Building a Better Middlebrow: the Case of Ken Burns’s “The Roosevelts,” Pt. 1

By Seth Studer

Ken Burns

Preface: No spoilers, please…

I am not yet finished watching Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour long saga The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Nevertheless, I can already reflect on what Burns’s latest contribution tells us about the much-touted “Golden Age of Television.” An historical documentary on PBS spanning fourteen hours, most of it comprised of black-and-white archival footage and Baby Boomer talking heads (e.g., George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and one or two real historians), is being sold to the American public as “intimate.” And the series is intimate; Burns’s focus almost never turns from Roosevelts Teddy, Franklin, or Eleanor. The Roosevelts is easily his most intimate portrayal of a Great American (or, in this case, a Great American Family), and it reflects his growth as a filmmaker over the last half-decade, beginning with The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (a hot mess, to be sure, but a beautiful hot mess) and Prohibition (a tight little policy pic – his best film). In many ways, The Roosevelts is a return to the Burns I knew and hated in The Civil War and Jazz. But he’s returned wiser, sharper. His obnoxious Great Man, Big Battles gloss on the byzantine complexities of American social and political history has never, ever looked so good and contained so much substance. We can learn a lot from Burns’s most recent hybrid success-failure. Specifically, how to build a better middlebrow within American mass culture: a middlebrow it deserves and, I think, a middlebrow it wants.

The Roosevelts’ final episode aired last Saturday, but I’m not worried about catching up. Since the middle of last week, PBS has posted the following message to my Facebook feed at least twelve times: “Remember: you can binge watch the ENTIRE series – until Sept 28th – on your local PBS station’s website or Roku.” Today, the most consistent and interesting purveyor of American middlebrow culture is AMC. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead: the pretensions of HBO with half of the budget and twice the accessibility. And AMC uses the exact same language to sell me Mad Men that PBS is using to sell me The Roosevelts.

"Binge all over me," says Betty Draper.
“Binge all over me,” says Betty Draper.

Much like Netflix, which has built a business model premised on its customer’s desire to “binge” on original content (we all finish House of Cards and Orange is the New Black knowing full well it will be an entire year before we get new episodes), AMC is encouraging its audiences to consume its products in the manner of a frat boy seeking to increase his blood alcoholic content as quickly as possible, or in the manner of a psychologically distressed person for whom food is a dangerous psycho-physiological outlet. Given the well-established link between consumption, consumerism, and sex (“INDULGE” is the word they coupled with Christina Hendrick’s Joan Harris), no one is really surprised by AMC’s ad campaign. But when the same tactics are applied to a 14-hour documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt, the time has come to ask some interesting questions.

Part One: Ken Burns – not a Historian, but he plays one on TV!

Throughout the 1980s, Ken Burns directed small documentaries on topics ranging from the Shakers to Huey Long and the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, he earned national fame for his seventh documentary, The Civil War, a nearly twelve-hour documentary about the Conflagration Between the States that, amazingly, managed to say very little about the causes – social, political, and cultural – of the war itself. A viewer could watch all 690 minutes of Ken Burns’s Civil War and learn nothing about the Civil War. Besides the battles, of course. Burns spends as much time on the Battle of Chattanooga (the third most important battle fought in Tennessee, the second or third least important state in the Confederacy) as he spends on the policy battles that raged between Lincoln, his advisors, and the Congress; or the internal divisions and resentments within the Confederacy itself, which did as much to weaken their cause as the Union juggernaut. Slavery is discussed, obviously, but as a fact and not a consequence of U.S. policy; the impact of its demise on U.S. politics is minimized. Every single black character is voiced by Morgan Freeman, who gravely intones the words of Frederick Douglass and then hams it up, step ‘n’ fetch it-style, when reading the words of perfectly literate enslaved (or merely working class) black men.

If Burns’s later films would suffer from an overemphasis on personalities, his Civil War underplays them in favor of events. Lincoln’s political acumen; Grant and Sherman’s brutal tactical genius; the stubborn dignity of black leaders who, receiving emancipation, refused to prostrate themselves before Northern whites; the grace with which many Confederate leaders, Lee among them, accepted defeat; all of these Great Persons are overshadowed by Great Battles, so that viewers in every media market from Picacho Pass to Pennsylvania could look out across their amber waves of telephone wire and pavement and intone, “It happened here.”

Among the talking heads, the thickly accented Shelby Foote utterly consumes Burns’s Civil War. He appears at least ten times more frequently than any other historian or author. Foote is a documentarian’s dream: folksy, charismatic, intellectual, and a born storyteller. But Foote is also kind of an idiot. When he volunteers to name “two authentic geniuses” produced by a war that gave America seven presidents, he identifies Abraham Lincoln (one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, along with Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck) and Nathan Bedford Forrest (a lieutenant general in the Confederate army and founder of the terroristic Ku Klux Klan’s first iteration). This declaration had, apparently, once placed Foote in hot water once with a Southern relative, who grimly intoned, We never thought much of Mr. Lincoln down here. Foote chuckles in response to his anecdote. Southerners have strange feelings about that war, he observes.

Ya think?

Foote is not a Confederate partisan. He is simply a Civil War buff. But a buff is the most dangerous kind of historian. I am a Nixon/Watergate buff, which is why I am reluctant to make major claims about the man or the event. Foote has made a career buffing up the Civil War, giving it sheen but no shine, clearing away dirt but revealing nothing. Burns is in awe of Foote, whose volumes on the Civil War constitute the kind of history most popular with “buffs”: battles, more battles, personalities on the field, more battles, blood, guts, glory. We remember the names of colonels and privates but none of the congressmen. We learn more about Forrest than we learn about William Seward, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Alexander Stephens, or Judah P. Benjamin.

Here’s a tip: any middlebrow history of the American Civil War that does not begin – begin – with transatlantic trade, not merely of slaves but of all goods, is lying to you. Period.

Between The Civil War and The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’s style underwent significant improvement. He produced two “event” histories of Baseball and Jazz, widely praised except by hardcore fans of baseball and jazz, alongside shorter treatments of subjects we portray on banknotes and passports: Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and westward expansion. In 2007, he attempted to catch the White Whale of all American historical narratives, World War II, but took such a circumspect route – no straightforward, consensus-minded historical narrative; firsthand accounts from veterans; a “bottom-up” approach to major events – that he confused most of his viewers, who came expecting “the Burns treatment” (letters from Eisenhower, Tom Hanks as Patton, David McCullough’s eyebrows, etc.). The War was a failure.

By the end of The War, Burns seemed finally to grasp his own unique strengths and limitations. On the one hand, he could spew middlebrow schlock about the United States of America better than anyone. On the other hand, he had a tendency to attach himself to Great White Dudes (Shelby Foote, Thomas Jefferson) and no capacity to represent the subtle movements upon which history progresses. Why not, then, spew schlock and attach himself to lesser-known, more interesting Great White Dudes? And why not cast these Dudes in a story less obvious than, say, THE CIVIL WAR or THE WEST?

What followed were the best documentaries Ken Burns has yet made.

In my next post: The National Parks, Prohibition, The Rooseveltsand Burns in TV’s “Golden Age”


A Test Designed to Provoke an Emotional Response

By Kindred Winecoff

For several years now Black Mirror has been my favorite television show despite the fact that U.S. audiences could only view it using, erm, “less-legal” methods. Apparently the show is now airing on something called the Audience Network on DirecTV and I’d encourage folks to give it a try.

Slate has a Slate-y take on the series, but here is the gist of what you need to know: each episode has a completely different cast and crew. There is no recurring plot. There are no returning characters. The writers and directors are all different from show-to-show as well. The only consistency is the techno-dystopian theme of each episode, which has some resonance in the age of Snowden and Facebook face-recognition algorithms.

In some ways Black Mirror‘s closest analogue is The Twilight Zone, but with one key difference: there is little surreal or absurdist about the premise of the episodes. The show is futuristic but just barely: the worlds in the show look functionally the same as our own, except that technology is extrapolated two or three short steps beyond where it presently is. There are no phasers or teleportation devices, just slightly better artificial intelligence. In some episodes the entire narrative is possible given existing technology. The show’s name refers both to an unpowered LCD screen and to an Arcade Fire song… tangible things that presently exist.

Refreshingly, the show also refuses to be dystopian in any one particular way. The first episode involves a terrorist plot to humiliate a head of state. Another imagines one possible future of Google Glass: the ability to revisit video of every event in your life’s past… no more need for hazy memories to settle a he-said-she-said dispute. To bear the loss of a loved one why not download a lifetime’s social network data into a replicant body? It’d be like they never left. In several cases the characters believe they have overcome part of the human condition via technology, only to realize that problems frequently require something other than a technical solution.

But that is not the fault of the technology. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is an avid user of Twitter and a casual technology optimist. His chosen medium is television, not print. The takeaway from the show is not to turn off the smartphone, disconnect from Facebook, and re-learn your penmanship. The technology is never the real problem. The people are. It is a point that frequently gets lost in discussions over the relationship between technology and society. And that is why the show is such a needed interjection into the culture.


The Worst President of the 20th Century: Part Three

By Seth Studer

November 22, 1963

There was a very brief period in my life when Oliver Stone’s JFK was one of the scariest films I’d ever seen. A distorted portrayal of the only trial in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film is tonally bombastic from start to finish, but my relative youth blunted the effect (teenagers like cloying earnestness and loud things) and allowed me, for a brief shining moment, to experience the film as Oliver Stone intended: an assassination, confusion, then a lull, then a slow simmer that heats to a boil when Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) meets Mr. X (Donald Sutherland). Prior to that scene, the film is a thesis disguised as a thriller. After that scene, the film becomes a thesis disguised as a courtroom drama. You can understand why, when I watch JFK today (and yeah, I still do), I stop the DVD when Donald Sutherland signs off: he leans over and tells Garrison, “I just hope you catch a break.”

For me, that’s the last line of the film.

If I kept watching, I’d see Kevin Costner standing over Kennedy’s grave while (I kid you not) a black family kneels reverently in the background, and then I’d spend the next twenty minutes cleaning the vomit off my couch and carpet.

But up until Mr. X, holy cow, JFK can be a really fun and exciting movie, if you get yourself in the right spirit. Everyone agrees that the “conspiracy montages” are what make the film so great. Here’s how they work: a character delivers a five, ten, sometimes fifteen minute explanation of some theory of the assassination, occasionally interrupted by skeptical questions from other characters who are immediately satisfied with the answers, while Stone, in a rapid montage, cuts between the lecture (which would be unwatchable on its own) and shots of events, sometimes multiple versions of the same event, and unrelated images – some of which are a little creepy (there’s a recurring skeleton).

The most film’s second best conspiracy montage (after Mr. X’s) is the working lunch at Antoine’s, where Garrison and his aids first realize that the scope of their investigation likely exceeds their parish. Toward the end of the montage, they discuss Lee Harvey Oswald’s biography and begin, for the first time, to put Oliver Stone’s narrative together:

The tone and content of these conspiracy montages get creepier and creepier as Garrison and his aids acquire more knowledge, closing the gap between themselves and the truth. Stone goes out of his way to make the Cubans and right-wing militants look ghoulish. (Many of the villains are gay, and Stone’s portrayal of homosexuality is absurdly problematic.) But these men are only demi-goblins amid a much larger Walpurgis of horrors, the center of which is not a fringe Cuban operation but the all-powerful military-industrial complex.

This is when Mr. X intervenes. He arranges a secret meeting with Garrison in the most public and out-in-the-open part of Washington D.C., where he tells Garrison, “You’re on the right track.” X reveals himself as a former military intelligence officer (under the supervision of a man he calls “General Y”) who helped oversee “black-ops” in the 1940s and ’50s: helping Nazis escape Europe, orchestrating the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, rescuing the Dali Lama from Red China, that kind of thing. Once they got involved in Cuba, says X, things started to go wrong.

In 1962, Mr. X was working at the Pentagon, and was assigned an unexpected trip to Antarctica. While he was gone, Kennedy was killed. X continues:

Why was Kennedy killed? Stone uses X to reveal his (Stone’s) ultimate thesis: John F. Kennedy planned a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam by 1965. This was a step too far for the military-industrial complex. The only way to stop Kennedy from pulling out the troops was to kill him. Lyndon Johnson agreed and signed on. Well, Stone doesn’t state that directly; he lets the montage do the talking.

In this scene, X explains the consequences of a Vietnam withdrawal for Kennedy’s enemies (NSFW):

Despite the absurdities of this scenario, it’s a blast to watch. But the closer you get to the center of the conspiracy, the vaguer it becomes. The weirdos on the fringe are characters with dialogue. They’re played by Joe Pesci and Tommy Lee Jones, real people. They’re tangible. But once you move beyond them, well…you don’t really move beyond them.

JFK was one of my first exposures to the lacuna-thriller: films that don’t quite satisfy you, films with characters who are defined and driven by their need to know what is probably unknowable. Movies like  All the President’s Men, Jacob’s Ladder, The Vanishing, The Conversation, Don’t Look Now, Zodiac, Upstream Color, and even Zero Dark Thirty. Not all these films involve conspiracies and a few result in an actual solution to the mystery. But they all strike a similar register.

I saw The Vanishing when I was 17. The whole film terrified me, not just the ending but also the beginning, the innocuous bits, the picnic at the petrol station. A man’s life is disrupted by a single, inexplicable event. He is overwhelmed by the need to understand the event, to make an inexplicable few minutes explicable. But if he succeeds, his whole identity – which has gradually been absorbed by his obsession with knowing – would disintegrate. He lives to know what happened, but his life is sustained by his ignorance. The Vanishing handles this tension brilliantly.

Detective John Munch, conspiracy junky extraordinaire.
Detective John Munch, conspiracy junky extraordinaire.

This tension is a staple of our pop culture. From The Crying of Lot 49 to The Parallax View to Twin Peaks, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The questions never get answered: when is it better not to know? If you’re paranoid, how can you know when they’re actually after you? How do you know when you’ve reached the conspiracy’s end? The attitudes change over time: in the ’60s, cynicism bolstered belief in conspiracy. In the ’90s, the cynics were the ones who didn’t believe (re: Gillian Anderson in The X Files). One of the most persistent figures on mainstream television is Detective John Munch (played by Richard Belzer). Munch’s antiquated obsession with ’60s-style conspiracy is his defining quality. It’s also the quality audiences find most endearing in him. Munch, who first appeared on the television series Homicide and just recently retired from Law & Order: SVU, has made guest appearances on eight other shows: more than any other actor-character in television history. Munch isn’t an icon, but he has more connections than anyone else in the vast Tommy Westphall Universe. If anything, he seems to be part of a conspiracy – the man who keeps showing up. His presence and popularity demonstrate the endurance of the paranoia, the obsession, and the conspiracy as aspects of our cultural identity.

From his first appearance, Munch was a throwback to a specific type of conspiracy nut, earlier ideas about conspiracies and how they work. Large institutions still conspire and commit crimes; but they are also increasingly unwieldy, chaotic, and prone to leaking. In the ’60s, political paranoids imagined puppet masters operating behind the curtains. Today, we imagine the offices of the NSA: wide open and filled with hundreds of employees committing crime after crime after crime, sometimes unwittingly, and often not very well.

Fifty years after the fact, the assassination is a touchstone of the paranoid style in American life, a symbol of the American affection for conspiracy. In 2013, the Kennedy assassination registers only on certain frequencies, none of them political. It’s not a tragedy anymore; it’s an essential part of our pop culture, like Superman or alien invaders. I mean, seriously: look at this. So today, I don’t feel nostalgia for John F. Kennedy. I feel nostalgia for John Munch.


If you’re interested in a video about the actual assassination, one that attempts to answer a few questions honestly, this one is a good one:


Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

By Amanda Grigg

A video has been making the rounds in which Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who was leading the charge to create a neo-Nazi enclave in North Dakota undergoes a DNA test for a talk show, only to find out that he is “14% sub-Saharan African.” As of this post it has 120,000 views on youtube and has been featured on  TheGrio, The Daily Mail, The LA Times and The Huffington Post, where it is described as (maybe) “the best thing ever.”

Of course everyone loves the video. It bears a striking resemblance to what is probably Dave Chappelle’s best sketch of all time, about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who doesn’t know he’s black. But in this case it’s a real white supremacist, so there’s the added bonus of social justice schadenfreude at watching him get his comeuppance.

As someone who studies health politics I find this video wildly annoying. Why, you ask?

It’s portraying Cobb as a villain for thinking race is biological and then proving him wrong by using science to tell him what his biological race is. It’s essentially accepting his presumptions of race as biology and racial purity to prove that he isn’t racially pure. But…race isn’t biological. And perpetuating the idea that it is is a way bigger problem than some racist nut out in North Dakota repeatedly being barred from creating an all-white town.

What is biological race? Well, according to the zoological definition, it exists when you can distinguish a group of organisms based on genetic difference. Humans of what we think of as different “races” do not differ anywhere near enough genetically to be distinguished in this way. And even our socially created definitions of race have differed dramatically across time – so a Craig Cobb of 100 years ago might have been even “more” black, because Southern or Eastern European ancestry might have been included in his black tally. As recently as 1930, these results would have made Cobb 100% “negro” according to the US census’s “one drop rule,” which asserted that anyone with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. Does it seem like this is getting silly? That’s because race biology is.

This isn’t just an issue of bad science, biological understandings of race do real harm to racial minorities, particularly in the healthcare system. Take for example, spirometers, which are used to measure lung function. They’re actually calibrated to account for a presumed difference in black and white lung capacities (with black capacity presumed to be 10-15% lower). Some even have a switch for “race” built in. The problem? These assumptions are based on bad race-biology science and they aren’t accurate. As a result, black patients have to be sicker to get the same treatment, not to mention to qualify for worker’s comp or insurance/compensation for their illness.

Assumptions about biological race can also lead to delayed or incorrect diagnoses, as in the case of a young black girl whose cystic fibrosis – a disease predominantly associated with Caucasian patients – went undiagnosed for years until a passing doctor, glancing at only her x-ray, asked her primary physician “who’s the girl with cystic fibrosis?”

Thinking about race in this way also shapes how we understand the causes of disease. With the rise of genetics, biological/genetic race is increasingly studied as a possible cause or risk-factor for disease. This goes on despite the fact that – and here I have to quote someone who understands genetics better than I do – “the environmental conditions that interact with putative polymorphic variations to trigger the onset of disease, not those variations themselves, would likely be the targets of intervention (or the cause of disease per se).”

Not surprisingly, this focus on genetics can obscure the social and environmental causes of many race-based disparities in health. As Dorothy Roberts explains:

“A renewed trust in inherent racial differences provides a convenient but false explanation for persistent inequalities despite the end of de jure discrimination. It is also the perfect complement to social policies that implement the claim that racism has ceased to be the cause of African Americans’ unequal status.” (Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, 64)

The acceptance of race biology via genetics also means money is spent on finding race-specific genes when it could be more effectively spent treating the condition or addressing known (often social/environmental) causes and risk-factors. Conditions like hypertension and asthma for example, have repeatedly been linked to racial minorities’ greater exposure to stress and pollution. Still, genetics labs are established purely to identify the gene that’s causing high rates of asthma among black and Puerto Rican youth. Peer reviewed studies in medical journals have linked postpartum depression to poverty, lower levels of education, a lack of social support, and stress, all of which are more common among women of color. So of course in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health funded a million dollar study aiming to identify the “biomarkers” for postpartum depression in African American women.

To wit, race isn’t biological, let’s stop talking/acting/researching/funding as if it is.

For much much more on this check out one of my favorite books by one of my favorite scholars: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

For a shorter read on race Biology, check out this May 2013 article by Merlin Chowkwanyun in The Atlantic