Saturday, October 17, 2009

Burned Out: Creativity and Style, Part One

(This is part one of a three-part series of essays on creativity and style. I hope you'll take a look and add your feedback in the comments. Parts two and three will appear on "Chopsticks and String." (In a few days) Yes, it's a little long (just like a Ken Burns documentary series), but I hope you'll follow it. In part two, we'll look at when style gets in the way of creativity and in part three, I'll look at some bloggers who seem to manage to keep their creativity going and master many styles.


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 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.

Norman Rockwell.

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!


Linda Jo said...

I wish I had a style! Maybe one day if I keep working on it..and reading your blog! ha!

Oh said...

Jeanie, just a quick stop to say "hi" - I paged through this entry and must make coffee and then come back and really read it - I have missed so much this week and want to catch up. I really need a lecture on not working so much. eiyiyi.
And I see plenty here that intrigues me, including Laurel Burch. OK, back in a bit!

anno said...

Jeanie, I loved this post, and not just because I stopped watching Ken Burns's documentaries after a few episodes of his series on Baseball. The sameness of his approach ultimately does his subjects some disservice: he gives his subjects the Ken Burns treatment, and they all end up coming off much the same way. Not only is it dull, but it seems dishonest, a way of not really engaging with his material or thinking about it.

FWIW, I have the same problem with series writers, actors who always play the same character, and artists. I like Laurel Burch, but I wouldn't want a home completely decorated in her style.

On the other hand, I know there is tremendous pressure on artists to "brand" themselves; helps with marketing, product placement, etc. -- all the stuff that brings financial reward. Finding a balance between developing a practiced style and challenging one's self with new ideas seems hard to do.

FWIW2: This reminds me of seeing Nick Nolte in an old movie, I'll Do Anything, where he plays an actor auditioning for roles, and actually steps out of the traditional Nick Nolte persona. I was fascinated, and thrilled: he really is an actor.

Jeanie said...

Linda -- I'm not sure if you'll "get a style" hanging around me -- but actually, I think you already have one -- we all do!

Oh -- Looking forward to hearing you weigh in. Come back soon!

Anno -- You got it! Exactly where I was going. You brought up a point I hadn't been able to articulate -- that in giving all the subjects the same approach, he is doing them a disservice. And yes, the branding/marketing point is a solid one, one I deal with daily at my real job! (My "actor" revelation was when Jim Carrey appeared in a tiny little movie called "The Majestic." Not a trace of goofiness...

Laura said...

Okay, I cannot speak to creativity today because my brain is kind of mushy, BUT I have one thing to say to the programmer of this series. Why, oh why, would you show it all in one week? Who can watch 2 hours of TV every night of the week? They should have made it appointment television, one hour a week.....It might have had a better chance at word of mouth! Next time, have one of those people call me!

Laura said...

Oh, and that movie, I'll Do Anything, is SO GREAT!

Mae Travels said...

I think the limitations you outline were especially problematic in "The War." And I think the idea of his style turning into a set of limitations as he tries to shoehorn more and more topics into it is really the problem, not the style itself. It goes beyond monotony. But I've only watched a few of his things -- didn't feel like doing the national parks at all.

beth said...

oops....I'll have to come back...this is a long one where I need a cup of tea and no distractions.....

Ruth said...

Jeanie! Bravo (or is it brava) for articulating why I didn't watch this series! I hadn't put it into coherent thoughts, let alone words. But I just avoided the Park series and left it at that.

Now, after reading your excellent post, I recognize that I just couldn't take that same style again! I'd rather look through a coffee table book of photos about the National Parks frankly.

I plan to hear him speak when he comes (gotta go pick up those tickets), because I haven't heard him in person yet. What a treat! And I do admire what he did for documentary film. But there are others who do it even better, and it is a very good point that he could have evolved his style over the years and decades.

Very very well done, and I had not even realized they aired it TWICE. Yikes.

Joanne Huffman said...

I loved the Civil War and the Baseball (bought it for my husband, surprised myself that I liked it) series. After that, I haven't really watched them. I watched the first National Parks and didn't get around to watching more. Part of it is boredom with style, which seems repetitious after a few times. But there's more to it than my short attention span and a seemingly endless repetition of the same presentations. Some of it has to be a reaction to content/substance. I think some of it has to be the fact that he's telling me more than I want to know - he's not taking me along in the hot pursuit of fascinating information - part of the editing problem you talked about. Bits of static style (Mary Englebreight, Laurel Birch, etc) are fine because they are component parts to our own eclectic styles; but are best when interspersed with the rest of our lives (I love reading mystery series, but not a whole series all at once).

This is a really interesting topic and you've set me to thinking about style, too much of a good thing, and ruts.

Jeanie said...

Laura: I think the length is part of my issue with this series. Unfortunately, PBS was the one who decided on the all-in-a-week airing and local programmers did not have an option. They do this with all the Burns stuff, and I'd be surprised if it wasn't a contractual obligation. Or at least, desired. Although the ratings held up reasonably well for a PBS show (there was a dip during Dancing with the Stars!), I wonder how many really hung through the whole way!

Mae: Style as limitations -- I like that; never thought of it that way. Yes, we do limit ourselves when we don't change styles. Cramming content adds to it.

Jeanie said...

Ruth -- Thanks. Sometimes I think I get jaded or overexposed, so it's nice to have the validation. You will enjoy hearing him in person -- he's very committed to what he does and his research and creative team are impeccable. I wonder if I'll have the nerve to ask him about his style? Probably not... The chicken in me! Maybe I'll see you there! That'd be fun!

Joanne: I think you hit a key point when you refer to short attention span and seemingly endless repetition of the same presentations. I was appalled when he used one of the iconic images from "The Civil War" -- a cannon in the sunset -- again in this. And much of the same footage was repeated over and over.

And the idea of "not being taken along" is interesting, because engaging the viewer is essential. Perhaps your comment about "not reading a whole series" (of mysteries) at a time is akin to not watching the series all at once. PBS will repeat it in six weekly episodes next year. That will, I think, be more palatable.

Kim Geiger said...

I really, really wanted to like "The War," but found myself disinterested after the first episode. Didn't even both with "Parks." One static image after another, caulked together with quotations and bloviation. You really hit the nail on the head, Jeanie!

I watched a doc last night about a band you might not have heard of called The Flaming Lips, and one amazing thing about them is how they've changed their style over the years--if you heard them in the 80s, you would not recognize the band as being the same one that I love now. And they keep on growing and experimenting.

Why should an artist care about "branding"?? Unless they're that schlocky "painter of light" guy who's name I can't remember right now.

Jeanie said...

My friend Cathy sent this via email:

I agree. Same same same.

While I am in awe of Yosemite every time, I was bored at the Grand Canyon. I think I stayed about 15 minutes. I felt as though I was looking at a nice panoramic picture on a wall. Very detached from the experience. People who have climbed down into the canyon feel differently, but no way was I going down there. At Yosemite Valley, I love the feeling of being hugged by the rocks.

Cathy: Yes, same. And I love your description of being "hugged" by the rocks. That describes it well. (And that dinner at the Ahwanee -- the best!)

Jeanie said...

Kim: Bloviation! I love it! (I confess, I wrote this with some trepidation, fearing the wrath of the PBS gods, but hey, you do what you've got to do!)

I don't know about this documentary but yes -- that's exactly it. They use their creativity and style as a jumping off spot for expansion. I'm not very good at doing that, but boy -- it's so vital.

Thanks for visiting!

Pugelicious said...

I love your style!! These blogs must take you ages to write.

~*~Magpie's Nest said...

Hi I'm back :) Style is an interesting topic indeed...I know little to nothing about Ken Burns ... perhaps knowing that his documentaries are always longish sent me in the opposite direction. PBS IS a fav channel of mine, but admittedly it's most often the Mystery and Masterpiece Theatres that I go for. You have made me curious and I shall have to investigate the if it's not broken don't fix it Mr Burns ;) I've yet to visit the Grand Canyon, that and Yosemite are on my long 'bucket list' ... got a giggle out of your "imaginary dinner party list" you ARE a true hostess Jeanie and a darn good writer ... looking forward to Parts II and III :) oxo
~*~ Patty

Janet said...

I taped the Parks series but I can't seem to wade through it! And I love visiting the National Parks. Yosemite is one of my favorite places ever. I hadn't thought about why I didn't like the series until I read this and it's perfectly clear now. You're's the same thing all over again with a different subject matter. Thank you for doing this post because I have been worried about finding my style. Now I'm not so sure I want one!

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