I almost feel sorry for Ken Burns. His films, shown on PBS, are almost parodies of themselves.
Even before I watch them, I know them. They are so familiar, like the back of my hand. Yes, always, always, there are the lovingly presented black and white and sepia photographs; the haunting, repeated, folky music; the letters and reports read by the best actors; the talking heads who are actually engaging; the narrator with the perfect, sonorous voice; the interest-piquing section titles and the thousands of fascinating, poignant, charming and humorous details and anecdotes. And then, although Burns has made shorter films, there is also the marathon, Wagnerian length of his documentaries.
Although he started out with a number of shorter films, this all really began with The Civil War. The trouble was that he started off with the perfect film, setting the gold standard, and his subsequent mega-docs - on baseball, jazz, the West, World War II - have almost been let-downs. Many other film-makers, including his brother Ric, have copied him with multi-part documentaries on everything from the Mormons to New York City and with varying degrees of success.
Last week, I watched Burns’ latest opus, the six-part, twelve-hour The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Sure, it got stodgy and exhausting, and I did roll my eyes, but I adored it.
Certainly, there was all the spectacular scenery, including in some parks I had never heard of, such as Arcadia in Maine, and there were all the juicy and sad and funny and incredible tales and tid-bits about the people involved in the founding and development of the parks. And there was the inspiring message, hammered over and over, that these parks belong to all of us taxpayers and are thus, as is also seen in them being wide open and breathtakingly impressive, a reflection of our democratic ideals (if not our society).
But what really struck me - and this relates to the concept of the parks belonging to us all - were the stories of families having their most cherished times and precious memories in the parks. Not only that but of children being introduced to the parks by their parents and then, later, introducing their own children to the parks. There is something powerfully profound and touching about this.
I thought of the amazing amount of time I spent in Yosemite when I was growing up, with my father’s parents living a short distance from the park and my family going there at least twice a year until I was about 15 when my grandfather suddenly died of a heart attack while up on a ladder, and I thought of how incredibly lucky I was to be able to become so familiar with such a gorgeous and literally awesome place during my childhood. Even more, I marveled at being able, with my parents’ help and encouragement, to get so close to such wonders as Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake and to wander through meadows with deer not far - all in my wheelchair. No doubt, I realized, this is a big part of why, today, I am quite adventurous, not afraid of going out (often on my own) and trying new things, and why I love to travel.
I haven’t been to Yosemite for about 15 years and want to go back, and I still hope one day to get Yellowstone.
Not all is wonderful about the National Parks, as the film pointed out with stories of vicious fights over the federal government taking land. During one of my last stays in Yosemite, I was very upset by how crowded it was, with the valley floor being like L.A, complete with smog - another issue brought out in the documentary.
And then there’s my wheelchair and how much it should be accommodated. I once almost got in a fight with a ranger at Zion National Park in Utah - figures! - over how wheelchair-accessible a trail was or should be. I forget the details, but I do remember my attendant practically having to hold me down when the guy opined that James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s notorious Secretary of the Interior, "was a great man."