A little over a week ago, I was in the grocery store when a stranger came up to me and said, "When are you going to show my real shows again?"
(I didn't know this woman, but when you do a lot of pledge breaks and "go into their home to ask them for money on TV," they feel like they can ask.)
What she was referring to was the six-day pre-emption of public television programming for Ken Burns' current series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
The 12-hour series took up 24 hours in the PBS prime time schedule because someone at PBS felt they should repeat the two-hour episodes immediately after they concluded on the same night. I hate it when they do that.)
And at WKAR, since we have other digital channels where the program was scheduled, it took even more time from our lives and offered viewers even fewer choices.
I knew what this frustrated woman meant. It's not that I don't appreciate Ken Burns' work, but I am "burned out" -- and "burned up" that so much air time was spent this way.
I can hear some of you now. "I loved that show!" "It was beautiful!" "It was fascinating." "How can you even SAY anything negative about it?"
And I agree.
But it was long. And frankly, after seeing every film Ken Burns has ever made, it was stylistically redundant.
That's really what this series of posts is about. Style. Not a Burns-bashing. In fact, I respect this man immensely; he's on my "imaginary dinner party" list. I've heard him speak numerous times, with passion and eloquence and will hear him again when he comes to MSU in December. I've had the privilege of meeting him. He can make a still photo speak volumes.
But editing for length isn't his strong suit.
I understand this. The hardest part of my job is editing Tweets for the station because I, too, appreciate the "long form." Like this post.
But it isn't just that.
For those not familiar with Burns, a quick look back shows a brilliant career that began in the 1980s with short, evocative historical documentaries on topics like the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Shakers.
Then Burns, a passionate historian, sunk his teeth into "The Civil War" and took the nation along with him. It was then (and may still be) public television's greatest ratings success (yes, we do care about ratings -- don't let anyone tell you we don't!)
After that he moved onto lots of topics -- The West, jazz, baseball, and most recently, World War II. (Below, with "The West" writer, Steven Ives.)
Now, to be fair, I don't think any of these should have been one-hour shows! And while I quibble on length, the thing that bothers me most about "The National Parks" (and it took awhile to have this sink in) is that Ken Burns has not had a change of creative style in 25 years.
Now, if "Parks" was your first Ken Burns experience, this commentary will make no sense. But for those of you who have followed his career, look at every film the man has ever made.
It's structured in precisely the same way. Witnesses comment on the subject matter, all photographed beautifully with extremely effective use of still photography. Historical stories bring a human perspective to whatever subject matter is at hand. Diary entries are read by well-known voices and a compelling narrator recites almost poetic text. (Well, let's just say I thought narrator Peter Coyote whined his way through the "Parks," but usually the narrator is outstanding.)
Burns knows how to surround himself with outstanding colleagues. He uses them well. The script for "Parks" by Dayton Duncan is a poetic gem. And his longtime cinematographer Buddy Squires deserves an Emmy for what a friend of mine called "nature porn." It was lush, sensual, beautiful. No arguments there. (By the way, if you want to see this program and missed any, check it out at PBS.org under the Watch Video tab!
A film producer's job is that of both visionary and technician. Having the idea, finding a unique concept or presenting it in a unique way, and then combining the skills of all his colleagues into a unified whole. Think of it as putting together a jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces, then add dimension, and sound.
Burns does the technician part better than anyone. And he is a visionary in topic. If he gets a little too in love with the project and can't edit it to a more agreeable length -- well, it's understandable. Producing a film is like giving birth. You want all the "toes and fingers" to be there.
But every single series Ken Burns produces is structured the identical way, in chapters, with sections fading to black and a "chapter name" popping up to begin a new segment. It's the same thing. Every single series for thirty-some-odd years.
I don't think the man could make a music video if he tried. Not that he'd want to, but could he?
Now, this whole internal debate with myself is making me crazy -- and the fact that it does make me crazy almost makes me more crazy. Because part of me says, "What's the problem? Isn't this this really sort of a "norm" for well-known artists?"
Yes. They call it Style.
Think Jackson Pollock.
Mary Engelbreit. Laurel Burch.
Jerry Bruckheimer. Claude Monet. Agatha Christie. The list goes on and on.
So, am I holding Ken Burns to a double standard? I suppose I am, and I don't like that in myself.
Is it because I'm not a "parkie"? I've had a fine enough time visiting the parks I have.
(Incidentally, the photos in this post are mine from National Park visits and PBS meetings, because I didn't feel comfortable trashing -- sort of -- the show and using their photos. The rest are from google images.)
But after gasping for a few minutes at the astounding beauty and size (and depth) of the Grand Canyon and feeling rather small or admiring the waterfalls of Yosemite, well -- let's put it this way...
When I think of Yosemite, I think first of the Ahwanee Hotel and a fabulous dinner with my friend Cathy.
A glass of wine on the porch on a day so flawless and fine, with a sky so blue, it hardly seemed real. A small red squirrel circled our area, waiting for peanuts, oblivious of the "do not feed the squirrels" signs. (So were we.)
The waiter inside poured his water more elegantly than anyone I've ever seen. The arts and crafts-styled interior was at once both massive and warm. The dessert was chocolate and divine. It was hard to drag me from the Ansel Adams gift shop.
I don't remember the name of the falls, though they were pretty, and I did rather like a rock wall that appeared to have a carving of a Native American. My notes tell me that's "Half Dome." I don't remember.
I did some great photography. Who couldn't? And I loved the woods with its brooks and very mini-falls.
But my sense memory is Cathy's CD of Native American music as we drove from venue to venue; the warmth of the sun as we sat in Adirondack chairs on the lawn of the Wawona Hotel after lunch.
I think of climbing rocks where sunbathers and climbers were relishing in the cool mist from waters falling from yet another waterfall. (I do love waterfalls...)
And then there was the Grand Canyon, which is very grand indeed.
My cousin Walt, Rick and I visited the Grand Canyon on a crisp December morning, winding through the roads of the park to a perfect lookout site. I don't think there was a cloud in the sky.
As we stood at the canyon rim and looked over I felt very small indeed. It was beautiful, the morning light playing on the rocks. (It was this trip and this trip alone that motivated me to get a decent digital camera; my pictures are awful. Not that any camera could really capture it, although Ansel Adams did a pretty good job. Still, most cameras capture it better!)
But after looking down and feeling a bit more vertigo at the drop than I'd like to admit, I moved away to enjoy it from a distance. I most remember buying Christmas tree ornaments and taking photos of the gorgeous tree in a gift shop at the Grand Canyon.
I remember buying earrings there, getting a quick bite at a snack bar. I loved Walt's stories about people who died in the canyon. I remembered briefly how terrified I was 30 years before when my cousin Nancy and I walked down into the canyon and how I thought I would never get out, as I walked up the steep and narrow ledge back to the top, frozen when people would pass that we would bump one another and I'd fall.
And I remember thinking "This is so beautiful. Thank God I don't have to camp there."
No, it's not the Parks topic that turns me off from this series. They are beautiful. The series is beautiful. And his history storytelling is unparallelled.
It's a style thing.
And Ken Burns' style has finally gone out of style with me.
But should it? Clearly the others I mentioned above had unique and not terribly varied styles. Isn't that just what artists often do, strive for? A consistent, unified thematic or visual style in their work?
In the next post, I'll look a bit more at style. And maybe I'll have better photos!