Ben Kurns does the jungle boogie

Screenshot 2017-09-30 21.15.30

Dir. Ken Burns and Lynn Novik, 2017
Episodes 1-6

Every empire needs an epic, and Ken Burns, whose TV films I’ve been enjoying since, like, 2008, has offered at least six, not including the biopics.

CIVIL WAR has the respected historian Barbara J. Fields on equal standing with Shelby Foote, whose book has no citations, and who compared the Ku Klux Klan to the French Resistance. And as Eric Foner reminds us, it stops short of the Reconstruction, which is even more important than the war itself for understanding how white supremacy works in this country today.

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA is Burns’s worst film. The displacement and genocide of the Indigenous people is erased, of course. The laconic narration and pans over archival photographs are already cinematic barbiturates, but this most nationalist work in Burns’s ouvre, one that, for all its tree-hugging surface peace, makes the most brutal statement of Amerikan belonging, is aggressively boring.

THE WAR was the best until THE VIETNAM WAR, where the liberal insistence on individual narratives actually gives the viewer contact with the experiences of the poor and proletarianized.

Now he’s talking about Vietnam’s 20-year war for national liberation, and he has edgy new aesthetic resources. A pounding soundtrack of artillery, sinister synth music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and orientalist world music with Yo Yo Ma on the cello.

Episode 1 opens with the sound of helicopters, announcing its cinematic place with APOCALYPSE NOW and the superior documentary IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG from 1968 by Emile de Antonio.

Then he makes his most avant-garde move yet: the archival footage plays backwards, so that napalm explosions get sucked into little star bursts and riot police charge away from the crowd. This is another cinematic allusion, to none other than Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11, where Moore asks was it all a dream? over hazy night bombing footage.

Narrator Peter Coyote tells us that America invaded Vietnam with the best possible intentions.

There are a lot of contradictions to symbolically resolve: How could the US do this colonial endeavor on a country that merely wanted independence just like this great nation herself? Even worse, how did the supreme capitalist super power get its ass whupped by a country of starving peasants? For the first, fighting communism is good enough, it seems. After the French leave, there is no more mention of rubber and rice as the colonial cash crops. We learn a lot about the Southern Vietnam puppet state (imagine if Madame Nhu had a twitter account). But it’s unclear what the US really had to profit from maintaining it; was it really just ideology?

Episode 1 is called “Deja Vu,” not only between the first and second liberation wars, demarcated by the battle of Dien Bien Phu, but also of course between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.

But then the filmmakers decide to time jump, so that a summary of Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle against the French is cross cut with testimonies that occur way later in 1968.  It struck me as irresponsible. The anti-war movement was a big part of the “bad sixties.” We should also talk about “bad postmodernism,” since this disintegration of narrative material, rather than shocking the viewer, Walter Benjamin style, out of the hypnotism of the dominant narrative, encourages a laid back relativism. Burns has mined the wave of avant-garde 80s documentary production by radical and feminist artists for their techniques, which are now brought back into the fold of liberal consensus. I’m sorry to see them made safe for work.

But that’s the main contradiction. Documentary filmmakers like Peter Watkins, Su Friedrich, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Jean-Pierre Gorin dis-integrated their material, voices over black screen, images without sound, precisely so the viewer’s perception of history would be renewed. The Ken Burns effect is hyper integration: a shot of soldiers wading through a rice paddy field has rainfall on the sound track, we hear guns in pictures of gun fights, archival footage can cover for an chopped up talking head interview, etc. National epic poems consolidate the national population. It’s also like melodrama. Just like how the orchestra music has to swell up in the classic films, to formally compensate for what can’t be adequately presented in the narrative content. (Or think of the stings that come with the jump-scare in today’s commercial horror films, which I guess is our contemporary melodrama.)

And they do that liberal thing of cutting two opposing perspectives and calling it fair and balanced. This is more like an opposition than a contradiction ’cause Coyote reads off the death toll at the very beginning, and the Vietnamese suffered far more deaths and casualties (to say nothing of the lingering trauma and effects of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance). But here we have one American marine talking head discussing an ambush, and we have a North Vietnamese army talking about an atrocity committed by the Americans, and we are invited to lament both equally.

The liberal political line devolves into five-and-dime metaphysics. Everyone suffered in the war. Suffering is the ultimate evil. The horror!

Honestly? I would have preferred leaving the Vietnamese side out: their talking heads don’t get as much screen time anyway. Let them remain ghosts in the psychedelic jungle like in APOCALYPSE NOW (an ugly film on every level). The well-meaning liberal condescension is worse than honest dehumanization.

Another example is when Peter Coyote says the US soldiers called the Vietnamese gooks, dinks, and mamasans, the latter for elderly women; and the communist Vietnamese called the Americans imperialists, invaders, and bandits. It should be obvious that not only are these not equal in severity, but the power situation makes the question of name calling neither here nor there. We already know who suffered more despite winning, since they couldn’t avoid the hard data, but they still try this equivocating rhetoric. But the spell of the Ken Burns effect is a powerful one indeed.

The structure of the film weaves the longue duree narratives of the policy makers and military tactics with harrowing first person accounts. This is one more example of the film’s formal contradictions. The best instance is in the climactic episode 6, which has to cover the Tet Offensive and the riots after the murder of Dr. King as well as the wave of uprisings throughout the industrial capitalist world in 1968. It’s left hilariously vague (you can see one protest sign that says capitalisme in what I think was Paris footage). If you didn’t know better you’d think everybody in May ’68 was just mad as hell at the same time.

But rammed through it is the survival narrative of a US Army doctor who survives a helicopter crash and is captured by the Viet Cong. They’re always ready to lure you into an individual’s experience before the information they present in other sequences might lead the good Democrat-voting viewer to uncomfortable political conclusions.

Pointing out the bad ideology in Burns’s films is like shooting American GIs in a bamboo spike trap. This Vietnam War film isn’t just about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, or about the undying prestige of public history films. It’s about the unique pleasure of its own Ken Burns effect, which promises to show you the Real of history precisely through the materials where it’s the most absent.

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