There’s something instantly recognizable about a Ken Burns documentary. The slow burn style of filming (no pun intended). The evocation of a time through an organic blend of words and pictures. The gradual, trickle-down way in which actual information comes to light. Disparage him though we might, there’s no denying that, in the PBS age, Burns has been responsible for raising the documentary form to the level of art. Though to raise something to the level of art, you usually have to leave off something along the way: in Burns’s case, it’s accuracy. A piece in Slate last year, written by a history professor, took Burns to task for misrepresenting the Civil War in his 1990 documentary, so that all the history majors thereafter, having sentimentalized it, now come to his class woefully mislead, and expecting a David McCullough-narrated, smoothly contextualized experience in learning about one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history. Which set us off thinking whether the same might not be true for his entire oeuvre–and more importantly, whether anyone cares.
This year, we’re in luck: Burns has set his creative sights on the story of the midwestern ‘Dust Bowl’ of the ’30s and its inhabitants, the farmers and landowners deeply dispossessed by the Great Depression as to be made into migrants, as well as the subject of practically every John Steinbeck novel before 1960. What can we expect? Four hours of sadness, pain, and no doubt revelatory insight into the part economic, part climatic crisis set against voice-over readings of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Walker Evans photographs. What can we not expect? To learn more than we already knew, in a less emotional and more straightforward way. Needless to say, we’ll be watching religiously.