Tuned In

Ken Burns' National Park Tour

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Ken Burns appeared at the TV critics’ press tour in Pasadena to take questions about his new 12-hour documentary, The National Parks, debuting Sept. 27. 

Yep. Twelve hours. About parks. OK, it’s easy to make jokes about Ken Burns’ documentaries, which build up wars and sports and campgrounds alike into massive Rocky Mountains of ennobled Americana.

But the fact is, any subject can be a 30-word squib or a 1,000-page book; it just depends on how granular you want to get. And Burns, unapologetically, does granular. To his credit he has a sense of humor about how tough a sell this subject is. When people would ask him what he was working on, he told us, he’d say, oh, World War II. “Great!” Jazz. “Great!” The national parks. [pause] “Uh… huh.” 

I haven’t yet watched the film yet—I may need to take a sabbatical to do it—so I’m not going to judge, but here are a few highlights from the panel, questions answered and raised: 

* The National Parks may have a breakout star (a la Shelby Foote in The Civil War) in the person of Shelton Johnson, a park ranger interviewed in the film who charmed the room with alternately touching and hilarious comments. Asked about the low pay of rangers, he first spoke of how much he loves the work and how rangers say, “We’re paid in sunsets”—then he added that, what with inflation, he could use some sunrises too. 

* The film ends its history of the parks around 1980; you might remember that Jazz had a similar issue, having been criticized for slighting contemporary jazz. In the case of the parks, Burns contends, the issues are much the same today as they were then.

* And those issues are? In the broad sense, it looks like The National Parks—besides being a celebration of nature—is about the larger idea of the public vs. the private sphere in America, the democratic notion of spaces open to all, and whether there are certain things that the collective people can do (like keep the Grand Canyon from becoming an amusement park) that the private sector can’t.

* One critic asked if the documentary might suffer because people will assume that it’s not about all these ideas, but is simply a travelogue. I wonder if it might have the opposite problem, though. Burns said that the didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of stringing together “one beauty shot after another.” That wasn’t a liability, though, for Discovery’s Planet Earth, and I wonder if series like that will set expectations for this one. 

* In other Burns news, he says he’ll be updating his Baseball series with a new installment that covers the last couple decades of the sport. In other words, steroids. In the meantime, get ready for the national parks on steroids.