Friday, September 19, 2014

Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Funereally paced, blandly tasteful, platitudinous, and glaringly obvious in its effects, Ken Burns' 14 hour documentary The Roosevelts is, nonetheless, addictive.  Whether this is a good thing is uncertain to me.  Television's frictionless accessibility engenders addiction -- it seems that once we start watching something, it becomes difficult, and, then, impossible to look away. 

My office is only 5 blocks from where I live and so, often, I go home for lunch.  Then, I turn on the television to watch Cable News.  A few weeks ago, all three of the news networks covered a story involving a small plane that had gone off-course and was flying on a rapidly depleting tank of fuel over the Caribbean Sea.  The people on the plane had died, apparently the victims of hypoxia, and the windows of the aircraft were glazed with ice.  The only question was when and where the plane would run out of fuel and drop into the sea -- would it crash in Cuba or Jamaica or in their coastal waters?  Fox, MSNBC, and CNN all devoted full-time programming to this minor tragedy:  experts were telephoned to pontificate on hypoxia, the nature of cabin pressurization in small private jets, Cuban politics, the F16 jets scrambled to pursue the doomed plane, international law, the weather in the Caribbean, and so on.  But all of this was beside the point -- the spectacle was eerily fascinating because it was a story:  When would the jet fall out of the sky and where?  I watched for ninety minutes and, finally, couldn't justify spending any more time in morbid delectation regarding this little narrative -- an event that had ousted Ebola, the Ukraine, and ISIS from the cable news networks for, at least, a couple of hours.  I went back to work and because the doomed plane was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things never found out where it crashed or why this calamity had befallen the little jet and its crew.  I still have a deep sense of loss about this incident.  I feel that I was unfairly deprived of participation in the climax of the story -- that is, the actual crash of the plane. 

The networks now encourage addictive binge-watching.  Every single episode of The Simpsons was shown on FXX in a continuous marathon lasting 12 days.  I also regret not trying to watch all of those shows, surely as complete and encyclopedic immersion in recent culture and history as reading John Updike's Rabbit novels.  (I only saw six or seven hours of the shows.)  The best thing on TV, for a few weeks, was the advertisement for the Simpson's marathon:  a zombie-like housewife wanders through her flooded house, robotically stirring something in a bowl, eyes turned to the TV on which the Simpson's are cavorting -- her husband, bleary-eyed is floating in his Lazy-Boy recliner in the ruined home.  Feral dogs run in packs up the streets of a city where fires blaze in apartment buildings; the fire fighters are apparently watching the marathon while the city burns.  Four or five deer stand on a sidewalk covered with broken glass watching Homer Simpson on a TV screen in an abandoned store.  All of this is shot in the best rainy, desolate Cormac McCarthy-esque style, post-apocalyptic like The Road. The titles say:  "Every. Simpson's. Ever.  We're all gonna die."   Fourteen hours of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor:  Every. Roosevelt. Ever.  "We're all gonna die."

The reasons that Burns' show is addictive are manifold and they have nothing really to do with the merit of the documentary.  First, Burns' produces a reliable product to which we have become accustomed:  his documentaries are the Coca-Cola or Big Macs of film-making -- they are all exactly alike, all easy and tasty to consume, all, apparently, nourishing but, in fact, mostly empty calories.  Burns' films are where intriguing old movie footage and wonderful still photographs go to die.  He remorselessly pans and scans and zooms the old pictures without ever identifying their source, provenance, or, even, subject matter -- the film's all contain sanctimonious voice-overs, elegantly lit and staged harangues by prominent writers and scholars.  George Wills, with one of his eyes not exactly focusing, appears about a dozen times per episode speaking with inhuman eloquence, in perfect Ciceronian phrases that are exquisitely balanced -- it doesn't really matter that he almost always says something that is completely trite and obvious:  he says it so, so beautifully.  (This is true of Burns' other talking heads as well, for instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who I remember with warmth from the old Imus in the Morning show, a frolicsome lass with a sardonic sense of humor, here reduced to mouthing platitudes and liberal banalities; I still shudder with dismay recalling the commentator with the hillbilly accent, Shelby Foote, speaking like the oracle of Delphi, in Burns' interminable and fantastically dull Civil War series.)  It doesn't matter what the subject -- jazz, prohibition, baseball: every film by Ken Burns looks exactly the same, sounds the same, is edited the same and has the same faintly plaintive soundtrack.  As Andy Warhol famously observed about Coca Cola -- "Every coke is the same.  And every coke is good."  This is true of Ken Burns' films -- they are all maddeningly alike and they are all, more or less, good in that you feel it is your duty to stay glued to the Tube to watch them. 

Second, like the awful story of the "ghost flight" as the Cable news networks took to calling the doomed jet, Burns' account of the Roosevelts is, first and foremost, a story:  it has a beginning and an end.  The documentary about the Roosevels is dynastic:  it begins with Teddy's birth in 1858 and, presumably, will end with Eleanor Roosevelt's demise in 1962.  Whether we like it or not, stories made about people's lives, biographies, have the same natural appeal as the flight of the doomed plane:  someone is born, they triumph, they suffer, they die.  This is a profoundly human spectacle and, as primates, we are interested in the fates of other primates -- it's hard to look away from a closely observed portrait of one of our fellow creatures, and, like it or not, Burns' account of the Roosevelts has a primitive dramatic and narrative appeal:  someone is born, does this and that, and, then, dies.  This kind of life-portrait is morbidly interesting:  we want to see the little plane drop into the ocean. 

Third, the story of the Roosevelts is bizarre and, sufficiently, gothic to fill several lurid novels.  A tribe of fantastically wealthy New Yorkers, prone to marriage among cousins, uses their rank and privilege to stir up all sorts of mischief on the international stage.  The tale is epic, complex, and grotesque -- mental illness abounds with much of what would once have been termed "deviant sexuality".  People revenge themselves on others for ancient grievances.  Horrible illness, like Nemesis, punishes Franklin Roosevelt in his thighs and knees and loins for sexual crimes committed against Eleanor.  African-Americans are lynched and massacres occur all over the world.  There are weird family vendettas, evil mother-in-laws, insane alcoholic uncles.  And, at the center of all of this is the spectacle of the uniquely photogenic three Roosevelts, all of whom have the virtue of looking exactly as we imagine them -- they are like dream figures:  we have seen caricatures of them all our lives and, in fact, they look just as we would expect -- there is a sense of curious intimacy in having our expectations so perfectly met.  (Once, I saw The Rolling Stones perform live -- or, better put, saw the Stones as tiny figures cavorting on a remote stage while Mount Rushmore-sized images of them were projected on huge screens overhead; throughout the concert, I had this single impression -- they look so much exactly as I imagined them; they are perfectly consistent with my mental fantasies of how they should look -- it is as if they are wholly creatures of my own delirium, as if I somehow possessed them.  This is precisely the effect of the hours and hours of footage looking at the Roosevelts in Burns' film) Teddy brandishes his spectacular teeth and leans forward to make points, his spectacles glinting like dangerous weapons of war.  Franklin is unbelievably beautiful, an Adonis even when in ruins -- when he speaks, he snorts with wild, equine pleasure.  Eleanor is so picturesquely hideous that you can't take your eyes off her:  her face seems literally deformed:  a winsome pale Victorian beauty from the nostrils up and a huge and grotesquely shapeless mouth drooping over her severely receding chin below; in fact, she has Mick Jagger's famous, blubbery lips:  it's rare to see a visage constructed like this, two mismatched halves sutured together vertically.  Add to this Eleanor's apparent pleasure is selecting the most dowdy and hideous hats possible and the fact that she traipses around in formless sack-like garments, cloth hanging slackly over her equally slack flesh, and you have a figure that appears as alternatively comical and horrible -- she squints at Franklin with dour disapproval and comes to life only when picnicking with her Sapphic paramours.  If a film maker were to invent a figure with Eleanor's predilections and appearance, that person would be accused of gross stereotyping, devising a raw and obvious caricature, and, even, malice.  But Eleanor really existed and, apparently, looked this way and for this reason, Mrs. Roosevelt is wonderfully interesting.

Fourth, we take a kind of guilty celebrity-spotting pleasure in Burns' use of famous actors to voice-over the thoughts and writings of his protagonists.  Here we have Paul Giamatti employing his best patrician New England accent -- the same speech patterns that he used to imitate John Adams -- to mimic Teddy Roosevelt.  John Lithgow, sounding eerily effeminate with the timbre and inflection of John Waters, is heard from time to time and Edward Hermann plays Franklin Roosevelt.  You expect Rin Tin Tin or Lassie to be deployed to bark for FDR's "little dog Fala".  The only clunker in the group is Meryl Streep whose bizarre and outlandishly legato phrasing for Eleanor stinks up the whole show -- every time, we hear Streep's fastidious pronunciation, her languid affected prosody, her melodramatic pauses and caesuras, we wonder:  "What is wrong with this woman?  Was Mrs. Roosevelt really so ridiculously self-important and self-absorbed as to talk in this grotesquely mannered style?"  Presumably, the famous actress is imitating Mrs. Roosevelt's way of speech as recorded somewhere -- but I can't believe that the real woman really sounded as utterly ridiculous as Meryl Streep represents.  Again, one suspects some kind of maliciousness in Streep's mimicry.  Furthermore, Streep speaks so very...very... that her declamations seem to bring the documentary, already slow-paced, to a screeching halt.  (Here is an interesting observations:  at least three generations of British actors imitate the accent of Americans by imitating the rather baroque speech-patterns of Franklin Roosevelt -- whenever you hear Cumberbatch or Ian MacKellen playing an American, they revert to speech that sounds exactly like Roosevelt's inflections and accent.  I presume this is some sort of vestige of W. W. II).

I have always disliked Burns' cavalier and indifferent attitude to the visual appearance of his films.  Simply put, the  his images don't match the narrative and are used as mere mood music.  This has always been the case in a Burns' documentary beginning with his Civil War film, a movie that completely traduced the grave and dignified photographs made by artists like Matthew Brady and Timothy Sullivan by using those pictures for nothing more than atmospheric effects.  You can watch The Roosevelts perfectly happily while reading a magazine, glancing up from time to time, to see yet another black and white image, Burns' camera rambling over a picture that has nothing to do with what we are being told by the soundtrack.  Burns' provides no source for his pictures and doesn't tell us what they were meant to represent.  He's uninterested with original context of the photograph and is obstinately indifferent to the actual pictures that make up the film.  As a result, we are never sure whether we are seeing filler, that is, "file" images generically representing poor people or a battle or a government hearing or whether the images are authentically related to the narrative presented.  Burns' so radically devalues his pictorial material that, in the end, there's no reason to waste your time looking at the screen -- except for archival pictures of the Roosevelts in all their bizarre splendor (and you get to see how they walk and talk and gesture), there's almost nothing in the movie worth looking at in the context of the picture's narrative -- the pictures matter so little that the film could be a radio-documentary.  (Many of Burns' images are spectacular -- but the problem is that they are used so promiscuously and in a setting so lacking in any kind of reasonable context that it is frustrating to look at them, wonder what they mean, and wish that Burns' had paused for a moment to footnote the image, to attribute to it some kind of meaning and source and intentionality.  But he never does this -- witness a shot of some soldiers torturing a man in the Philippines:  a handful of troops appearing to be pouring water onto the bare face of supine man, seemingly a prisoner -- who is this man?  why does everyone seem so cheerful? why is the water being poured onto the man's face?  Is this a reenactment?  Why was the picture taken?  -- As a souvenir, as covert evidence of wrongdoing, for training purposes? Who are the soldiers?  What's the date and place?  In light of our current national debate about torture, it's irresponsible to show a picture like this without providing some sort of background and context.  Even more immoral is Burns' use of horrific images of lynchings -- these are real suffering people, real murderers, an event that took place in our history.  To simply splash an image like this on the screen without providing any additional information does a profound disservice to the victim and his executioners -- whose names and motives should be exposed in my view.  At one point, Burns shows stone steps with bodies picturesquely strewn all over them, many of the corpses small children -- it's a piece of incredibly compelling footage, curiously statuesque, like a Mannerist image of the Massacre of the Innocents:  the picture is part of a montage showing European atrocities.  But who were these people and why were they killed?  Who captured this extraordinary image?  But Burns can't pause to provide any data -- he needs to get back to FDR's antics.  Burns' use of pictorial "facts" like this -- for photographs are evidence, a kind of factual truth -- verges on the irresponsible and, I think, is immoral as well.)

As history, the Roosevelts is mostly banal and obvious.  Burns recycles shots of an endless somber breadline, an impressive image, and a piano on the soundtrack plays over and over again Stephen Foster's "Hard Times."  This is hardly sophisticated or nuanced.  (And who are these men? Where?  What are they waiting for?  Who took the picture? Why?)  When we see FDR lugged here and there, the soundtrack plays variations on the old hymn "Leaning on the everlasting arms?'  It's pretty enough and I like the hymn, but the point is insultingly obvious.   (In general, the film dwells morbidly on FDR's disability -- this seems to me to be unfair to the man himself who worked indefatigable, and unsuccessfully, it seems, to conceal the fact that he was crippled.  I think fifteen minutes of the subject would be sufficient, but Burns has 14 long hours to fill and so comes back to the subject of FDR's polio hundreds of times, always making the same meretricious points.  And, yet, he doesn't tell us what we would want to know:  does FDR use a catheter?  how do his bowels work?  and, most importantly, what about the presidential penis?)  The film is clogged with half-truths, misrepresentations, and bizarre assertions.  In one shot, we are shown a picture of an obviously ailing and weakened Woodrow Wilson.  The picture has a nasty power like some of the pictures of sick and dying movie stars in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.  The narrator tells us that "Franklin Roosevelt was "never to forget his encounter with Wilson on that day."  What?  Who says? What is the source for this tidbit of psychological gossip?  A friend of mine who is highly literate visually has noted many pictures in the movie that are simply false -- that is, they don't show what the movie seems to represent that they depict.  Some sequences beg questions that are wholly avoided.  Burns, as a good liberal, always emphasizes the role of African-Americans in his films and this picture is no exception, frequently displaying horrific images of lynchings and poverty.  At one point, FDR purchases a whole village in Georgia, a place that he calls Warm Springs, and turns it into a health spa for polio victims.  Burns luxuriates in hagiography at this point, lavishly praising FDR for his compassion and vibrant kindness to fellow polio victims and, indeed, Roosevelt's indefatigable jolliness is wonderful and, obviously, invigorating.  But what about Black victims of polio?  Why don't we see any little African-American children in the swimming pools?  Why aren't there any Black people visible anywhere in these sequences?  Within the moral framework of Burns' documentary, a film in which all characters, except Eleanor, are judged and found wanting on the basis of their racial attitudes, why isn't something said about the fact that Warm Springs, in the middle of the old South, is obviously and ferociously segregated?  (In fairness to Burns, he attacks Roosevelt for cowardice with regard to his refusal to support Federal anti-lynching legislation and, perhaps, he regards the point about segregation at Warm Springs as so obvious as to not require comment -- but, throughout most of the film, Burns ceaselessly belabors the obvious so the question remains:  why not here?)

So should you watch The Roosevelts?  By all means, it's likely the most fascinating thing you will see on TV this Fall.  And, possibly, the most frustrating and maddening.

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