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« Evobio Keeps Up With the Times | Main | Reflections on blogging »

November 06, 2002

The Church of PBS

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Stephen Foster: Death by documentary

"Major funding for this program was provided by Sominex...."

Well, not really, but just as well. You have to take your hat off to PBS. Has there ever been an organization more expert at taking juicy subjects and turning them into the purest tedium? I mean, aside from textbook-publishing corporations. (Two exceptions noted: the Michael Pack/Richard Brookhiser documentary about George Washington, website here; and "The Commanding Heights," from the Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw account of the battle between market forces and faith in government, watchable online -- bless the web -- here.)

I should be a perfect PBS audience member. I'm in a facts-not-fiction phase; I'm devouring history books, reading them at night and listening to them on audiobook during commutes. I'm amazed by how passionate and immediate history can be in the hands of the right writers and thinkers. Why wasn't I able to pay attention back in high school and college? Have I changed? Have I simply discovered the writers who suit my tastes and interests?

So, full of hope, I record PBS documentary after PBS documentary. What could be more alluring than a video presentation of real lives and true stories? You can watch in the company of your sweetie! You can talk about what you're learning as you watch! In fact, it's always a challenge to get The Wife, as addicted as ever to fantasy and make-believe, to settle down in front of a documentary. But sometimes I do succeed...

And we almost never make it through. I've tried the Ken Burns shows; they were gruesomely difficult to endure. I'm pleased that many people watched and enjoyed his series on jazz, for instance, but only because I root for jazz. There were wonderful facts and footage there to be discovered. But why did the series have to be so long, so solemn, and so slow?

This evening the Wife and I sat down to watch the PBS "American Experience" hour on Stephen Foster (link here). Within 15 minutes we were both fighting sleep.

How do they do it? It's as though the people behind these shows are determined to kill all interest in history, or at least my interest in history. I watch the shows wondering who the producers are: grown-up versions of those kids who loved 8th-grade social studies class? And who then went on to major in that vapid field, American Studies?

What a dull exercise in earnest civic uplift the Stephen Foster show was. It might have been put together by a committee of progressive junior-high teachers who like to encourage debate on such topics as "What is America?", and who, no matter what the question, always come up with the same answer: black/white race relations.

Stephen Foster was an important and interesting figure, and I'm sure there are viewers who got something out of the show. But the people who make these documentaries seem terrified of immediacy, and are so devoted to imposing a worthy-nonprofit reading on everything they touch that they won't let a subject's own pulse take over. They annex the subject to their own crusade.

As a media guy with OK media-biz antennae, what I find myself observing when watching these shows is less the ostensible subject and more what I picture going on behind the scenes -- the agonies of "consensus vision," in other words. While the footage about Stephen Foster goes by like a lazy river, what dances in my mind is images of fights over turf and ideals, images of careerism disguised as moral worthiness, images of ex-hippies still indignant at authority, images of lives crisscrossed with ambition and moral righteousness.

There was Stephen Foster up on the screen, but hopelessly buried under layers of bureaucratic battles, petty moral and career rivalries, futile attempts to get everyone on the same page, an infinity of small resentments -- the whole tedious, snake-eating-its-tail drama of good intentions. The show was smoothly-enough done; PBS seems able to crank out this American-Studies drivel by the yard. But nothing ever seems to be at stake -- nothing that has to do with Stephen Foster, in any case. Instead, what we get is Stephen Foster, the P.C.-Commemorative Edition.

What is it that makes these shows seem so preserved in arts-administrator amber? For readers who have ambitions to make it in the world of PBS documentaries, 2blowhards herewith offers a partial catalog of put-your-audience-asleep filmmaking tropes. Read, imitate, and make a good career for yourself in public television:

  • Shots of sunsets.
  • Shots of water.
  • Shots of empty Colonial-Williamsburg-style interiors.
  • Shots of nothing in particular framed by leafy trees.
  • Tracking shots over old piano keyboards.
  • Slow zooms back from old sepia photographs -- repeat this move endlessly.
  • Nothing-in-particular passages from letters, to be read in nothing-in-particular "period" tones.
  • Period songs, to be performed in a prissily nostalgic style.
  • For background music, lean heavily on the plink-plonk of a lonely solo piano, or the pulseless noodlings of a ruminative guitar. If you really want to knock 'em unconscious, have a banjo player pluck a few strings really, really slowly.

What seems key is to gut the subject matter of all vitality. Stephen Foster was quite a character. He was turned on as a kid by black and minstrel music, he had the skills of a classical musician, he was one of the first Americans to try to make a go of it as a professional artist, he had huge hits and became a national celebrity, he lost it all, he turned to booze, and he died before the age of 40. He was a proto-pop star, for god's sake. And the music and performance tradition he often worked with, minstrelsy, while it makes us ultra-uneasy today, has the kind of fascination (and diciness) that the history of rock and roll does.

Gosh: material that'd work well given the "A&E Biography" treatment. Heck, what his life is really like is a 19th century episode of "VH-1 Behind the Music" or "The E! True Hollywood Story."

Can't have that on public television!

So let's talk vaguely about "home," and let's frame his life as an American tragedy -- America's so hard on its poor, poor artists, after all. Let's slow the pace 'way down, make only a couple of glancing references to the zippiness and dynamism of his era, and keep everything at a museum-installation distance. And, memo to everyone involved: let's be sure to deliver a rigid, one-note view of the minstrel tradition. In other words, let's take everything in our subject matter that might have a little vulgar life and crush that life right out. Push instead a tone of vaguely idealistic, pained moral anguish.

Phew. Now we've got ourselves a PBS documentary.

Do the PBS history documentaries deliver anything more than those broadcast by A&E, Discovery, and the History Channel? As far I can tell, what we're meant to take as value-added is the cloak of high ideals and good intentions -- which, as far as I'm concerned, comes at the cost of lifelessness, tedium, slow pacing, imposed P.C. interpretations, and a from-dullsville style...

A digression: it occurs to me that the point of view that informs these PBS projects is the same one that has been used at universities to undermine the traditional canon. Yet isn't what's being created with pieces like the American Experience series a de facto new canon?

Can we conclude from this that what the canon battles have been about hasn't been whether or not a canon is a good thing, but instead about whose canon should prevail? Political battles, in other words. If that's so, it seems fair to ask: why should this side's point of view be funded with public money? It's also amusing, if a little sad, that the same people who used to complain about the stuffiness of official history are now making this kind of thing: not quite so stuffy, perhaps, but perhaps even more boring (as well as equally misleading, if in different ways).

I've been pretty happy with many of the A&E, etc., history documentaries I've watched. They aren't ideal; I'd prefer to be given a more vivid sense of what a subject meant in the context of its own time. But they're generally snappy; they're more open-minded than the PBS shows; and, praise the lord, they don't force you to peer at their subject matter through the same mournful, sepia, reverent, slow-motion lens.

When I calm down, I find it worth noting that, with such shows as the American Experience series and the Ken Burns epics, PBS has hit on a product that works for some audiences. Even if that doesn't have to be respected, it may still be worth thinking about. I'd love to know more about the shows' fans, for instance. Who are they? What is it about the shows that they enjoy and don't enjoy? I wonder if for some of them the leisurely pacing makes a nice contrast to the rat-tat-tat of commercial TV.

Which leads to my basic objection to the PBS approach -- that it mixes up thoughtfulness with religion. The art critic Robert Hughes once observed that America has almost no tradition of intellectual entertainment. I suspect that part of what he was taking into account was the corny way Americans picture thoughtfulness and education -- as matters of hushed rumination and deep, unanswerable questions; of leaning back in a leather chair and thinking big, melancholy thoughts along the high-school-essay lines of "What is it to be an American?"

Why not instead, Hughes was asking, be alert and crisp; why not instead make connections and keep on the move? (Hughes' own series have been models of this kind of first-class intellectual entertainment.) But the typical PBS history documentary doesn't move with the quickness of alert consciousness and searching thought, and it doesn't tear through the veils either. Intead, it dresses its subject in more and new veils, and then lights candles before the spectacle it has helped create.

We're being sold religion in the guise of history and thought, in other words. The PBS history documentaries are almost all selling the same embalmed gospel: America, her sins and possible redemption, all of it delivered with a tragic-yet-yearning tone, and often with something called "art" or "race relations" placed at the heart of the tale. (Watching these shows, it can sometimes seem as though nothing in America ever happened that wasn't conditioned by black-white race relations. Even admitting that black-white questions are important in the biography of Stephen Foster, that's still an insult to lots of events, and lots of individuals.)

So I take PBS to be something rather like a church: a factory devoted to generating funding for itself by creating products that appeal both to people's legitimate interests and to their spiritual neediness. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, though once again I wonder what the government is doing lending support to such an endeavor.

I don't know if I can face more such PBS tedium. Over the years, I've taped a bunch of PBS shows on good topics, and there on the shelf the tapes still sit. I'd love to know more about their subject matter, but I know in advance what the shows are going to deliver: yet more mournful piano and guitar music, yet more shots of sunsets and water, yet more sepia photographs, and yet more earnest academics denouncing racism -- more brain-dead hours in someone else's church.

For much of the Stephen Foster show the Wife and I were only able to keep awake by playing little games. Let's see, PBS stands for Public Broadcasting System, right? What else might it stand for? The Wife won when she came up with Preposterously Boring and Snoozy.



posted by Michael at November 6, 2002