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Blowhard on documentaries

Michael Blowhard deconstructs the PBS documentary:

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.

Here’s Blowhard’s take on the Andy Warhol documentary.

Most of the intellectuals Ric Burns consults make the apparently-inevitable intellectuals’ mistake of assuming that the artist in question is first a philosopher and only then a visual guy. But was Andy Warhol really first a thinker, who somehow arrived at “something important to say,” and who then picked up tools in order to say it? Forgive me, but it seems far truer to my artworld experience (as well as to the evidence presented in the film) to assume that Warhol was 1) a visual talent, 2) who was eager to make it as an artist, and 3) who maybe (or maybe not) developed something to say as he made his way in the art world.

Of course, most of the “something to say” stuff that artists are discussed as contributing gets put there by the critics, profs, curators, gallery owners, and audiences. And that’s OK. In Warhol’s case, though, this was even-more-than-usually-so the case. Warhol did what he did, it was about as deep as a peanut-butter sandwich, and that’s all there was to it — and that made him catnip to the “let’s read into it” crowd. They’re busy projecting into him still. So: Was playing the blank a canny artworld move on Warhol’s part? Or was it an expression of well-thought-out and infinitely-profound genius?

I’m a little more sanguine about PBS documentaries, especially when they rebroadcast independent vids. And actually Ken Burns’ techniques worked wonderfully well for certain subjects (such as the Civil War series).

(Actually I’m over-Blowharding this week, but I have several other posts to catch up on. Give me time).

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