Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Ken Burns Effect: Can't We Get a Joke Once In A While?

By Lars Trodson

I tried. I really, really tried to watch Ken Burns' latest documentary on PBS. But I can't. I'm all for being serious, but over 12 hours I need to laugh -- I'll even take a chuckle -- once in a while.

Ken Burns is a beautiful filmmaker and an undeniably articulate writer. There's no question. But ever since I was introduced to him through "The Civil War" series years ago, and then through "Baseball", and "Jazz" (and others) and now with "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", I have more frequently begun to ask myself why the guy has to take everything so seriously. Not everything in life is weighted with meaning and metaphor and deep insight into the human condition.

I understand completely that there is nothing funny about war, which Burns has examined twice, but -- and thank goodness for it -- funny things do happen in wartime. Even when life seems to be crushingly horrific, funny things can happen. But not in a Ken Burns documentary.

I happen to think baseball is one of the most whimsical and fleet-footed of all games, but not according to Burns. It was only frought with money and race and labor issues. I loved a lot of that series, but I thought: Couldn't he have devoted a half hour one night to some funny stuff?

How about jazz? Jazz can be humorous, lyrical, light - but can you name me three moments of downright laugh out loud moments in Burns' "Jazz?" Why not? Has nothing funny happened in the jazz world in the past 90 years? Was Jack Johnson's life all misery and pain and controversy?

I'm not sure that the National Parks systems is the best subject to begin turning on the laughtrack, but there must be something in that history to lighten the load. I'm going to give the series another go, and maybe I'm wrong. But so far it has been the same approach as before -- stunningly beautiful pictures and archival footage, voiceover narration by Tom Hanks, and the plink-plink of folk music in the background as we are tutored. So I'm having a hard time of it.

Ken Burns is almost certainly on to another project. I applaud him, and look forward to whatever he has to say next. But as he's writing his next script, I only ask him to take a moment and try to give his audience a break from the sobriety of life, and remember that there can be a telling detail about America and her history wrapped inside a good old-fashioned joke.