I know what you’re thinking, I hate Ken Burns because he is wildly successful, makes tons of money and everyone thinks he’s the greatest Documentary Filmmaker ever, (and some people probably think he invented the genre). While some of that may be true, that’s not what bothers me.
I respect and appreciate the films that Ken makes. And he got a ton of money out of General Motors to make his films (while a lot of us only got shitty cars). I just can’t watch them.
Ken makes overly long films on interesting subjects but his films have no heart and no soul. I want to like his films, but I can’t sit through them. He made Jazz boring! How do you do that? A couple months ago I was at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, MO and I really enjoyed it. They even thank Ken for donating things to the museum. And the museum was not boring. They took some of Ken Burn’s material and they have made an interesting museum. (Ken, check the place out! You might become enthused.)
In the same building was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Now I know Ken told us EVERYTHING we wanted to know about baseball. Sitting through the Nine Episodes (Innings) of his baseball doc reminded me of being at one of those really long games where no one scores a run until the 16th inning and by then we’ve all gone home. Check this place out, they had a terrific short film (yes, they thanked Ken) and lots of other exhibits and cool stuff to read. Their exhibits brought history to life. I loved it. And yes, I am a reader.
I have read biographies of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and all sorts of other baseball stars. As a kid I loved going to see our local AAA baseball club. Ken’s film seems like someone’s PhD dissertation. He’s got all the facts, they’re just presented in a very dry way.
I know I am going to be under attack by all sorts of KB fans. The ones who have his DVDs displayed on book shelves so everyone can see them. Well, I used to have Will and Ariel Durant’s Civilization Series on my book shelves and you know what, I hadn’t read them. I think most people who owned that series hadn’t read them. I know I tried, and the Durants went in to great detail about history, but I couldn’t stay with them. It was dry! (I wonder how many people who own Ken’s films have seen them more than once?)
The problem I have with those books is the same problem I have with Ken’s films. The way the material is presented. Just because you have actors and writers reading from someone’s journal or letters doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It just means we are listening to a different voice!
When I watched the film Man On Wire, I was afraid that Philippe Petit was going to fall off the tight rope and plunge to his death. I completely forgot that he was being interviewed in the film years after he had made the walk! That documentary got me totally emotionally involved. I know, we all know who won the Civil War but I was never worried about what was going to happen to the participants that the film spoke about. I was never involved with their stories.
I love documentaries! I watch them, I have made them and lots of my friends make them. So why can’t I watch Kens? He isn’t doing anything new. He has his style and it works for him and his fans. I just wish his films had some heart and soul. The facts are great, and I’m sure he triple checks everything (unlike some filmmakers out there), I just wish he would really add the human element in to his work. Make me care!
Ken Burns films feel like they’re vegetables. I know they’re good for me I just need to figure out how I’m going to get them down.
Why am I writing this now? I just have a feeling it’s going to be time for another Ken Burns film and I am trying to prepare myself…