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Ken Burns: His approach says critic in NYT is too generic--It tells us about war, but not WW II

Historians in the News




... “War happens,” [Eric Severeid] explained, “inside a man.”

And that is mostly where Ken Burns decides to look for it in his 15-hour documentary about the Second World War, “The War,” directed with Lynn Novick, now being broadcast on PBS (and to be released on DVD tomorrow). Invoking Mr. Sevareid, Mr. Burns says that his documentary — an “epic poem,” he has called it — is “created in that spirit.” Nearly 50 men and women talk about their wartime experiences, their testimonies punctuated by historical footage and somber narration.

The intention, apparently, was to see the war anew, to see it not from the vistas of generals’ maps and geopolitics, not from the perspective given by the doctrines of nations and the lures of ideologies, not even from the war’s context in history. The intention was to view it from the experiences of those who fought in it and those who knew them. If war happens “inside a man,” Mr. Burns wants to bring it home.

But what a strange history results from this approach, and what a strange effect it creates! Some things we get to know very well, some not at all. We learn about human emotions and suffering, about death and bravery. Other matters, though, retreat to the background, and that unfortunately makes a tremendous difference in understanding war — particularly this war....

[Burns features some interesting stories.] But the stories become miscellaneous, a montage of scenes: the home front, the battle front, the love lives, the tragedies, the war within, history from below. So intent is Mr. Burns on seeming to show “typical” soldiers that he never informs us that some of the central interviewees are in fact distinguished academics and writers. And so intent is he on emphasizing private experience over public considerations that he seems to have filtered out other kinds of accounts.

Read entire article at Edward Rothstein in the NYT

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vaughn davis bornet - 10/8/2007

Somebody asked me if I was watching the PBS film on the War. I said no. First, I didn't want to relive it; there had been one occasion when I burst into tears right in the middle of a portrayal of the Pacific War; I had little confidence that the film maker had read as much on The War as I had, and didn't want to come down from Wohlstetter on Signals at Pearl Harbor to "human interest there" or something.

Once, I took class notes on a major effort on the LBJ Presidency. They weren't flattering; I filed them. I fear I lack confidence that filmmakers who simply skip book and article research are going to do justice to history that I lived (in part--over four years in this case).

Somehow, I anticipate gore; and violence; and extremes; and celebrities; and seeking for notoriety. It wouldn't be recreation for me, and it sure wouldn't be Learning, considering everything.

And, I don't have to watch! If I have to "relive the Past," I think I'll choose something different.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ph.D. 1951


Gary W. Daily - 10/3/2007

Here’s the essence of Edward Rothstein’s swipe at Burns: “By selectively telling history from below, by highlighting emotion and sketching everything else, Mr. Burns privatizes war. He takes one of the most necessary wars ever fought and leaves viewers wondering whether any public goal can be worth its price.”

Might Rothstein’s “one of the most necessary wars ever fought” really mean that we are fighting another such (most necessary) war right now? He does have a record on this. And he does end his piece with this:

“The greatest sense I have about the war,” says one character at its end, is “relief we wouldn’t have to do any of that stuff again.” That is the teaching of this history from below. History from above tells us that unfortunately and terribly, we will.”

I’ll pass on this due to temporary exhaustion due to service to MoveOn.

And I’ll also pass by the presumptuous, “leaves viewers wondering whether any public goal can be worth its price.” Huh!?

I'll ask instead, isn’t it’s interesting that Rothstein has to grasp for the term “privatizes war” to describe a slipping into sentiment (“he [Burns] is letting feelings eclipse history”)? Burns’s approach, and many would agree, “democratizes war.”

So try to speculate (and perhaps some old U. of Chicago grad or prof out there can be of help on this) if Allan Bloom (Rothstein’s one time teacher) ever sat down for lunch with Daniel Boorstin and where did the conversation go when the subject/concepts of “privitization/democratization” came up?