Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea


This is Ken Burns’ fifth series for PBS, after the monumental The Civil War, and the extremely good Baseball and Jazz. We haven’t seen The War yet, but we’re about to start it. There’s nobody better at documenting the American experience, and this series carries on like all the others: thoughtful, informative, and moving. They have always been great to look at, but this time add in wide screen and high definition, and the parks have never looked better, and probably never will. Stunning images.

But for the first time I have some complaints. They’re small ones, but I think they’re worth voicing. Burns has his critics, and I’ve read some of their beefs. The biggest one is that the films move very slowly. This is true, and most of the time I feel it’s an asset rather than a liability in this age of frenetic motion. But I will admit that from time to time I wished he was moving it along a little faster.

The other major carp people have is that his films follow a formula as rigid as a Shakespearean sonnet. This is also true, and usually doesn’t bother me. But every once in a while I feel like I’m in the editing room, calling the shots: “Now, slow pan in on one of the faces in that black and white still photo. Hold on it. Two, three, four, music resolves into a plaintive chord. Fade to black. Now, fade in on a black and white still …” These directions could apply to 90% of the screen time of any of these series. Yes, he does use film when it’s available, but sparingly. I sometimes wish he’d use more. But the technique was honed to perfection in The Civil War, where there was no film, not even one frame, and by golly, he’s sticking to it. At least you’ll always know it’s a Ken Burns film. And for the early years of all the other series, it works just as well.

Here’s my gripes:

Gripe #1: The Same Old Music. In The Civil War he had one unifying, heartbreaking theme that showed up over and over again: “Ashokan Farewell.” It was a dilly, and just hearing it again now can choke me up as I recall the readings from Sullivan Ballou’s heartbreaking letter to his wife. (Ballou died at first Bull Run, very early in the war.) But once again he has found his formula and he’s sticking to it, and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. He basically has three instruments he relies on all the time: mournful violin, contemplative banjo, and solemn piano. For variety, he might switch to contemplative piano, mournful banjo, and solemn violin. The tempo of the mostly unidentified and probably improvised little ditties in the background varies from largo to adagio, with an occasional foray into andante. Seldom will he venture into anything as fast as moderato. Frankly, Ken, this is too consistently slow. I find myself nodding off, soothed by the lullabies. And the uniting theme he has chosen here is not as moving as “Ashokan Farewell,” not by a long shot. I tell you, it was a breath of fresh air when, along about episode three, he allowed a little bit of Ferde Grofé’s wonderful Grand Canyon Suite into the sound track. I can’t help thinking there must be a more compelling theme for the series somewhere in that work, the only piece I’m aware of that has a national park as its subject. It has enough quiet, contemplative passages to satisfy you. Plus, parts of it move!

Gripe #2: The Same Old Faces. The various talking heads have served Burns well in his earlier efforts. When you have people like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote (who was also in The Civil War), and Buck O’Neil to tell you their thoughts about baseball, you can hardly go wrong. The cast here was not nearly so stellar, and I began to tire of some of them, particularly one guy who had the same annoying head gestures in each and every shot: Looking off to one side and then the other as he nodded vigorously, then shaking his head back and forth when he came to his point. Maybe it’s just me, but it began to drive me crazy. None of them were bad, but I began to wish Burns had invited more people along for the ride. Like, about three times as many. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to find people who could tell good stories about the National Parks.

Gripe #3: The Same Old Points. A lot of it became pretty repetitious. There are six two-hour episodes, and I don’t think 20 minutes went by without somebody telling us that National Parks define what it is to be an American. That concept was driven home reverently, but relentlessly, to the point that I was thinking “Yadda, yadda, yadda, haven’t we heard this before? Like, ten minutes ago?” There were other themes that were overworked, but none so monomaniacally as this one.

Let me emphasize that these are small gripes. I liked the show. Just not quite as much as I liked his previous efforts. I learned a lot about men like John Muir, without whom we might never have had National Parks, and Teddy Roosevelt and cousin Franklin D., and quite a few rich men like John D. Rockefeller II, who at one point had to resort to threats to be allowed to give a huge parcel of land to the country as a park. I learned that, over the years, Congress has been the most consistent enemy of the parks, just as bad as the developers and exploiters who continue to aspire to rape the parks down to the bare rock. And I learned that local opposition to a proposed park—which has been nearly universal, right down to the present day—has always been proven to be wrong. Every time, without exception, if you revisit a park 20 or 30 or 40 years down the line, the locals wonder aloud how they could ever have gotten along without their neighboring park. And yet they never learn. If a park is proposed today, 2009, I can guarantee you that local opposition will be strong, development-oriented, and sometimes even violent. And that if you were to come back in, say, 2030, you would find they love their park, they were in favor all along. I was thankful that one man, a former governor of Wyoming who was adamantly opposed to expanding Yellowstone to the south into the Grand Tetons, had the courage to appear now, in his old age, and say that he thanks God every night for John D. Rockefeller, a man whose name he cursed at the time. He sees now how wrong he was. I could only wish that, in the next fight over a National Park, the opposition would listen to this old man and see the nature of their folly. But they won’t.