Ken Burns is on the re-run of Keith Olbermann right now, promoting his new PBS mini-series on World War II. Burns' pitch is very studied, loaded with talking points, anecdotes and statistics that he's clearly been polishing for a long time. He sounds like a politician who's spent a lot of time on Prairie Home Companion. He's receiving a slightly overblown fan's welcome from history buff Olbermann. For god's sake, he's a Red Sox fan.
I don't care. When his seven-part series begins Sunday night, I'm so there.
As with so many television programs I've ended up loving (Buffy, House, The Prisoner), I came late to the Ken Burns party, not really appreciating his aesthetic until I finally caught up with Baseball three summers ago. I was watching a friend's house, and dodging her neurotic, nippy, sickly cat. It was hot, and there was kitty hair all over the furniture, and I knew there was more productive work I could be doing. But I'd rented the first couple of videotapes from the library, and was immediately sucked in. Baseball remains, I think, Burns' masterpiece: unlike Jazz, baseball is something Burns knows a lot about, and has a clear personal passion for; unlike the otherwise informative film on Jack Johnson (which is only two parts), Baseball's longer length allows for a leisurely and layered approach to its subject; and unlike the otherwise masterful Civil War, Baseball is fun-- its stories, heroes, and historical footage hurtle you forward with a sense of joy and anticipation, wanting to know what will happen next. To steal Ted Williams' description of the perfect hit, Baseball is Burns' sweet spot.
And "happening next" is Burns' real talent. By now, his style has become a target of parody (most brilliantly in 1995's Nick at Nite special Brady: An American Chronicle, which used voiceovers, still photos, talking heads and seriously noted dates-- "Jan Brady, March 5, 1970"--to detail the rise and fall of America's favorite sitcom family) and it's true that it doesn't work for all subjects: I like Jazz as as source of stories, music and photos, but it doesn't swing as much as it should, and doesn't have much to say about anything that happens in the music after about 1959. But Burns has a love of country that feels genuine, deep and diverse-- it's not an easy, knee-jerk patriotism, but a truly felt desire to celebrate American life precisely by looking at those moments and issues (war, race, sport, art) that have the power to both unite and divide. Those moments are most strongly felt through the anecdote. Those who know me know I am fascinated by this form, and its power to encapsulate, explore and vibrate the larger narratives of cultural history. That's what the stories in Burns' best work do, and all the advance reviews I've read suggest The War is among his best films (and, perhaps, his most timely). I hope he can find a way to illuminate this most analyzed of wars, honoring its veterans while avoiding Brokaw-style cliches.