Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Watching the National Parks Documentary

Ken Burns does interesting work, but this one is irritating me. And it shouldn't. I should be totally in love with a film about National Parks. I love parks.

Partly, there's this idealization of some of the men who were involved in the parks' creations. Okay, Muir, great guy. Roosevelt, great guy. Wait. It's like being a wealthy white guy who uses his power and wealth (especially when his father or grandfather robber-baroned the way to wealth) to do his thing. It's handy that the thing involved the national parks, but let's at least think about white, male privilege.

They're talking about Mt. McKinley, and this older looking man smiles and says that it's cold, "colder than the heart of an elderly whore" and sort of chuckles. I guess sexism is just so effing amusing.

Why is that there? Was that the best statement about cold that Burns and the crew could edit?

Can you imagine a similar sort of statement being made in this documentary about Native Americans? I can't.

(Okay, there's often a sense in Burns' films that being a manly man is really, really important, and what he's interested in is manly men being manly and playing baseball or jazz or killing each other. These aren't about women's history, are they? Okay, one is, but otherwise women are pretty much afterthoughts to what he counts as history.)

Then there's the moment where the narrator is reading some man's entry about how "tired and haggard" tourists look in the "official" photos taken at the Grand Canyon, and the camera focuses in on a woman's face, which doesn't look particularly haggard or tired at all, or nervous, which is part of the commentor's humor. Why her face?

There are those places where someone extols the virtues of all Americans sharing and being equals at the parks, where the documentary shows pictures of all white folks. I've read somewhere that the parks really underserve African Americans. I think that would be interesting to explore, don't you?

(Yes, the film so far does have an African American park ranger talking, and does talk about "Buffalo Soldiers" being stationed at Yellowstone, and how white visitors didn't like taking orders from anyone, especially not Black men.)

And one last thing. There's this undercurrent where someone will say something about how no one is really happy that anyone cuts down a tree or something. But, realistically, unless we're going to go try to live in caves, we do cut down trees. Ask any farmer, and s/he appreciates that someone cleared the field, even though s/he may love trees, may plant them and reforest areas.

People who are hungry want to eat; people who are cold want shelter and fuel to make warmth. Those people will use resources, and it's just not realistic to make using resources sound like a bad thing. The fact that I don't have to go out and cut down trees to get my fuel or go kill a cow to eat dinner doesn't mean I'm not using the resources involved. It means I'm separated from recognizing my usage to some extent, but I'm using plenty. And so is Ken Burns, and so was John Muir, and so are all the people (it's mostly men) rhapsodizing about the spiritual experience they have in the wilderness. (You know Burns must love Wordsworth, eh?)

Okay, for all my complaints, this is one beautiful documentary. The music, as always with Burns' films, is lovely and works well with the images. The moves from black and white and still images to color imagery work really nicely. The narrators do a good job, though when the Law and Order buy narrates, I keep waiting for the double note thing.


  1. Thanks for this review. I haven't been able to make myself watch it -- after dutifully attempting to watch all of The War, I'm completely burnt out on the whole Ken Burns thing -- I can't stand the sound of Peter Coyote's voice any more.

    I think you are right on the money in your assessment of Burns' interest in what (mostly white) manly men have done to shape America. It can be a bit redundant after a while.

  2. Ken Burns' efforts always remind me of those films we had to watch in secondary school social studies classes in the 50's and 60's: violins play, sonorous voice extolls America's destiny, fade to credits. And all in black and white.

  3. The total blindness to the misogyny is what gets down my neck -- no awareness at all that women, as human beings, might be people we could value and respect.

    My kid, who is female, was in the car as I was listening to a Steve Earle song last night. "He said whore," she said, startled. "Is this song about a whore?"

    "Well, yes," I said.

    "Why would he sing about that?" she asked, in amazement and contempt -- having, at 11, been thoroughly grounded in the Fort Smith cultural ethos that women who have sex are worthless filth; and having accepted it, too, despite my attempts to raise a little feminist.

  4. I also love the national park system, but don't like history on tv in general, and am rather bitter that Burns keeps showing me shots of the house where Muir died, or panning over the faded black and white stripes of a flag, when he could be spending that airtime on pictures of some of the most beautiful places in the nation.

    A similiar discussion is happening at Historiann's, by the way.

  5. Hm... I do think that Burns "suffers" (for lack of a better word) from the fact that a lot of his documentaries are about things that men did... or at least about times where the contributions of women aren't well recorded. Not a whole lot of women on civil war battlefields, for example, and not a lot of women in the 18-1900's who had control over enough money or power to be part of the creation of the parks.

  6. Yes,thanks for the review. I haven't watched it yet because I thought it might be like all nature documentaries: "Here is the pristine wilderness/rare wild animal before HUMAN BEINGS ruined it."