Ken Burns, arguably the only documentarian with a household name besides Michael Moore, has developed such a recognizable aesthetic that it has begun to drift dangerously close to self-parody. His hugely celebrated films (which seem to run ad infinitum on PBS to consistently high ratings) are readily identified by their long, slow zooms over black and white photographs, their Hollywood narration, their folksy acoustic music, their calming, languid tones, and their reverential patriotism rooted in the idea that “America” is really the story of the few people who have pushed against the rising tide of materialism, self-interest, racism, violence, and/or commercialism. In what is simultaneously his greatest contribution and his heaviest burden, Burns has developed such a distinctive grammar and vocabulary that even a casual viewer could probably spot one of his films at 50 paces.
But while this is an astounding achievement, it has come to represent his most obvious, and ever more insurmountable, artistic barrier. Nothing about his most recent film – the dubiously titled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea – has even the slightest chance of surprising, wowing, or pushing its audience. Like an exquisitely rendered paint-by-numbers, it has been designed for passive appreciation: it is gorgeous, but empty.
In his most celebrated work (such as Baseball, Jazz, and The Civil War) Burns has always relied on the premise that American history is a narrative series of individual triumphs over the otherwise destructive impulses of the unregulated mass. And, while there is much to be praised in his political approach to the paradox of American individualism – the idea that without the occasional individual effort, an effort which is always reviled and mistrusted in its day, the US would continue on its path toward self-destruction – his work turns on the narrative axis of the Great Man through whom these broad histories can be told, reflected, and embodied. This device is, of course, an age-old technique, useful both for its humanizing and its tidy reductionist effects.
For every Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln or John Muir, we are asked to infer, there are untold millions of acolytes, followers, beneficiaries. “America” is personified, anthropomorphized, channelled through this succession of great men (and, far too occasionally, women) and we are asked to praise them, to recognize ourselves in their works. This is how, for example, Burns can make the titular claim that the National Parks are “America’s Best Idea”, even though all evidence throughout the 12-plus hour running time demonstrates that “America” acted as the most powerful impediment against the “idea” of the National Parks, as a small number of individual men crusaded to force it to curb its disastrous beliefs, ideologies, and policies. If this is a David vs. Goliath story – and it certainly is – the David is represented by a succession of men with lonely voices and the Goliath is everything from Manifest Destiny to Capitalism to Private Property to Materialism to Commercialism, all of which are American dreams.
In the first six hours (before the film edges off into enervating discussions of bureaucratic wrangling and the travel narratives of a particularly adventurous couple from Nebraska), the general theme and roadmap for what follows is made unmistakably plain. Riffing on transcendentalists like Emerson, and reveling in the mystical approach to nature of men like John Muir, Burns (with his writer and producer Dayton Duncan) presents the National Parks as “America’s Best Idea” not because they are lovely spots to vacation, but because they are proof that God performed a singular creative flourish when conjuring up the US of A. Over and over and over and over again we are told, often by the very same fluent and erudite commentators (both contemporaneously and in retrospection), that the National Parks are places where God is made visible, where America’s greatness and purpose is manifest, where proof of the divine mission for America can be found, and where Americans can go to find themselves again if they ever come to doubt the intrinsic awesomeness of their native land.
I wonder if it is because I am Canadian that I find this argument to be every bit as insipid as the lame one-note gesturing throughout to the native peoples from whom all of this land was stolen at gunpoint? The idea that “America” lies in the protected valleys of Yosemite or the managed crags of the Grand Canyon is, from my vantage point a few hundred kilometres to the north, patently absurd. These are the exceptions, the lucky-as-hell breaks, the few places left on the continent that haven’t fallen under the plough in the relentless capitalist push toward complete private ownership and a fully realized ethic of acquisitiveness.
“America” is to be found in the steaming bogs of Yellowstone? Try 5th Avenue, the industrial park on the fringe of every mid-sized city, the cancer of big box wastelands laying waste to local human economies. I appreciate that Burns [and no doubt many millions of Americans (and also me!)] wishes that the untrammelled National Parks were the real America, but do any of us really believe that nature is the defining American reality?