Wednesday, April 2, 2008

More on "The Ken Burns Effect"

Here's a follow up to an earlier post on the "Ken Burns Effect". Documentary filmmaker, Eric Breitbart offers thoughtful criticism of the films of Ken and Ric Burns in the New England Review.

Breitbart's essay also indicts PBS's predilection for "a cinema of reassurance that provides a temporary safe haven in a troubled, uncertain, culturally incoherent world."

"Documentaries often challenge conventional wisdom in a way that's unsettling or provocative, but you're not likely to find yourself anxious or upset after watching a Burns documentary; the experience is like eating a good, satisfying turkey dinner . . . sometimes even more than one. Of course, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with films that don't challenge any prevailing assumptions. The problem is that, over the past fifteen years, this style of safe, expensive, non-challenging filmmaking has imposed itself as the only way high-end public television documentaries are to be made—particularly those funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Arts, the main funding sources for cultural and historical programs destined for PBS."

Breitbart provides damning evidence of the departure of public broadcasting from its original mission as outlined by the Carnegie Commission in 1967 to provide a "forum for debate and controversy" and a "voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard". While there are notable examples of local public broadcasting productions which embrace that mandate (albeit typically smaller stations), those producers can only dream of having the production resources enjoyed by the brothers Burns.

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