September 30, 2014

Ken Burns: Same As He Never Was

September 30, 2010 by · 12 Comments 

Life can throw you a big fat knuckle ball.

Thirty-three years ago, while writing a feature article for an alternative weekly paper, I spent a fall afternoon with a small documentary film company in western Massachusetts called Florentine. The three Hampshire College graduates based in the nearby village of Florence—Buddy Squires, Roger Sherman and Ken Burns—were very polite and unassuming as they discussed the student shorts that got them going and the documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge they were hoping they could market to television when it was finished. “Of course, aesthetics come first,” said Burns, smoking a cigarette he’d plucked from his denim pocket, “but we are more willing to accept the world, to show it as it is, than to change it.”

Flash forward to a Dodgers game I attended a month ago, and purely by coincidence, here’s that same Burns guy —now perhaps the most successful documentarian in history—throwing out the first pitch two decks below me in honor of The Tenth Inning, the sequel to his 18-hour landmark history of baseball. Just as I figured it would, his pitch to Russell Martin was hard and true and right over the plate.

Needless to say, I’ve followed every blessed centimeter of Mr. Burns’ excellent career, not just The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The National Parks but even his non-opus work like Frank Lloyd Wright, Lewis & Clark, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, and the superb Empire of the Air, about the founding of radio. Burns’ trademark lyrical richness and arresting imagery is also prevalent in the best work of his younger brother Ric, whose films in the early to mid 90s—The Donner Party, Coney Island and the 7-part Gotham history called New York, are some of my favorite PBS broadcasts ever.  I even prefer Ric’s earlier, shorter Into the West to Ken’s later and endless The West, which I guess makes me somewhat of a radical Burnsophile.

But on to The Tenth Inning, and its reason for existing.  Frankly, after watching all four and a half hours, I’m still not sure.  Other than a fascinating opening segment on Barry Bonds’ upbringing by his all-star and apparently alcoholic father, there is very little revealed that we don’t already know, and complex issues like labor stoppages and steroid testing are dealt with in the most conventional, oversimplified manner possible.

This is fine in a way, because I care about baseball labor problems and roids about as much as I care about soccer statistics, and the things in The Tenth Inning that are good, notably more of Buddy Squires’ gorgeous “magic hour” cinematography, and an incredible collection of rarely seen still action photos on display in crystal crisp hi-def, are really good.   The interviews with noted talking baseball heads are fun and unobtrusive, and the inclusion of Ichiro speaking in subtitled Japanese is brilliant.  There’s wonderful footage of baseball life in the Dominican, a heartfelt little sub-story all in itself. The same is true for a segment on the strike-doomed ’94 Expos (though the MLB Network aired a more complete film about them recently), nice chapters on Pedro Martinez, the aforementioned Ichiro, the Atlanta Braves’ amazing rotation of the ‘90s, and the thrilling Sosa/McGwire home run chase of ’98.

But the main problem I have with The Tenth Inning is the exact same one I had with Baseball: a blatant northeast-centric myopia.  There was practically nothing about Wrigley Field in the 18-plus hours of his last epic, and in this one we’re given a whopping five minutes just so we can see Steve Bartman muff a foul ball.  After over a half hour of Red Sox/Yankee footage from ’03 and ’04, marking Boston’s first title in 86 years, we see less than ten seconds of Chicago White Sox glory in ’05 (with zero narration), even though they hadn’t won for 88 years.  The thrilling Marlins 7-game victory over Cleveland in ’97?  No mention whatsoever. Nothing on the emerging Tampa Rays and a mere pittance on Bill James and the stats revolution.

You want to know about the ’96 Yanks, though?  How about a half hour just for them, with as many shots of a weeping Joe Torre as possible. Or another fifteen minutes on the 2001 Series where everyone in the country was apparently rooting for the Yankees because the Twin Towers had just fallen.  I’m not saying these weren’t dramatic events, but they’ve been covered to death for years, and saturating nearly half of the four hours with recycled Red Sox/Yankee footage was not a great way for Burns to endear himself with the rest of the country’s fans.

The central non-endearing figure of The Tenth Inning, though, remains Barry Bonds.  Burns parcels out his entire career across the width of the documentary as the poster boy for everything that’s become wondrous and sickening about the game, and while it’s possible to sympathize with Barry’s feelings about his mistreated father, in the end he comes off like a bigger jerk than we even imagined.  (Giants myopia is even introduced: their 2002 loss to Anaheim is depicted as some kind of tragedy, even though it was an incredible moment for long-suffering Angels fans and certainly our last exciting, evenly-played World Series.) After Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s all-time homer mark and the Giants crowd is subjected to a joyless scoreboard message from Henry himself, the air seems to deflate right out of the film, and Burns quickly wraps it up with one more piano-laced ode to the sport’s timeless beauty.

Ken Burns is at his best when he takes on material we’re thirsty to know about.  I had no inkling of the history of our national parks, and was totally transported by his hypnotic series about them. Unforgivable Blackness was about the boxer Jack Johnson, and what a tale that was.  At times a Burns film is like the moving version of a great endless New Yorker article, such as the history of the orange or a crime investigation in Texas.  The Civil War and the early “innings” of Baseball were much more ambitious in scope, but worked perfectly because we were drawn into time periods we possibly would have liked to visit, and then learned about them in exquisite detail.

But Roger Clemens?  Sorry, Ken, move along.  Nothing new to see here.

Jeff Polman’s fictional replay blogs of the 1924 and 1977 seasons can be visited at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com and http://funkyball.wordpress.com, respectively.

Comments

12 Responses to “Ken Burns: Same As He Never Was”
  1. Cardinal70 says:

    I’ve not watched it yet, but from what I understand, Albert Pujols doesn’t make an appearance (or maybe just a flash on screen) in the whole four 1/2 hours. For the fact that he’s been so dominant (perhaps the best player in baseball) for 10 of the 16 years Burns was covering, you’d think he’d have snuck in there.

  2. Tom says:

    As a lifelong resident of the unfortunate backwater known as America West of the Hudson, I find myself often perplexed and frustrated by the extraordinary Yankees/Red Sox-tilt of much of the baseball media, as exemplified by The Tenth Inning. But in fairness, Ken Burns is an avowed Red Sox fan, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make any great claims to being unbiased. And the whole Yankees/Red Sox “thing” undeniably was a very big deal in the world of baseball, especially in their remarkable ALCS meetings in 2003 and 2004. So it seems to me fairly appropriate—and totally unsurprising—to make that one of the central focuses of the narrative about baseball over the past 16 years. But you tell me: did Ken Burns present a mission statement for his new film that you feel he violated? Did he ever say that he was intending to make a comprehensive, thorough, objective documentation of the recent history of baseball? I think he was simply trying to tell a story that people would respond to, in a way that attempts to strike the tricky balance between being compelling while still honest, in the best and most effective way he could given his point of view. That’s what good story-tellers do; in fact, to some extent it’s all they can do. In that, I thought he did a pretty good job. It wasn’t as captivating and enthralling as his masterpieces, of course, but I thought it was reasonable, given its scope. Personally, I would have liked to hear more about some of the other noteworthy people, teams, and events of the recent baseball past and less about the Yankees and Red Sox, but hey, it’s Ken Burns’ movie, not mine. And as viewers of The Tenth Inning, or any other willingly consumed product, we hold the ultimate power, by choosing whether to watch or not watch. Last night, I exercised that power by deciding that I had seen and heard enough of Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin for one night, and I flipped over to catch a few of my beloved Chicago White Sox pounding the damn, dirty Red Sawx in a meaningless but satisfying game of actual baseball. Poetic justice, indeed.

  3. Corey Sauer says:

    Jeff, I agree with your column for the most part regarding the drawbacks to Ken Burns’s “10th Inning”.

    To play a bit of devil’s advocate, I have to say that the extraordinary challenge of this specific documentary is taking recent events and trying to make them fresh for an audience (presumably made up of mostly baseball fans) that already lived through much, if not all of it.

    In some ways, Burns succeeded very well. For example, the Latin American explosion in MLB was critical to educating an American audience that largely has no frame of reference of the Latin American experience in the United States, much less in Major League Baseball.

    My reaction when hearing that Burns was devoting only 2 parts, or one “inning”, to the events of the last 16 years, I was ambivalent that he could appropriately plumb the depths of the radical changes the game has undergone in such a relatively short amount of time.

    After watching the full “10th Inning”, my suspicions were confirmed. There was no mention of the contraction controversy from 2001/2002 and the subsequent stress and negative fan reaction from the two markets that were targeted, Minnesota and Montreal.

    There wasn’t enough devoted to the collusion by ownership to be represented by one of their own in the office of commissioner. There wasn’t enough about the problematic conflict of interest in this owner/commissioner being paid to make his buddies more money, instead of protecting the integrity of the leagues and the game.

    Selig’s own word’s smack of conceit (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’ll take credit for everything that went right and everything that went wrong.”

    What the “10th Inning” failed to provide is a critical and objective look into the lack of accountability by Selig himself, and the never-ending erosion of the broad disciplinary powers of the Commissioner as he continued to give way to the player’s union time after time.

    Selig failed to override the player’s union and explicitly ban steroid use, force unilateral drug-testing and serve as the sole authority on handing out meaningful punishment. By playing the middle man trying to please his check writers and avoid a strike, he forgot that baseball is still a monopoly and his power to act in the best interests of the game can supersede any “union”.

    And even that was never fully analyzed in the “10th Inning”. Why do multi-millionaire players, each with their OWN high-powered agent need a “union”???

    I wish that Burns had left the varnish in the woodshed and dealt with the ugly details, instead of giving us the Sports Center highlight reel of who won the World Series. And I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this, but baseball history is more about all of the unexplored stuff under the shiny veneer of the Fall Classic.

    And Ken Burns ought to know that better than most.

    -Corey

  4. Jeff Polman says:

    Good catch Dan, regarding Pujols. I should have mentioned his omission but I was writing this thing awful late.

  5. Lou Siegel says:

    I was bored by Burns’ narrative. For example, how the ’94 strike angered and depressed fans and only the stoic heroism of Cal Ripken’s redeemed the game. Please. Like Polman, I’d like a little more storyline nuance and more a thoughtful treatment of the very complicated – and fascinating – labor relations issues which define modern pro sports.

  6. Jon Pessah says:

    Jeff,
    I agree with most if not all of what you say. Even as a lifetime Northeast baseball fan — ok, a Yankees fan — I found the scarcity of detail on baseball west of the Hudson River to be overwhelming. Contraction was a huge, huge issue on many levels, and it was brushed aside. Very tired of the same talking heads — who made George Will the official voice of baseball? And while I enjoy Mike Barnicle — and loved his story about his 11-year-old son — it often felt like this was Mike’s personal story. Burns touched on a lot of subjects, had a lot of story lines going, but only dug deep into the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. I thought everything else just skimmed the surface. All in all, it was a “light read” that did not deliver anything new in fact or interpretation.

  7. Dave Newman says:

    After mentioning Stan Musial only as an afterthought upon his retirement in the 60’s I guess we should not have been surprised that Albert Pujols was not mentioned once.

    The series, though, WAS called “Baseball,” not “Northeastern Baseball.” So it WAS presented as a history of the entire sport.

    To have continued the lifelong national snub of Stan Musial was a punch to the gut. To have not even mentioned Albert Pujols was criminal and stupid. It renders the entire series flawed to the core.

  8. Scott Simkus says:

    Ken Burns looks like the skinnier, scruffier (much more serious) twin brother of Dave Barry. It’s the hair, of course. The old mop-top, Beatles ‘do that has been out-of-style for decades….until now. Justin Bieber has brought it back, with a vengeance. Ken and Dave: Congratulations for sticking with it, when nobody else had the guts.

  9. Jim Elfers says:

    I have to agree with all the criticisms thus far. The original 18 hour “Baseball” bored me to tears and Burns made the same mistakes this time around.
    Can’t we have interviews with real fans? i.e. people who are not famous authors or politicos. I find the almost total absence of the ordinary Joe the series’ biggest crime. After all without the fan there is no major league or minor league baseball or multi-billion dollar industry that is organized baseball.

  10. Jeff Polman says:

    Great point, Mr. Elfers. There’s a fabulous book you should read called “Hornsby Hit One Over My Head,” by David Cataneo. It’s an oral history of baseball told completely from the fans’ perspective, with one amazing tale after another in chronological order. Kind of hard to find, but well worth the search.

  11. David Cataneo says:

    @Jeff Polman
    Thank you for the kind words, Mr. Polman!

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