Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

He has done it to me again. At some point, I'm going to have to come right out and say it; Ken Burns is a national treasure. I guess I just did.

My first exposure to Ken's work was in 1990, The Civil War , a mind boggling look at how our country almost destroyed itself, with impartial analysis by some of the greatest historians alive (and in the cases of Shelby Foote and Steve Ambrose, sadly gone now.)

Then, in 1994, came Baseball, a marvelous 9 part historical romp through the national sport starting in the mid-1800s and progressing to the modern era.

In 1997, Ken produced and directed Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, and I officially became a Ken Burns disciple. I have watched this thing at least 10 times, and each time I find something new. That, I think, is the greatest quality of Ken's work. The visual effects are so stunning at times, that you almost forget to listen to the narration. But the effort that Ken puts into his research, the little background stories that he somehow digs up, are a delight in and of themselves.

Ken and his longtime bud Dayton Duncan, another Lewis & Clark scholar and all around cool dude, somehow manage to find the perfect readers for their scripts. From David McCullough, to Ken Olin, to Matthew Broderick, ...Burns always picks the right people to play the right characters, and you find yourself forgetting that's Ferris Beuller reading the part of John Ordway.

It's obvious now, that high profile Hollywood types have no problem checking their egos at the door when Ken Burns asks them to take part in one of his productions.

Hal Holbrook, doing the narrative for Lewis & Clark, was obviously inspired. You could hear it in his voice. He was the perfect choice.

Other works by Burns include: Jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, World War II, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

What I would give to spend a few hours over a few bottles of wine with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. And oh to be able to step back in time and invite Ambrose and Foote.

Well, they've done it again. This time, Ken and Dayton given us a real gift, an absolutely wonderful look into the National Parks of the United States. It's only been 2 installments so far, but it's spellbinding.

You simply must set aside time to watch The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

In the usual Burns style, he blends astounding cinematography with his trademark slow-pans across old black & white photographs, and weaves them together so seamlessly that the 150 year age difference between HD video and monochrome doesn't even occur to the viewer.

I am delighted that Ken and Dayton have chosen our National Parks as their newest subject, and have not been disappointed in their angle of delivery. Again, Burns and Duncan have found a way to transport viewers back to the late 19th Century, and allow us to almost talk to John Muir.

By touching on the enormous opposing political pressure being exerted on Teddy Roosevelt while he was unblinkingly setting aside enormous tracts of land to be protected forever, we come to better understand the true greatness of TR. TR understood the meaning of the word forever.

But besides the obvious players like Muir and TR, Burns and Duncan have, again, found the lesser characters to be a large part of the story. Bit players become major heroes, and villains.

In the case of Yellowstone buffalo (Titonka), they tell of a guy who was out in the dead of winter poaching the shit out of these symbols of the American west. He had piles of dead buffalo laying all over a snow covered plain and was busy removing their heads, which he planned on sending to a taxidermist in Omaha.

Phil Sheridan and some of the US Cavalry were patrolling the park, because Congress could not be convinced to allocate funds for a permanent park service. They came upon this fucking scumbag, who was so busy chopping heads that he didn't even hear them approach. Looking up, he was somewhat surprised to be looking into the muzzle of a gun pointed at his head.

As the poacher laughed it off, he told them that the worst thing that could happen was he'd be fined a couple of thousand bucks and he'd lose some hides. No biggie, as he was making a bundle.

He knew that the great herds that once covered the plains had been all but eradicated. He knew that the herd in Yellowstone were all we had left. And, in a warp of American logic that is all too common, this jagoff decided he wanted to be sure to kill them off before someone else got them, ...before they were all gone.

Unbeknownst to the shithead, a writer was accompanying the Cavalry patrol that day, doing an article on Yellowstone during the winter. Shocked and appalled, he wrote a scathing article that appeared in papers across the country, discussing the plight of the almost extinct American buffalo. Public outcry! People wrote their congressmen. People demanded action. And the buffalo was saved from extinction.

The commercialization of Niagra Falls made the US a laughingstock across Europe in the 1800s, and people like Muir and TR wanted desperately to prevent profiteers from taking over Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier among other national treasures. They considered the billboards circling Niagra to be a national embarrassment, and they didn't want it repeated as Americans spread westward.

For instance, in a legislative loophole that allows the president to sidestep congress, Teddy Roosevelt thwarted Arizona politicians efforts to keep the Grand Canyon for themselves. He couldn't call it a National Park without congressional approval, so he exercised his presidential power of decree, and declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument.

There are some sad moments, where we learn of politics of reality trumping the politics of idealism. The arguments about whether we should allow our parks to be completely wild and free, or to be simply protected places whose resources could be utilized if need be.

Shows like The National Parks: America's Best Idea are the types of productions that cause the viewer to stop and think. It causes us to give thanks for the people who came before us, and who left us the wonderful gift of our National Parks. A gift we all own together. Programs like this remind us of how important it is to understand our own history.

And nobody does history like Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.


artandsoul said...

For the last two summers we have spent weeks in various National Parks ... from The Blue Ridge Parkway and Smoky Mountains to Glacier, Teton and Yellowstone. And many smaller venues in between.

Our times have been slow and deliberate. Stopping at the markers, reading books, listening to audio tapes of the history and the people. We have had the great pleasure of not only seeing personal exhibits of memorabilia at various stops, but also twice we had the great pleasure of talking to men in their 90's who worked on the construction of The Parkway and Mount Rushmore.

Listening to their voices tell tales, and traveling with them back to that slower time are highlights of our trips. We have collected vintage postcards, sweatshirts and walking sticks. We make donations, eat picnics in the well-thought out rest areas, and marvel at the presence of mind it took to envision these spaces so many years ago.

Railroads, oil tycoons, country folk, vast differences in wealth and education between locals and politicians, ornery and prickly local pols, budget cuts, The Great Depression, and always some kind of overarching vision or plan that transcended the petty and provided for the country ... that is what we came away with.

And Ken Burns redelivers it right to our home. It's a marvelous series. And I can't wait til next summer ... to do it all again!

Schmutzie said...

When you asked what we would like to do if we didn't have to work, and could spend our time however we wanted, my reply to you was that I'd like to do what you have spent the last 2 summers doing.

Blue Highway by William Least Heat-Moon. See the USA in my Chevrolet. And not hurry about it either. I'd love to be able to take my time and really get to know the entire US. Not just the Parks, ...but the Parks are our best things.

Color me envy green.

artandsoul said...

I'm a few years older than you, and my husband is a few years older than that...so it could easily be in your future! Life does slow down a bit ... this summer I imagine I'll be driving while he fills out all his Medicare forms. :)

I used to feel a kind of urgency about getting to know various parts of this country. I wanted to live in New England. Have an orchard in Oregon. Raise my kids in Wisconsin. Always something big, permanent, over-the-top.

Now, I'm much more happy to take some time and just drive a few hundred miles a day. Eat in a diner in a small downtown village, and talk to the owner/chef. Find out about a local guide and go to a little known part of a park or river or see some Native Americans carving pipes.

It makes eating healthy and walking ever day have a much more reasonable and fun energy to it -- keep me healthy enough to enjoy so much of what is out there!

I have a friend from Canada who says Canadians drew some lines and built their cities leaving the rest of the country to nature while America drew some lines and made those the parks leaving the rest of the country to be developed.

That may be true to a certain extent. But I cannot, even in a back-handed way slam those park. They are too precious.

artandsoul said...

Yuck - lots of typos. Sorry.

switters said...

He really is a national treasure. rundeep and I got into a fight about The War. She said it was a tad on the self-indulgent side, I said it was nothing short of epic.

I won.

It's Ken's sense of narrative, both literally and figuratively, and its relationship to music and picture. Some people have it, and some people don't. It's that simple.

Really enjoyed this, S.

Schmutzie said...

I meant to mention Ken's musical choices, thank you for bringing that up.

Always picks just the right music. Some of the tunes he used for Lewis & Clark, he's re-cycling in National Parks, because they just have that sound that allows you to feel the time period. And it's remarkable the way he weaves the narrative into the music, and vice versa.

Just when the guitar fades into some gentle picking, Tom Hanks is talking in character, and the script is written so that right when he finishes talking we get the heavy strumming climax to the tune. I like how Ken does that. Trademark almost.

You out-argued rundeep? Don't take this the wrong way, but was she awake and everything?

artandsoul said...

Hey, thanks for Geezers. I'm going to enjoy that.

Keifus said...

I got about 0.5/12 hours so far. It was a section on how the parks movement had to beat down the logging interests, in a way that felt quintessentially American. (Which isn't all negative, just an example of our own national character. Were this England, say, Yellowstone would have ended up some noble fucker's private reserve.) Surprising--and great--that the public interest actually won out.

Also saw footage of a couple's ill-fated trip down the Colorado in a rowboat.

Schmutzie said...

The Everglades was last night. Lots of that quintessentially American wrangling there too.

Final installment. Lucky for me that WTTW is running it twice,(8 & 10) because the 8P Friday time slot is Monk. Glad I didn't have to make that call.

artandsoul said...

The Everglades is one amazing piece of land. I mean really. Did you know you can rent a houseboat and sort of float around down there? I do believe you can get a total feeling of life in the 19th century by getting deep enough into the Everglades.

Too bad our esteemed legislature thinks it is a good idea to pour kilotons of dredged sand into the Everglades. They suck.

Schmutzie said...

My man Bear Grylls did an episode of Man vs Wild in the Everglades. Absolutely awesome. I've driven across Alligator Alley many times, but that's not exactly "seeing" the Everglades.

Took a charter out shark fishing in the Gulf about a million years ago. My host was a guy who had moved to Fla, and wanted to "show me something." So, we spent what seemed like about 3 hours making our way wayyyyyyy out into the Gulf. Just as I was about to tell him that we didn't need to travel that far to find some good shark fishing, the Dry Tortugas came into view.

My jaw just dropped, and as I turned to look at my bud, he was grinning from ear to ear.

Yeah, it was worth it.

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