I’m a fan of Ken Burns, and I’m an environmentalist. My expectations
and hopes for his newest project had both been running high. My gut
check take: first installment suggests neither were misplaced.
Opening, introductory sequence–ran about a half hour–was beautifully
shot and edited; the tonal content of the narration matched.
What I love about Burns’ approach to documentary film making is that
he treats subject not so much as subject, but as prism. As metaphor. I
remember hearing from a few fellow fans of jazz music that they were
disappointed by what they saw (in “Jazz”) as glaring omissions of important
artists in the development of the art form.
It’s not an invalid point, but it is one that totally misses the point of how and why Ken Burns
does what he does. Jazz, baseball, the National Parks, these are
mirrors. These are topics of discussion and exploration, and of
reflection, as opening them up and seeing what makes them tick speaks
about who we are.
What has me excited to watch this one unfold over the course of the
week is his having introduced some very heavy, very timely themes
head-on right out of the gate.
We’ve tonight heard about the tension between private interests and
those advocating for the public good that characterized to very
genesis of our national parks. We were reminded that America’s natural
heritage is perhaps the most salient attribute that helped distinguish
us from more established, more polished European nations to whom we
still felt inferior in the mid 19th Century. And that in Europe, by
the way, the most alluring landscapes were most likely to be in the
hands of the aristocracy.
And the framing of these preserves in explicit terms of public good,
of wealth in common, of ensuring public ownership and access as
inherently good and just, well, it has me thinking in light of the
times we’re in that Mr. Burns is being deliberately provocative. And
if that *is* what he’s up to, I bow humbly in his direction.
I couldn’t help but interpret several moments of content from the
narration, as well as from some of the interviews, that the statements
he’s making in this film are deliberately and thoughtfully crafted to
be received, and to be heard, now.
I’m sure the movie will hold up well over time, and I’m well aware
that this was many years in the works, but something just tells me
that there’s been some fine-tuning of content and tone for this to be
Plus, I appreciated being reminded that John Muir spent several years
living / writing in Oakland.