xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Ken Burns' 'National Parks' film has beauty, brains

Committing yourself for 12 hours to any TV production is a big deal. But before you decide you don't have the time for Ken Burns' new multipart documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," consider just giving it a 30-minute tryout.

Watch the first half hour Sunday on PBS, and I bet you will become hooked on one of the best and most rewarding viewing experiences of the TV year. This is a film with both beauty and brains -- it is gorgeous to look at, it will make you think and possibly even stir your soul.

Advertisement

A history of the nation's great parks might not sound as hot and toe-tappingly transgressive as the saga of jazz or as action-packed and heart-rending as the Civil War, two American narratives that Burns has explored in landmark films for public television. But the parks have their own power, and part of it comes from a visual glory that neither of those other two topics inherently held.

And Burns, both as director and one of four cinematographers, embraces that spectacular beauty from the opening moments in a visual overture that runs 14 minutes in length. It's an eye-popping, brain-boiling montage of the magnificence of nature as it exists in our national parks.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The most striking aspect is the primordial, eternal aura of these landscapes -- and it is so at odds with our national sense of identity as a country that is still new, young, fluid and on the make.

"This project offered wonderful challenges and opportunities to explore -- particularly with the live cinematography -- the expressive capabilities of that visual sumptuous feast that we know as the national parks," Burns said in an interview last week, explaining that the film is structured around "two casts of characters."

One involves the "60-odd human beings" who played a leading role the past 150 years in the " drama of the parks."

The other cast of characters is described by the 56-year-old filmmaker as "some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth."

In that lyrical opening segment, Burns says he tried "to build a kind of symphonic introduction to that one cast of characters, the landscapes of the parks, so that viewers will be prepared to receive the complicated drama that follows of human beings arguing to either acquire or save these places."

The human characters -- as they always are in a Burns film -- are fascinating. Most Americans know some of the white male characters to whom history has been kind -- like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir.

But as skillfully as Burns brings those historical figures with all their eccentricities and foibles to life, he has a more diverse human tale to tell with hard-driving narratives involving Native Americans, African Americans and women. And he deftly starts, stops and resumes those story lines like a Russian novelist.

There's the inspirational saga of writer and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her crusade to preserve the Everglades, and there's the sad, sobering tale of Chief Joseph, of the Nez Perce tribe, and his last ride through Yellowstone National Park.

And has anyone ever done talking heads as successfully as Ken Burns? Remember Shelby Foote from "The Civil War"? I rest my case.

Wait until you hear Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who grew up in Detroit, talk about what the park means to him -- or recounts the history of the African American cavalrymen known as Buffalo Soldiers who once roamed the same land on which he now works.

But for all the passion of the people and beauty of the places, the great drama of the film comes from the argument between those who would exploit the parks for private and commercial use and gain versus those who fought to preserve them as public places where all Americans could go to experience the wonder of nature. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen " Brooklyn Bridge," "Jazz," Baseball," "Civil War," or "The War," Burns is firmly on the side democracy.

"What if there were no national parks?" Burns asks rhetorically by way of making his case. Before you can answer, he says, "If there were no national parks, then the Grand Canyon would be lined with mansions, and you and I and, more importantly, our children would never get to see that view. If there were no national parks, then the Everglades would be drained and it would be filled with tract housing developments and golf courses -- and the world's most exquisite, diverse habitat would be lost forever."

Without stopping for breath, he pushes on with the litany, "If there were no national parks, Zion and Yosemite, two of the most beautiful canyons on earth, would be gated communities. If there were no national parks, Yellowstone would be Geyser World."

That's the passion Burns feels for the subject matter of this documentary, and it infuses virtually every frame of film.

"There is a very democratic spirit to the parks," Burns says. "And we emphasize that -- the fact that we all own these places."

The film tracks the history of the parks up until 1980, but the argument that so animates the documentary continues to resonate today.

Allen Moore, Maryland Institute College of Art professor and one of three cinematographers who worked with Burns on the film, said that the theme of the national parks as an extension of democracy was sounded continually in his discussions with Burns from 2003 to 2007 when Burns was deciding what place and scenes Moore should film.

"The beauty of Ken's work is that it's about ideas as well as people," Moore said last week. "And the tension at the heart of the film still exists. Look at the big controversy in recent years over Manassas, the battlefield in Virginia, and whether they were going to build a mega-mall right up against it. That's a great example where one part of community wanted one thing, and another wanted the other. Fortunately, the conservationists won out on that one, but you never know."

The stunning visual overture at the start of "The National Parks" ends with these words from Muir, whose biography is one of the high points of the first two hours: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread -- places to play and pray where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. This national beauty hunger is made manifest in our national parks, nature's sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world."

"The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is the story of how a nation known globally for its commercialism came to accept if not embrace that sentiment and guarantee that all its citizens, not just the richest or most powerful, could share and enjoy its greatest beauty.

"The National Parks: America's Best Idea" airs nightly at 8 p.m. Sept. 27-Oct. 2.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement