Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ken & Ric Burns: Documenatrians & Anti-Blogites

As you may have (not) noticed, I accidentally skipped two days in my 30-day Blog-a-thon.But it's not my fault!! I place all the blame on documentarian Ken Burns' mother. Why? Because she raised not one, but two sons who love nothing more than to make documentaries that suck viewers in, only to make them fall into a deep, unshakable sleep on the couch, and thus neglect to write a blog post.
Mrs. Burns, what did you to your sons that made them grow up to make documentaries
that are the media equivalent of an Ambien with a chaser of vodka?

The other night, Paul and I were watching a documentary about the Donner Party, directed by Ken Burns’ brother, Ric Burns (that is, he directed the film, not the band of 19th Century pioneers-turned-cannibals). Before watching this, I had a momentary fantasy that the younger brother of The Civil War documentarian would churn out a fast-paced, MTV-style bio-pic that involved a few car chases and maybe even some gratuitous nudity. You know, like in the movie Adaptation, when Charlie Kaufman’s twin brother decides to become a screenwriter, and turns a quasi-plotless book, The Orchid Thief, into a hackneyed thriller about murder and adultery.
Ric and Ken Burns, trying to figure out how to make the Donner Party
story appeal to today's younger audiences...
No such luck. As it turns out, Ric Burns makes documentaries that are stylistically indistinguishable from his brother’s. (Spoiler alert: they're 100% car chase free). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ken Burns’ documentaries are always very interesting, but when watching them, I generally feel fascinated and uncontrollably sleepy in equal parts. I think this has something to do with the sad, slow fiddle music that’s always playing in the background of his films. Regardless of the subject matter, it always seems like you’re watching a documentary about The History of Sad, Slow Fiddle Music.

Then, there’s the endless series of black & white photos of people who look about 85 (a hard, heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking 85), until the narrator tells you that they died when they were 32.  This is interspersed with the melancholy commentary of grim scholars--mostly white, Metamucil-and-Viagra-target-market-aged types who talk very slooooowly, as if they were being paid by the second.

I have a theory that you could drink an entire case of Red Bull and then do twelve lines of pure crank (whatever that is), then throw on a Burns Brothers documentary, and you'd STILL be out like a light. Essentially, these films function as a surgical-grade anesthetic.
Medical professionals deciding which Burns documentary to show a patient prior to his appendectomy.

"Do we have to watch this?" I asked Paul, when we got to about Hour 55 of the Donner Party documentary. He hit the pause button.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the Donner Party, because it could’ve been me.”

“Wait. It could’ve been you? How so?"

“When I lived in California, we would always take the Donner Pass whenever we’d go skiing.”

“Wow. Just think. If you’d have run out of gas, you might’ve been stranded … at least several miles away from a Carl’s, Jr.! You’d have had no choice but to resort to cannibalism.”

"You don't know what it's like. Even now, the roads are pretty treacherous."

"Which means you were probably at least ten miles from the nearest Crate & Barrel. So, when you and your fellow skiers had to eat each other's livers to survive, you'd have had to drink your Pinot Noir from ... a plastic cup! Like an animal! You'd be reduced to savages."

In revenge, Paul hit "play." And I fell fast asleep, and dreamed that I was in a snowdrift and someone was trying to eat my leg. I don't remember if they had wine, or what kind of glassware it was served in.

But I'm guessing it was plastic.

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