Ken Burns: Same As He Never Was
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 Florenceâ€”Buddy Squires, Roger Sherman and Ken Burnsâ€”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. â€œOf course, aesthetics come first,â€ said Burns, smoking a cigarette heâ€™d plucked from his denim pocket, â€œbut we are more willing to accept the world, to show it as it is, than to change it.â€
Flash forward to a Dodgers game I attended a month ago, and purely by coincidence, hereâ€™s that same Burns guy â€”now perhaps the most successful documentarian in historyâ€”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, Iâ€™ve followed every blessed centimeter of Mr. Burnsâ€™ 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, Horatioâ€™s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, and the superb Empire of the Air, about the founding of radio. Burnsâ€™ 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 90sâ€”The Donner Party, Coney Island and the 7-part Gotham history called New York, are some of my favorite PBS broadcasts ever.Â I even prefer Ricâ€™s earlier, shorter Into the West to Kenâ€™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. Â Frankly, after watching all four and a half hours, Iâ€™m still not sure.Â Other than a fascinating opening segment on Barry Bondsâ€™ upbringing by his all-star and apparently alcoholic father, there is very little revealed that we donâ€™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 Squiresâ€™ gorgeous â€œmagic hourâ€ cinematography, and an incredible collection of rarely seen still action photos on display in crystal crisp hi-def, are really good.Â Â The interviews with noted talking baseball heads are fun and unobtrusive, and the inclusion of Ichiro speaking in subtitled Japanese is brilliant.Â Thereâ€™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 â€™94 Expos (though the MLB Network aired a more complete film about them recently), nice chapters on Pedro Martinez, the aforementioned Ichiro, the Atlanta Bravesâ€™ amazing rotation of the â€˜90s, and the thrilling Sosa/McGwire home run chase of â€™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.Â There was practically nothing about Wrigley Field in the 18-plus hours of his last epic, and in this one weâ€™re given a whopping five minutes just so we can see Steve Bartman muff a foul ball.Â After over a half hour of Red Sox/Yankee footage from â€™03 and â€™04, marking Bostonâ€™s first title in 86 years, we see less than ten seconds of Chicago White Sox glory in â€™05 (with zero narration), even though they hadnâ€™t won for 88 years.Â The thrilling Marlins 7-game victory over Cleveland in â€™97?Â 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 â€™96 Yanks, though?Â 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.Â Iâ€™m not saying these werenâ€™t dramatic events, but theyâ€™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 countryâ€™s fans.
The central non-endearing figure of The Tenth Inning, though, remains Barry Bonds.Â Burns parcels out his entire career across the width of the documentary as the poster boy for everything thatâ€™s become wondrous and sickening about the game, and while itâ€™s possible to sympathize with Barryâ€™s feelings about his mistreated father, in the end he comes off like a bigger jerk than we even imagined. Â (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 Aaronâ€™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 sportâ€™s timeless beauty.
Ken Burns is at his best when he takes on material weâ€™re thirsty to know about.Â 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.Â 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.Â The Civil War and the early â€œinningsâ€ 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?Â Sorry, Ken, move along.Â Nothing new to see here.