Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ken Burns is the Anti-Christ

NPR has been doing a series on Lewis and Clark which has been interesting to listen to, but brings up one of my favorite rants about documentaries these days.

Let me put it succinctly- Ken Burns is the AntiChrist.

My God and oily dishes- I cannot stand any of Ken Burns' documentaries. I well remember the first one, his epic saga on the Civil War. How I was looking forward to it. I anticipated it for months... and then turned it off within 35 minutes and have never watched more than five minutes of a Ken Burns documentary since.

Ken Burns is to history what McDonald's is to haute cuisine.

What am I bitching about? Documentation. Context. And the complete lack of them in Burns' work.

Burns' documentaries are all about period quotes- quotes from speeches, letters, books, whatever. As such they could be extremely interesting. But he has this maddening, evil conceit of having an actor read a quote and then only telling you who the hell you were listening to after the quote is done, and then he doesn't fucking tell you who the quoted person was.

How artsy. How fartsy. How completely, utterly useless to anyone actually interested in history.

That is the historical equivalent of cutting God's finger off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and framing it. Who's finger is it? What's he pointing at?

The only relevance any quote has is if you know who said it, and who that person was. Without that information, all those wonderful quotes are a complete and utter waste of time. Was the person Union or Confederate? Military or civilian? Officer or enlisted man? Burns tells us nothing.

Ken Burns is the Barry Bonds of documentaries.

An apt simile, since he did a series on baseball I would have been pleased to watch, and did watch five minutes of, until I saw that he was still serving up his own conceited version of "art".

And the vile virus is spreading. Others are being infected with the absurd, obnoxious Burns' conceit. Fie on them and all their houses. We want context and documentation, not "art".

Yes, Ken Burns is the AntiChrist.


Mike said...

Ken McBurns McDocuments McHistory on McPBS. What's the McProblem?

Colonel Colonel said...

mike -no problem, I was just sitting here eating McBreakfast, listening to Br-IT'knee's McMusic and feeling McGrumpy.

Phoebe Fay said...

But face it, Colonel. For a distressing number of Americans, McHistory is as close to ingesting knowledge as they're ever gonna get. It may have no vitamins, minerals, fiber or taste, but it beats starvation, more or less.

karen said...

What Phoebe says is true.

But I'm glad I'm not the only one hatin' on Ken Burns -- he did the New York City history series as well? Watched a bit of that, was disgusted by the same things.

Attribution, folks, attribution! It's not just for geeks.

(then again I dislike The Economist for the same reason - no by-lines. What's with that? do they still do that, articles not attributed to anyone in particular?)


jgodsey said...

Ken Burns is to history what McDonald's is to haute cuisine.

well....yeah....and america laps it up.
i have a similar feelinbg about Stephen Ambrose..adn dare i say it...Basbanes.

Colonel Colonel said...

I dunno, I think there's a difference between popularizing a subject, like Ambrose and Basbanes do, and breaking all scholarly rules, like Burns does. But that could just be me...

I did enjoy Ambrose's book on George McGovern's service as a B-24 pilot in WWII. A good read, and brings up interesting paralels to current President's service... but that's another rant.