April 02, 2015

Is watching Ken Burns like eating Chinese food?

Ken Burns/Wikipedia photo
You know, as in the stereotype that it's not that filling, and an hour later you need to east something else?

I say that after watching all three parts of the Burns-affiliated (though not under his complete control on this one) "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," based on the book, "The Emperor of All Maladies," which I found very good. (In hindsight, I'm scratching the "very." Given what I wrote below originally, I'm not sure why I had the "very" there in the first place. It may just be "OK," in fact.)

It wasn't the typical Burns piece, in that it involved primarily people and events from the here and now. But, he handled that part well.

On cancer itself, he didn't go maudlin, but he may have leaned a bit too much to the optimism side. The last speaker in the final episode ended with using the "c-word."

I'm not that optimistic. I don't think we're any closer to a "cure" for cancer than we are to peaceful nuclear fusion power or true artificial intelligence.

But, that's not so much the "light."

One arm of David H. Koch's philanthropy (the PBS website isn't clear which one) was a sponsor.

And, while parts two and three of the program mentioned prevention as an important part of the "war" on cancer, only smoking was specifically talked about in detail.

In part three, it was noted that an Italian doctor, in 1700, noted that coal miners had higher-than-average rates of lung cancer.

Yet, "somehow," here in the modern US, the highly carcinogenic rate of petrochemicals — you know, the stuff that's behind the Koch Bros' fortune — never got mentioned.

(Update, Sept. 22, 2017: Ken Burns' Vietnam series, plus the comments below from my original piece, and more hanging out with left-liberals and even leftists online, have made me not only VERY skeptical, no scratch-outs needed, of the Vietnam series, but pretty darned skeptical of Burns' entire oeuvre of work. Read this longform piece of mine for much more detail.)

And, that leads me to the "Chinese food" part again.

As noted here, Burns' "Roosevelts" series had a number of errors, more about TR than about FDR. But, as I note there, Burns' general documentary take is a very PBS one. Nice, noble, grand, lots of pictures, but not necessarily that challenging. (Of course, a lot of people want to mythologize TR; if he'd gotten his third term in 1912, I think he would have been a disaster.)

Take his National Parks series. Very little discussion about American Indian issues related to various national parks sites. Little comment about chronic underfunding of the NPS in the last decade-plus. Of course, by cutting that series off at 1980, it was easy to sweep later problems under the rug.

Or what shot him to fame — Baseball. A bit two-dimensional on Landis as the "savior" of baseball. Some coastal bias against baseball in the hinterlands, too, IMO. And, per what I noted above about the cancer movie, Burns' "10th inning" add-on had its own problems, including not interviewing living people.

Of course, per his mother's death when he was 11 and his father's later insight about Burns' reaction to that, as Wiki notes, maybe he can only do a present-day documentary when it in part involves death.

"Dust Bowl" was pretty good, but like the cancer film, he was working from an already written book, with an author in Timothy Egan that I presume insisted on some consulting role with actual power. That said, while Egan did talk a bit about climate change and the southern High Plains of today, the series probably could have had more of that.

If you'll click from that Wikipedia page to individual Burns documentaries, you'll note that several others, beyond my Roosevelts critique, have been faulted for their inaccuracies. His World War II mini-series failed to include anything about Hispanic or Native American contributions.  Even though it was before good DNA testing, Burns got all the white historians in his Thomas Jefferson miniseries to pooh-pooh over the idea that he had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Now, it's true, that was before the 1998 DNA Y-chromosome testing, but still.

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