Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Burns' Civil War

Let me start by saying that a regular reader of this blog is from Oklahoma.  Are you out there, joe?  I'm not sure where you said you were in OK, but I think you said Oklahoma City.

I'm sort of warming up today, had a long weekend that ended yesterday, haven't posted anything since Friday and I'm sort of trying to remember how (yes, its that bad).  Saw the pics of the tornado that blew through Moore and I'm reminded how much more of this we're going to see as the world average temperatures slowly increase.  Going to be a rough ride.

So for the time being I'll post another documentary - there are going to be a lot of these until I run out, particularly as I get through those which are ten episodes long.

Today's would be the doc that launched a thousand really crappy documentaries:  The Civil War.

Ken Burns exploded onto the scene with this massive work that runs 680 minutes, and in the process pretty much defined the 'new way' to produce a documentary.  The method had been done before, but not with nearly so much eloquence as Burns managed it ... but nevertheless he's been copied and copied by people who are absolute shit at producing documentaries.  Burns managed to bring alive the Civil War with images and actors reading contemporary documents, seeded with experts giving commentary and a strong, well-applied soundtrack.

Burns himself was not able to duplicate the grand effort of the work, though he's tried and tried since.  Whereas some works have been fairly decent - notably Baseball and America's Best Idea - by and large the depth of the work that was the Civil War hasn't been there.  I think there are a couple of reasons for that.  The strongest would be Shelby Foote:

I've read the book he wrote that was the backbone of the documentary and the man was an absolute genius.  Never has a documentary had the benefit of so much good source material.  Added to that would be the extraordinary diaries of others who were used in the film, George Templeton Strong and Elisha Hunt Rhodes (I love the 19th century use of all three names), both of which I've read through, being in the university library here in Calgary.

The use of maps and the use of art added a lot to my enjoyment of the series as well.  The maps are well-rendered and clear, the descriptions of the battles involved and without rhetoric, and the overall feel of the documentary is a presentation of events without the need to comment overmuch on the morality of those events (there's a professor in the documentary that drives me crazy with her pontificating, but that can be overlooked).

The Antietam Battlefield

The "Hornet's Nest" at Shiloh

The problem has been, I think, the proliferation of present-day documentaries that feature what I like to call 'talking heads,' where the narrator has just said something, and then four talking heads in a row all repeat the same material.  What works with the Civil War is that there is a LOT of information here, enough to overfill the minutes of documentary (provided by Foote and a great many others), and the documentary retains interest because there is so much to take in.  No matter how much other, later, poorer docs may attempt to make the material exciting, if there isn't very much research done, the documentary just falls flat.

In other words, Burns taught a lot of people how to fake their way into making a documentary appear meaningful - without actually realizing that appearance doesn't mean much if there's no meat for the table.

Disappointingly, I couldn't find all of the series online ... and what I could find was put up by someone who included a lot of junk on the screen.  I own the series, so I've seen it all the way through; and Burns is quite adamant about keeping his stuff off the free net.  You may find it today, but it will be gone tomorrow.  Still, you can see the first three episodes of the series here, here and here.  The fourth episode, apparently, went up today ... it wasn't there Friday, and as I write this it has 1 view on youtube.  You can find it here.  I wouldn't wait very long.  Truly, this is a series you should try to buy, though it will probably cost you around $100.


joe said...

I'm fine, and thanks for your concern. I actually live quite farther south in the one part of the state that actually has protective geography. Nevertheless, my extended family spent most of the evening in my basement listening to tornado sirens and the radio. Trees were blown over, some roofs were lost. We're apparently due for a repeat tonight.

I love Ken Burns' Civil War, though I must confess that Reconstruction put me to sleep. Most of Burns' documentaries were available on Netflix, not sure if they still are.

Anyway, there is also a series of books by Stephen W. Sears that does an excellent job of describing the major battles of the war as well as the personalities, politics, and context involved.

Currently, I'm reading the book over the Battle of Chancellorsville as well as A Brief History of Medieval Warfare by Peter Reid. The parallels you can draw between the two are fascinating.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

If you have American Netflix, Civil War is on there.

If you're like me, and live in Canada, you can get American Netflix with the free browser plugin Hola.

Anonymous said...

I skimmed over this post when you first made it, having seen parts of Civil War over the years so being familiar with it, but never having sat through its entirety. I have re-watched the first few episodes and now recall how great it is. Hopefully Netflix still has it up on streaming as reported above.

Anyway, your post and the first two episodes have reminded how great Shelby Foote is. Without the benefit of having read Foote's book, a condition which I will remedy soon, I can agree to his value to the documentary just by his presence. His deep, melodic voice, wry sense of humor and the mischievous half-smile and sidewards glance as he gets to his story's punchline make his appearances all the more pleasurable.

Thanks again. You should definitely keep this series going.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The fellow on youtube has now put up to at least #07 ... I watched 05 - 07 earlier in the week. He might have more of it up now.