Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)
The Civil War: An Illustrated History

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.

—William Tecumseh Sherman

This documentary was long overdue. Aside from the basic overview, my knowledge of the American Civil War was embarrassingly sketchy; and I had also never seen anything by Ken Burns. Virtually everyone I know who has seen this documentary speaks about it in reverential tones. It lives up to the reputation. The eleven hours are packed with maps, dates, quotes, and most of all—stories. This is a history that focuses on individuals.

A documentary about a war that happened a century and a half ago, beyond all living memory, could easily have become dry and distant. But Ken Burns and his team overcome this obstacle through the dual use of photographs and quotes. The Ken Burns Effect has already entered common parlance, and you can see it displayed to great effect with these old photographs: the slow pan and zoom recreating, somewhat, the feel of watching a film. Combined with quotes of the men and women involved—soldiers, statesmen, generals, diarists—brought to life using voice actors, the watcher enters a bewitchingly immersive experience.

The war becomes, not merely troop movements on the screen, but an enormous catastrophe that our protagonists must live through. This gives the series an emotional force rare in documentaries. The horrors of war are the same as ever: seeing comrades fall, leaving children and widows behind, disease, malnutrition, homesickness, ghastly wounds, and the ever-present drudgery punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Some of the most disturbing images are of Yankee prisoners-of-war, totally emaciated through lack of food. Combined with this are the horrors of slavery, so central to the conflict, and the upheaval of the lives of so many civilians.

Virtually everything is well-done. McCullough brings both seriousness and sadness to the narration. The voice actors are uniformly convincing and effective. The music, too, goes a long way in recreating the mood and atmosphere of the times. Most of the guests were, however, rather unremarkable, with the notable exception of Shelby Foote, who was an endless trove of amusing and touching anecdotes. I can see how the documentary catapulted him to fame.

The series is not above criticism, however. Burns focuses most of his attention on the battlefield. This has the double benefit of being exciting and of avoiding the war’s most controversial issues. But I think the series should have delved far deeper into the causes of the war. I would also have appreciated far more about civilian life during wartime, rather than hearing mainly from soldiers and generals. Even Abraham Lincoln, though he makes his due appearances, is given far less space than a private in the Union Army. Such a wider scope would have made the documentary longer, more controversial, and perhaps more superficially boring; but as it stands the war’s immense political and historical significance is difficult to fathom from the documentary alone.

We are left with a rosy picture of the elderly veterans embracing on Gettysburg, with the war as a bad dream or even a glorious affair. Indeed, our species has been struggling to reconcile the heroic and the barbaric aspects of war since Homer wrote The Iliad. And it seems we still have not been able to face the horrors without including some shades of the bravery, the camaraderie, the brilliant strategy, to brighten up the picture. But the truth is that every war is a moral collapse, and this one was compounded by the taint of slavery. It is an extremely depressing picture, which may get somewhat obscured by the folksiness of this documentary.



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Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Civilisation:  A Personal ViewCivilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room

I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.

Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.

Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.

The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.

Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.

This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.

A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.

These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.

Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.

I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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Review: The Ascent of Man

Review: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of ManThe Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

I watched this series right after finishing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, as I’d heard The Ascent of Man described as a companion piece. So like my review of Clark’s work, this review is about the documentary and not the book (though since the book is just a transcription of the series, I’m sure it applies to both).

The Ascent of Man is a remarkable program. I had doubts that anyone could produce a series to match Civilisation, but Bronowski made something that might even be better. Bronowski was a polymath: he did work in mathematics, biology, physics, history, and even poetry. In this program, his topic is the history of science. Yet for Bronowski, the word “science” not only refers to the modern scientific method, but rather encompasses all of humanity’s efforts to understand and manipulate the natural world.

We thus begin with Homo erectus, learning how to chip away stone to make tools. As Bronowski notes, this simple ability, to chip away at a stone until a cutting edge is left, is a remarkable indication of human uniqueness. Since the behavior is learned and is not an instinct, it requires a preconception of what the toolmaker wants to create, a certain amount of imagination is required to picture the goal before it is realized. What’s more, creating a stone tool requires a sense of the structural properties of the rock. (I’ve actually tried making stone tools with various types of rock, and let me tell you that it’s not so easy. Even with an archaeologist giving me advice, I was only able to create stone tools of the sophistication of an Australopithecus—randomly beating the stone until a sharp edge was created.) Thus both our creative drive and our knowledge are involved in this quintessentially human activity. “Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

This brings Bronowski to one of his main points, one of the themes of this series: that art and science are not fundamentally different; rather, they are two manifestations of the human spirit. What is this human spirit? It is a composite of many qualities, what Bronowski calls “a jigsaw of human faculties,” which include our wide behavioral flexibility, our capacity to play, our need to create, our curiosity about the natural world, our sense of adventure, our love of variety. Indeed, these can be pithily described by saying that humans retain many childlike characteristics throughout their lives. The name of the last episode is “The Long Childhood.”

One of my favorite sequences in this documentary is when Bronowski takes the viewer from the posts and lintels of the Greek temples, to the arches in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, to the somewhat prettier arches in the Mezquita in Cordoba, to the cathedral at Reims with its magnificent flying buttresses. Each of these structures, he explains, is a more sophisticated solution to this problem: how do you create a covered space out of stone? The lintel and post system used by the Greeks leads to a forest of columns, and the Mezquita, although less crowded, is still filled with arches. The Medieval Christians achieved a magnificent solution by placing the buttresses on the outside, thus leading to the towering, open interior of Reims.

We’re used to thinking of this development as an architectural triumph, but as Bronowski points out, it was also an intellectual triumph. This progression represents better and better understandings of the structural properties of stone, of the force of gravity, and of the distribution of weight. And when you see it play out in front of your eyes, it’s hard to shake the impression that these marvelous works are also progressively more elegant solutions to a mathematical puzzle. This is just one example of Bronowski’s talent: to see the artistic in the scientific and the scientific in the artistic; and he does this by seeing the human spirit in all of it.

Here’s another example. Bronowski wants to talk about how humanity has come to understand space, and how this understanding of space underpins our knowledge of structure. How does he do it? He goes to the Alhambra, and analyzes the symmetry in the tiles of the Moorish Palace. Then, he bends down and spreads a bunch of crystals on the ground, and begins to talk about the molecular symmetry that gave rise to them. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition. How many people would think to compare Moorish architecture with modern chemistry? But it’s so appropriate and so revealing that I couldn’t help but be awed.

As the title suggests, this series is not simply about science (or art), but about science through history. Bronowski aims to show how humanity, once freed from the constraints of instinct, used a combination of logic and imagination to achieve ever-deeper conceptions of our place in the universe. This is the Ascent of Man: a quest for self knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp this, but consider that we are living in one of the brief times in history that we can explain the formation of the earth, the origin of our species, and even the workings of our own brains. Imagine not knowing any of that. It’s hard to envy former ages when you consider that their sense of their place of the universe was based on myth supported by authority, or was simply a mystery. I’m sure (and I earnestly hope) that future generations will believe the same about us.

Bronowski’s final message is a plea to continue this ascent. This means spreading a understanding and an appreciation of science, as his programs tries to do. This strikes me as terribly important. I’ve met so many people who say things like “Science is a form of faith” or “Science can’t solve every problem” or “Science is dehumanizing and arrogant.” It’s sad to hear intelligent people say things like this, for it simply isn’t true. It’s an abuse of language to call science a faith; then what isn’t? And yes, of course science can’t solve every problem and can’t answer every question; but can anything? Science can solve some problems, and can do so very well. And science, as Bronowski points out, is the very opposite of dehumanizing and arrogant. Science is a most human form of knowledge, born of humility of our intellectual powers, based on repeated mistakes and guesses, always pressing forward into the unknown, always revising its opinions based on evidence. Atrocities are committed, not by people who are trained to question their own beliefs, but by ideologues who are convinced they are right.

This is Bronowski’s essential message. But like in any good story, the telling is half of it. As I’ve mentioned above, Bronowski and his team are brilliant at finding unexpected ways to illustrate abstract ideas. This series is full of wonderful and striking visual illustrations of Bronowski’s points. What’s more, the man is a natural storyteller, and effectively brings to life many of this series’ heroes: Newton, Galileo, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mendel. He’s also a poet; one of his books is a study of William Blake’s poetry. This not only gives him a knack for similes, but helps him to explain how science is fundamentally creative. One of my favorite scenes is when Bronowski compares abstract portraits of a man to the ways that various scientific instruments—radar, infrared, cameras, X-rays—detect the man’s face. As he explains, both the portrait and these readings are interpretations of their subjects.

The cinematography is also excellent. There are some sequences in this documentary that are still impressive, saturated as we are with CGI. There are even some quite psychedelic sections. One of my favorite of these was a sequence of microscopic shots of human cells with Pink Floyd (who contributed music) jamming chaotically in the background. Unlike in Clark’s Civilisation, which uses exclusively ‘classical’ music and is devoid of special effects, the style of this documentary is surprisingly modern and even edgy. Another thing Bronowski does that Clark doesn’t, is include some information on non-Western cultures, from Meso-America, Japan, China, and Easter Island.

Yes, there are some parts of this that are outdated. Most obviously, much of the scientific information is no longer accurate—particularly the information on human evolution in the first episode. This is unavoidable, and is in fact a tribute to the ideals Bronowski championed. More jarring is Bronowski’s somewhat negative assessments of the culture of Easter Island and the lifestyle of nomadic peoples. Less controversially, he also has some negative words to say about Hegel. (Did you know Hegel published an absurd thesis when he was young about how the distance of the orbits of the planets had to conform to a number series?) Another mark of this program’s age is that Bronowski several times shows nudity and even a human birth. This would never fly on television today, at least not in the States.

But these flaws are minor in such a tremendous program. The Ascent of Man is a landmark in the history of science education and of documentary making, and a stirring vision of the progress of humanity by an brilliant and sympathetic man. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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