Ken Burns and the Burden of Simplicity

By Dave Andrusko

Ken Burns

I happened to be watching one of our local public television station’s every-other-month pledge drives a while back when documentary film maker Ken Burns appeared to plug his latest effort which will air in October.

It says nothing beyond the obvious that the arc of Burns’ documentaries has been, by and large, downward, in some cases steeply. Nonetheless if you remember back to his heyday, you still look forward with moderate hope to what’s next.

What’s next is a three-part series on PBS on “Prohibition.” In his local appearance a few months back, while he was sort of coy, it was impossible to miss that viewers could anticipate a series that compared Prohibition to contemporary America (with the latter faring worse than the former). How so? Details to follow.

Lisa de Moraes is the acid-tongued Washington Post columnist who writes “The Television Column.”  (You definitely do not want to get on her bad side.) She covered one of Burns’ interminably self-congratulatory press conferences/Q&A and gave us the skinny in today’s Post.

After whacking (in code, of course) the Tea Party, pro-lifers, and conservative in general (“If I told you that I had been working with Lynn [Novick, his production partner] for several years on a film about single-issue political campaigns, wedge-issue campaigns that metastasized with horrible unintended consequences….), he replied quickly  and smoothly (according to de Moraes), “You know, we are not political filmmakers. We don’t have a political axe to grind or to make some political points.” (Yes, he actually said that.)

But the above-mentioned similarities—and others– “that I pointed out to you have to be inferred in the course of this film.” Maybe that didn’t fly because Burns added, “We leave it up to our audiences to forge those connections.”

Somehow I don’t think anyone believes—including the assembled reporters—that the audience is going to have to “forge” anything. The connections will come out prefabricated.

From de Moraes’ quotes, you could not make up a more representative caricature of a man who caricatures people who disagree with him about public policy. Why would you debate these “single-issue political campaigns, wedge-issue campaigns” when they are merely the latest iteration of the old, old fight between “the city and the country,” between those comfortable with change and those ridden with “anxiety.”

So, I wonder who gets to play today’s Al Capone?

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