Friday, October 26, 2007

Resolving yet another Mass Appeal Mess

The most important lesson I took away from The Money Game, which George Goodman wrote under the appropriately-chosen pseudonym of "Adam Smith," was that "the crowd is always wrong." While "Smith" invoked this rule to demonstrate the folly of investing by following the crowd, the rule certainly generalizes beyond the world of financial planning. Most recently we have seen it by comparing the opening-weekend box office numbers with the reviews of the films that were opening. On many occasions the film that grosses the most marbles has not even bothered to arrange a screening for critics, knowing full well that it will get trashed by "considered opinion;" but absence of knowledge does not prevent the crowd from gobbling up such tripe.

Unfortunately, going against the crowd can have its drawbacks, particularly when one does it in writing. Nevertheless, whatever the risks may be, I sometimes feel I need to do this in the arena of public performances. Last July I stuck my neck out to express a jaundiced opinion of Live Earth, but the most flack I ever caught was when I had the audacity to take a skeptical view of Bill Moyers and those who sail under him. If I have learned anything from these experiences, it is that it always helps have to have a supporting point of view in your intellectual knapsack, if only to reassure you that you are not alone in your unpopular opinions.

This brings me to the subject of Ken Burns. It is about time that I come clean and aver that, on every occasion that I have attempted to sample this guy's work on Public Television, I have succumbed to an irresistible urge to shut down the damned thing within fifteen minutes. Given the scale of most of his work, that makes for a pretty feeble statistical sample. However, my music composition teacher led me to appreciate that every gesture should direct the mind behind the ear towards what comes next; if the mind ceases to care about that, then the composition is a failure. There is no reason why this rule cannot be applied to film, whether fiction or documentary. In other words I find it very difficult to watch anything that Burns has made (including interviews I have seen him give) without feeling a numbing sensation in my mind that could care less about what the visual and auditory cortices happen to be feeding it.

The good news is that Chalmers Johnson (who I happen to feel writes excellently and speaks at the same level of quality, whether in delivering a lecture or being subjected to an interview) seems to have helped me identify just why Burns' products (what else can I call them?) have this effect on my mind. Ironically, Johnson did this in the book review he prepared for Truthdig concerning the posthumously-published book by David Halberstam about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter. For all of the well-deserved praise that Johnson offers over the best parts of this book, he still offers a paragraph of annoyance:

One aspect of Halberstam’s commitment as a historian and the consequent effect on his writing must be dealt with at the outset and then put aside. That is what he conceives of as his duty to present a populist portrayal of the ordinary soldier in day-to-day, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat and endless homilies on courage, fear, leadership, stamina, cowardice and any other emotions and qualities that might be encountered on the battlefield. I call this the Ken Burns-Tom Brokaw school of writing, hero worship, Great Generationism and military narcissism. Even in ordinary doses it is unimaginably tedious and boring. The amount of it in this 700-page book sometimes generated in me a deep regret that I had agreed to write this review.

Reading this made me realize that Ken Burns could turn any subject, whether war, baseball, or (one of my most sacred cows) jazz, into an orgy of his own narcissism, as if his unconstrained enthusiasm for his observations (it is impossible for me to call them insights) is reason enough for the rest of us to be equally enthusiastic.

That such an approach to delivering content should attract so many eyeballs to Public Television (not to mention DVD collaterals) should not be a surprise. Christopher Lasch wrote about our society as a "culture of narcissism;" and, as I recently reported, Charles Taylor has been exploring the same sort of social trend in developing his concept of "culture death." I shudder to think that the very mind-numbing quality that turned me away from Burns' work is what attracts the bulk of his following, a culture that does not care about where events and ideas lead but is content to wallow in each moment with a comfortable reassurance that the next moment will be just as pleasing. As I said, my most sacred cow to fall victim to the Burns treatment was jazz; and (to choose as an example a performer who always seemed to be embraced by the general public) I find it hard to believe that Louis Armstrong would have had much tolerance for that kind of comfortable reassurance from either those who played with him or those who listened to him.

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