Season of Surprises and Disappointments

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Without wanting to come over all Forrest Gump, I’d like to start with a bit of homespun wisdom; it struck me while wrapping presents and putting them under the tree, that TV series are very like Christmas presents. It’s not that “you never know what you are going to get” – far too often that is perfectly clear in advance – but that some of them will be surprises and others will be disappointments. And sometimes they will be both, because it is both a surprise and a disappointment when something you eagerly anticipate from a much-loved source turns out not really to be what you had hoped for. Recent weeks have given us gifts from Damon Lindelof, Ken Burns and Sir David Attenborough which have not lived up to the extremely high hopes those names engender in me, though there have also been one or two pleasant surprises to celebrate as well.

 

Since he gave us my favourite series of the closing decade – The Leftovers – I was obviously going to look forward to Damon Lindelof’s next project very keenly. Given the extreme quality threshold he had set, disappointment was probably inevitable, but even 2288F4F1-4DBB-4FD7-82BD-7AFB9D6AE2FF_4_5005_cthen I didn’t expect to be giving up after the customary 5 episodes I usually give to something which has clear pedigree and promise and which has received a positive welcome from sources I respect (as well as the wider critical community), but which just did not work for me. Watchmen (HBO/Sky Atlantic) suffers from the same problems I identified previously with The Handmaid’s Tale: it is so much in love with its own central concept and the visual realisation of that concept that it neglects the fundamental building blocks of plot and character development – something you can get away with in cinema, but not in an extended series. This may be because the original source material is, quite literally, two-dimensional, but the screenwriters, directors and actors are there to adapt that material for TV presentation and obviously have the skills to do so. However, the writers and directors of Watchmen seem too keen on the visuals and on drawing clever parallels with aspects of our troubled times, while the performers are hamstrung by having to wear masks for much of the time – precisely the reasons, I think, why we have recently heard criticism of superhero movies from masters like Scorsese and Coppola.

 

Of course, genres like fantasy and science fiction are just as capable of illuminating the human condition as social realism – in many respects, even more so. A good example of a current series which achieves this is His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). Adapted from 3714032B-9950-4A52-966F-B57750C977C5_4_5005_cPhilip Pulman’s novels by the prolific and excellent Jack Thorne (and what a year he has had with The Virtues, The Accident and now this), it contains epic effects, talking animals and mystical themes, yet its characters are all-too-human. It also has one of the most arresting title sequences since The Night Manager. And it reminded me, in many aspects, of Netflix’s Stranger Things, not least the remarkable similarity in both looks and performance between Dafne Keen and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

Following His Dark Materials on BBC1 on three recent Sundays was a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and this provided a genuine surprise, because this is a novel which has been adapted so many times in the past, but this version managed a 53AABEA5-8103-45C4-A320-BC7A22077D79_4_5005_ccompletely new take on the overly familiar material. It achieved its effect primarily through an impressive visual imagining of a devastated Edwardian landscape and, as it only ran to three hour-long parts, the makers were able to strike a perfect balance between the human story and the visualisation.

 

Turning to factual material, Ken Burns is another name that creates great anticipation when it appears in the listings. His series are mammoth undertakings and his approach to his subjects is meticulous, so there is often a lengthy gap between their appearance. Over a long career, he has documented multiple aspects of American history – some series have been greater landmarks than others so, following the stupendous The Vietnam War two years ago, his next series was always likely to be a let-down. From the start of Country Music (PBS/BBC4) you know you are in familiar Burns territory – the B9EB1D05-F1BA-4504-8824-DF221343154E_4_5005_cbeautifully scanned black and white photographs, the authoritative voice of Peter Coyote. But the longer it went on, the more I got the feeling that this was not the best choice of subject for such lengthy treatment. Compared to Jazz (PBS, 2001), there just wasn’t the depth of interest to be explored. Country Music also seemed to promise at the start of each episode that it would be tracing a link between the music and American social history (as Jazz had done so well), but most of what we got was just the lives and careers of the stars. As before with a Burns series, the BBC is giving us the cut down (9 hours!) version – I have usually sought out the full version (18 hours in this case) but will not be bothering this time. Maybe my problem is that it is not a style of music which interests me greatly, but I do normally expect more from Burns.

 

I also expect a lot from any series or single documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough, and there have been a lot of them this year. There was the magnificent 28D5BF6C-4B68-4E53-BEEB-38AA5C120EF8_4_5005_cNetflix series Our Planet, which gave us not just spectacular sequences, but also ecological comment. Then there was Attenborough’s personal single doc on climate change for the BBC. So, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) was simply a re-hash of what we had already had and many sequences were overly familiar – not just the penguins and albatross searching for their chicks or the co-ordinated dancing birds, but even the walruses falling off cliffs which we had already seen earlier in the year. And the material on climate change became less prominent as the series progressed and seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought.

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John Pilger is another veteran film maker whose work is consistent and you know exactly what to expect, though the fact that he makes his pieces at feature length means that they are sometimes a little stretched. No such fault with The Dirty War on the NHS (ITV), a brilliantly argued, thorough and rather depressing analysis of the dire threats to our health system which spoke directly to many of the issues crucial in the election campaign, though transmitted (inevitably, given the author’s well-known political leaning) too late to make any difference. Not that it would have, sadly.

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Having promised you less humbug this time, I fear I may have failed in that mission, so let me conclude this theme on a more positive note. I knew exactly what to expect from Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, just concluded its second season on BBC4, yet the pair constantly manage to surprise and delight with exactly the same sort of material they began their TV careers with. Backwards Bill’s tribute to the elephant on Novelty Island had me completely convulsed with laughter.

 

Maybe overly high hopes are the main problem, as they make it easy to be let down – bear that in mind as you both open your presents and watch TV this Christmas, I’ll be back with my 2019 top ten before the year ends (and what a fantastic year it has been, though definitely one of two halves) and I will give you my list of the best of the past decade at the start of the new one.

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A very Happy Christmas to one and all.

Perspectives on The Vietnam War

BurnsA new series by Ken Burns is always a major event and The Vietnam War (currently playing on Mondays on BBC4) is certainly the most significant thing he (together with his collaborator, Lynn Novick) has produced for quite some time. Any documentary series on that war was always going to attract criticism from various quarters, and, though the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, the series does have its detractors. The tag-line “there is no single truth in war” indicates Burns and Novick’s approach, but will no doubt be regarded as a get-out clause by those with their own agendas on the subject. For me, it is one of the best things he has done and my sole regret is that the BBC is only giving us half of it – the so-called “international version”, with each episode reduced to 55 minutes – just as they did all those years back with The Civil War. The good news is that the full version will be available on DVD at the end of the month, though at a hefty price (I sense a stitch-up here).

The angle I want to consider in this blog is the use, or more specifically, the presentation, of archive footage in Burns’ work and other documentaries. Unsurprising, really – I spent my professional career involved in archival preservation, the supply of material for re-use and the critical consideration of new documentaries using archival material. And I say specifically “presentation”, because I’m not talking here about the correct identification of footage and its appropriateness to illustrate the points being made, but rather the technical and aesthetic aspects of how it is used, above all the aspect ratio in which it is shown. It’s something of a hobby-horse of mine and, even at this distance, I can still hear the groans of my fellow Peabody Board members every time I brought it up!

Now, I don’t want this blog to become like an academic-style paper. I’ve already done that a couple of years ago in a piece called Archive Footage in New Programmes: Presentational Issues and Perspectives, for the e-journal on European Television History called View, and you can still read it at  http://viewjournal.eu/archive-based-productions/archive-footage-in-new-programmes/ if you care to, though I will re-cycle a few of the points I raised in that piece.

When the shape of the TV screen changed from 4:3 to 16:9 around the turn of the millennium and historical documentaries began to be made in widescreen formats, the inclusion of material from television archives, as well as actuality film and feature films shot in the academy ratio caused a problem because it did not fit the new screen shape. There were three possibilities: 1 – cropping the image to fit the screen; 2 – stretching the image to fit the screen; or 3 – showing the image in its original ratio, either with part of the screen left black or some sort of framing device. As an archivist, concerned with preserving and re-showing materials as they were originally intended to be seen, I have always preferred option 3 and have regarded option 2 as anathema.

Ken Burns has tended to employ option 1 and has done it so well that I am completely won over to his approach. Having established the so-called “Ken Burns effect” by scanning across beautiful monochrome photographs, he can hardly be taken to task for doing something similar with moving image materials. Too often, “cropping” is done with little regard for composition, resulting in ugly images where the tops of people’s heads are cut off, for example, but Burns has always ensured that the integrity of each image is retained. This takes time and is expensive. In a production where archive is not a major part of the budget, corners will be cut, but with Burns archive is the point and he treats it accordingly. And the results can be stunning – nowhere more so than in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS, 2014), which contained a wealth of beautifully presented stills and 35mm footage.

But it was not just Burns which won me over to the use of cropped footage – it was time. cold warThe first major widescreen historical documentary series, Jeremy Issacs’ Cold War (Turner/BBC, 1998) came as something of a shock. It wasn’t just that parts of the 4:3 images were being lost – it was that their very nature seemed to be changed. According to the shorthand of the medium, widescreen images were associated with the cinema, so factual material was being made to look fictional, it seemed to me. This had already been done in the cinema itself, in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988), but not in documentary. Indeed, it was the rapid growth of the “cinematic” documentary (designed for cinema release or festival showcasing in the first instance, but ultimately intended for TV or home video), which normalised the practice and made it ubiquitous.

However, I have also noticed a more recent trend towards the use of original ratios, as film makers realise that the audience is sophisticated enough not to be worried about changes to the screen shape and that they can use it to indicate shifts in time without having to include that in commentary or on captions. One of my favourite Sondheimdocumentaries in terms of its use of TV archive material is James Lapine’s Six by Sondheim (HBO, 2013), in which a large number of interviews with the Broadway composer are intercut, all retaining their original ratios and framed in the shape of contemporary television sets, which conveys the impression of the subject’s consistent brilliance at different points in his career, without the need to signpost dates or provenance. Similarly, Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx (HBO, 2015), uses TV archive material from the 1980s to the 2000s carefully framed within the high-definition 16:9 frame and often with “blurred” top and bottom edges to convey a constantly shifting time frame (including material from the brief hybrid 14:9 era, when that ratio was used as a compromise during the transition from 4:3 to 16:9).

Indeed, it has been the increasing use of specifically television archive material, as the TV era morphs from “the recent past” into “history” and the rolling 50th anniversary-fest reached the sixties, which has driven this development. This is the first time Ken Burns has made a major series where his primary source of archive material has been television archives and he has come up with some interesting approaches to its use. Much of it is grainy and shaky 16mm and some of it is video, but Burns has applied his usual care to its transfer. In the fifth episode he introduced a new concept by showing some material on a period TV set before cutting to a cropped version of the same extract. The main aim of this device was to illustrate how the war was being perceived back home, but it also allowed for a “correct” perspective on the framing of the original IMG_0395material. The use of period TV screens to showcase old footage is nothing new, but Burns makes dramatic use of it by filling the 16:9 screen to the very edges with the image of the 60s TV set, thus transforming your TV into one from the period, so that you experience the broadcast as it first happened.

So, I am encouraged by the way so many great documentaries now treat archival footage, but, unfortunately, one can still come across instances where footage is distorted to fit the screen size, particularly when haste, budget restrictions or simple indifference are factors. The worst recent example of this was a couple of weeks ago, when BBC4 transmitted Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) in the context of the fascinating new films commissioned to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The extracts in Kevin Macdonald’s introduction were correctly presented but the complete film itself was stretched to fill the screen (yes, I could have changed my screen’s settings, but that’s not the point). For me, presenting this documentary masterpiece in the wrong ratio is akin to misquoting Shakespeare or playing Beethoven in the wrong key. I certainly expect better of BBC4.

A couple of final observations on The Vietnam War: the closing credits contain a disclaimer I have not seen before, which reads “Some archival materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators” – of course, this is always true, but it is interesting to note that Burns and Novick felt it necessary to state it, and it would be even more interesting to know which materials they are referring to (maybe the DVD set will clarify this); and I enjoyed the ending to episode 5, which involved a fade to black, followed by the unmistakable jangling opening to The Stones’ Paint It Black, with the credit “Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick” appearing precisely on the first drum beat. Homage to Full Metal Jacket? Has to be. Outstanding!