sport used to carry such mythic weight.

Plus, he is (to repeat myself) a really fine writer and this is a great read.

All this apropos of I’m not sure quite what.  Friday, I guess.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball Players Practicing,” 1875-

Poseur Alert (not to mention wallet grabbing): Ken Burns, Baseball and the 2004 magical Red Sox run

January 22, 2010

Here’s the sage of New Hampshire, opining on the spiritual genius of America’s pastime:

Baseball is a precise mirror of who we are, and I can’t recall a time that was more evident, particularly considering the deep emotional, communal, and personal impact, than during the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox overcame the Yankees,’’ said Burns.

Arrrgh!  Bullsh*t.  Baseball is many things, and I enjoy it greatly, and I thrilled to the events of 2004, made yet more rich by the disasters of 2003.  But it is not “a precise mirror” of anything but, perhaps, itself.

It may offer metaphors, of course, and a genuinely penetrating examination of the dynamics of the game and the business of baseball could illustrate a some of what matters in America these days — no exploration of the Red Sox triumph of that year would be complete without diving into the steroid-scummed waters of the performances of Ramirez and Ortiz, for example.

But this malarky about “emotional, communal and personal impact” is an example of why I so loathe much of what Burns does as a historian.  Given the choice between easy myth and stilleto cut to the heart strings vs. actually coming to grips with what happened and why — he goes all kleenex and swelling orchestras on you.  Every time.

His stuff is superficially persuasive.  He’s got that style down, the lugubrious (“serious”) pacing, the soft musical bed, and the one aspect of his practice that is truly first rate, those exceptionally well done interviews stitched together with often brilliantly shaped archival spoken words.  But the substance is designed to coddle his viewers, not to challenge them.  He’s a myth maker, not a historian — and right now, when we are drowning in manufactured myths, just the thought of another Burns’ extravaganza turns my stomach.

And then there is the sheer greed and sloth involved in Burns’ current plans and pleas.  Now that he is no longer the largest receipient of corporate welfare in the PBS system, Burns has decided to milk the regular channels of PBS funding as hard as he can, potentially squeezing out dozens of hours of television in which the equivalent of watching grass grow — those endless pans across sepia photographs — are not actually seen as production values.

For example:  I have heard through the gossip channels that run through PBS that Burns intends to submit funding applications to the NEH in every funding cycle.  This is inside baseball I know (and as gossip, should be accorded the truth value such sourcing always enjoys), but if true, this puts significant pressure on the development and production of novel and original voices.

That’s simply bad, but rational behavior.  Burns likes making films, has certainly earned an audience, if not this pair of eyeballs, and there is no law against seeking any dollar of funds that might conceivably fall one’s way.

But recall that in this particular instance Burns proposes an update of an already broadcast and, IMHO, bloated series on baseball.  He’s doing a bit of an update — got to keep the shop going, after all — but the bulk of this broadcast and something along the lines of three to four percent of PBS’s primetime air for the entire year, will disappear into maw of a massive rerun.

That’s the sloth part — indolence on Burns’ part and on PBS’s.

The greed comes from Burns’ production plea, also contained in the Boston Globe article linked above:

“And one impactful way to capture the essence of that is to feature those personal mementos, the photographs of joy and jubilation, the celebration photos in the immediate aftermath, the fathers and sons and daughters, that picture of a Red Sox cap on a gravestone of a loved one who didn’t live to see the day,’’ Burns added. “Anything that illuminates the feeling and moment of what that was like for those who truly lived for this team, those snapshots and memories, we hope they will generously share them with us. The story can’t be fully told without them.’’

Leave aside the unlovely diction (“impactful.” Pah!) and what you have is a very well-budgeted production seeking unique visual material for free.

Burns is well known around New England documentary circles for this kind of thing, for poor-talking his crew, his artists and his sources of archival material.  I’ve worked with crew members who worked at cut rates for Burns in the wake of his pleas of poverty.  He is very good at striking enormously advantageous deals with young and inexperienced musicians — caveat vendor, of course, but still.

And I’ve run into the consequences of his enormously persuasive gift for getting people who should know better to give him unique visual resources for free.  More than once I’ve had to talk down curators who wanted to get from me all the money they felt they should have charged Burns.

Again, caveat vendor, as they now all do.  The usual grievance was that Burns underrepresented the non-broadcast secondary market into which he planned to sell work that contained images, and people supplying, as they thought, a nonprofit educational venture with material at their nonprofit rates felt deceived.

The archives don’t give that break to  any PBS work anymore — and they shouldn’t. (Or rather, they quote one price for broadcast only — which is nonprofit and educational — and another, higher one if the work is going to be marketed in secondary venues, which it always is.  It gets more fragmented and complicated than that in many cases, but that’s the broad outline.)

So here Burns is turning to another source.  Not newspapers or the commercial or public archives, but you and me.  And he asks for generosity. His prerogative, and if you want to have a shot at getting your pic on TV for a few seconds, go for it.  But don’t forget.  Burns is trying to get something for free that most people pay for.  Nice work if you can get it…but I don’t like it.

There.  I’m not sure if I feel much better, but pouring out a bit of bile helps.

I’ve been grieving this week, and yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, ratifying what will be, I’m afraid, the decisive erosion of both the American claim to exceptionalism and of American power worldwide, has left me almost unable to move one finger after another at the keyboard.

So yes, I know that in the great scheme of things, the success of a minor con man peddling wares to the network that now reaches, on average, less than one percent of American households every night, is less than trivial.  Still it gives me a start.  More rage to come.

Image:  Winsor McCay “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” 1908