Before Ken Burns’ 6-part, 12-hour series on the national parks was aired, a perceptive article by the LA Times’ Scott Timberg warned that it might be greeted by “sharp knives.” Ten years in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, finally came to our television screens last week, and so far no sharp knives seem to have been drawn. But there have been blunt forks poking into the meat and leaving large parts of the six-course meal undigested on the plate, its servings a bit too super-sized for easy consumption. (There are, of course, the stealth knives and box-cutters of right-wing bloggers, who criticize the series for its NPR liberalism, communism, paganism, and whatever else, but so far the jabs have been mostly off the mark, and few and far between.)
The US national park system would seem to make for an ideal subject for the Burns treatment — a treatment Apple has captured, at least in part, on its iPhoto program as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Timberg describes the Burns style as a “combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism.” The Washington Post’s Tim Page has less charitably called Burns’ style an “unreflected populist Hallmark-ese,” a “strange mixture of New Deal and New Age.” The latter was said in reference to Burns’ “Jazz” series, with its idea that improvisation was an integral element of the American spirit, but it could easily also be said about National Parks.
But there’s something to Burns’ claim about improvisation: one finds that improvisational spirit in the pragmatism of the country’s best philosophers (John Dewey, William James, et al) and in the poetry of Whitman, the Beats, and the nature romanticism of Thoreau and Muir. All of which is another way of saying that progressivism, the very backbone of the American conservation movement (the national parks being one wing of that, the national forests being another), is very American, and those who forget that — like today’s rabid Republican right — are not nearly as American as they would like to think.
Burns is the most successful American public television documentarian of our time, and in the sweeping scope of his treatments of motherhood-and-apple-pie themes — the civil war, jazz, baseball — is a bold attempt to define, or redefine, American identity in universally likeable ways. (By “universally” I mean in a universe where most of the world likes American culture, but doesn’t particularly like the actions of its government, or at least not until recently, and that’s yet to be seen with any certainty.) Doing the same with national parks seems like a good idea and a historically viable one, even if it’s a little out of tune with the neoliberal times in which the series was made. The idea that setting aside some of the most beautiful places as belonging to “the people,” protected from the use of the few so as to be absorbed and appreciated by the many, is consistent with a democratic progressivist nationalism, the kind of ideology that marks the center of a long and admirable American tradition encompassing the ideals of some of its founders and leading figures — Jefferson and the two Roosevelts, among others — and so makes the parks if not the country’s “best idea,” at least a manifestation of one version of that idea.
Critics have so far identified the predictable weaknesses in Burns’ treatment: his over-reliance on talking heads and overdrawn narratives (along with the series’ overstated subtitle), his folksy mandolin soundtracks, which drone on a bit too long, and the wearying 12-hour length of it all. Variety rather sourly calls it “tediously exhaustive,” “an act of supreme vanity, stretching so far beyond the topic’s weight as to strain and finally snap the thread of goodwill he has developed,” and, commenting on the quasi-religious reverence that exudes from every frame, expects that some viewers will fall asleep in the same way that churchgoers do during a long sermon.
Time’s James Poniewozik notes that the Burns/Dayton Duncan prose is overlaid with “one spectacular money shot after another—not pans of sepia photographs, but glaciers and glopping lava flows and glittering stalactites and bison trudging through snow drifts. It is enough to give a nature lover a petrified woodie” (take that, Ken!). “I had to wonder,” he continues, “watching all this gorgeously shot nature porn, whether the goal of National Parks wasn’t in part to give PBS its own answer to Discovery’s Planet Earth, the amazing nature miniseries whose staggering footage stole public TV’s thunder and was a critical and commercial hit. In this, National Parks can’t quite compete—it has a limited choice of subjects, for starters, whereas Planet Earth had, well, Earth.”
The New York Times‘ Mike Hale enjoys the early episodes, with their “story of how the park system was born out of the pantheistic response of people like Muir to the newly discovered wonders of Yosemite and Yellowstone and of the men and women who nurtured the system and protected it against the forces of logging, mining, grazing and unbridled tourism.” After that, though, the story loses some of its urgency and focus and leaves viewers with “the repetitive flow of lofty, often misty verbiage.”
But most critics also wax effusively about its magnificent camerawork and the dexterity with which Burns assembles it all. Gauging critical reception, Metacritic gives it a respectable, if not overwhelming, 76 so far — a B+ (see the links there for more reviews).
My own viewing of it is probably not that different from that of many viewers. I managed to watch portions of three episodes and let my DVR record the rest for future viewing at an undisclosed time (if ever; I don’t know how most people can watch 12 hours of television in a given working week, let alone watch a single program for that many hours). But what I did see impressed me with the quality of its cinematography and the scope of its narrative. The series seems intended to be a PBS instant classic — beautifully shot, exhaustively documented, and thoroughly supported by historians and commentators.
At the same time, it’s so old-school that I doubt it would keep the attention of my students’ generation. It’s all talking-head historians, magisterial shots of nature (which it does wonderfully, but Planet Earth did better), and seamlessly soundtracked with the kinds of soothing folky grooves that will wear thin as the folks who like them die off one by one. There were plenty of white males waxing expertly and eloquently, but also some women, a few African-Americans and Native Americans and other ethnics (like the Japanese-American family of a park-loving artist interned during during WW2), and references to Buffalo soldiers and to Native Americans being evicted in the making of some parks. Some of these segments went on too long and seemed a little strained — the result of a self-conscious effort at inclusiveness — but, all in all, they were among the series’ achievements: it’s not a revisionist history but just a gently, and usefully, amended one.
I also couldn’t resist comparing it with the films it aims to replace, like the American Visions episode “Wilderness and the West”, or the 1992 “Wilderness Idea” (about the conflict over between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over Hetch Hetchy) where Muir’s voice was more rough-edged and obviously Scottish, while here it’s toned-down into a warm, wise, and friendly American baritone.
But sitting through a 12-hour history lesson in which the viewer is talked at by experts — and which ends, unsatisfyingly, before the Reagan era (still prehistory, as far as my students are concerned) — is not the way (young) people learn these days. So the question I would ask is: what are the best ways to use this series (and its web site, etc.)? How could the themes that remain relevant today — democracy, the role of government, the evolution of environmental advocacy, etc. — be brought out better? Had Burns taken that kind of more engaged, topical and thematic approach to it rather than trying to re-present the chronological history of parks, would its substance be more engaging, more bound to trigger the unleashing of those sharp knives? Or could the narrative at least be broken up more, even in the way that Planet Earth peppered its episodes with those live-action “here’s how we did it” clips? And maybe I’m also wanting more ecology and less parks, those frozen monuments to a pristine nature that never existed (not that I believe that take on them, but I think the debate — and Bill Cronon at least alluded to it — is worth having).
One thing I did find quite interesting is the way the parks movement is unabashedly characterized as a kind of civil religion — the epitome of American nature religion, as Jason at pagan blog The Wild Hunt perceptively notes. From the Deism of some of the “founding fathers” through the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau to Muirian pantheism, nature becomes more and more a religious virtue as American history matures — though, as always, it’s pretty directly related to the thrashing of nature at the hands of industry. Some of the sharper knives of the series’ critics should no doubt come from those who would advocate wise use (in the real sense of the word, not in the greenwashed and astroturfed “movement” sense) and appreciation of wilderness over its preservation and reverence, at least to the extent that the series implicitly favored the latter (which is the sense I got from what I saw and the reviews I’ve read). (But is this country prepared for a respectful debate about the virtues of pantheism? Someday, maybe…)
And the interaction between this “nature” — all pristine, beautiful, and always somewhere out there — and ecology , in all its metabolic complexities, remains the topic of a history that will likely never be made into a Ken Burns documentary. Jason goes on to muse that
“we’ve come a long way from the nature-loving hunter-conservationism of Roosevelt, and his party is more often the party of “drill, baby, drill”. Will “National Parks” ignoring almost the entirety of the modern environmentalism movement really galvanize bipartisan support for a new ethic of conservationism? Was it responsible for this love-letter to not even mention climate change, and the terrible damage it’s doing to the parks? I have to feel, that as much as I loved the scenery, the rapturous commentary, and the spiritual centrality of Muir’s vision to this series, this is a somewhat cowardly oversight.”
Fortunately, the environmental community isn’t sleeping. The NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization have smartly timed the release of their report “National Parks in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption” to coincide with the series and, of course, with the run-up to December’s Copenhagen climate change forum.
The series will last as a historical document, and while the argument it pieces together is not a radical one, in this day and age it seems a useful one. The images will do their work for some — and hopefully not just to add to the tourist traffic on the interstates and at parking lots and scenic vistas. And re-impregnating those images with the ideals of democracy and an expansive religio-nationalism of nature remains a worthwhile effort. For it to be more useful, though, I would have liked Burns to have made a 90-minute capsule version as a postscript — not the Reader’s Digest version of the detailed history of national parks, but the argument for how this country has created them, what they meant then and what they might mean today, and how nature itself — both the thing and the idea — has changed as a result of them, and is changing still.