2 civil wars, Ric Burns, and “Michael Moore Hates America”

On September 18th, PBS aired the film “Death and the Civil War.” Sadly enough, currently only small clips of it are available for free but if you want to pitch in and reduce the impact of cuts announced by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, maybe you want to go to iTunes and check it out whenever it becomes available.

Watch Death and the Civil War, Chapter 1 on PBS.

The aim of this post is to give you some (interesting, hopefully) insights about the roughly 2-hour well-crafted thought-provoking film. Ric Burns (younger brother of the super-famous Ken Burns), presents elements to understand how the Civil War changed forever the American idea of a “good death,” how it was necessary to construct new categories of meaning to justify the atrocious volume of deaths, and how official support responded to the needs of its soldiers, federal or confederate.

I admit it. I have used and abused of the “Ken Burns effect” in my own work about the Spanish Civil War, and I respect Ric overdosing in his brother’s techniques. Wikipedia defines them as the use of “simple musical leitmotifs or melodies” and  “[giving] ‘life’ to still photographs by slowly zooming in […] and panning from one subject to another.” Besides all that captivating zooming and panning, Ric chose the right actors that read letters, journal entries, or official documents from the war. This feature powerfully engages the audience as if we were watching a more sophisticated version of the seven o’clock news. Short testimonies of historians accompanies each section, offering a cohesive interpretation throughout the film.

Now, how does Michael Moore fit in this context? Well, while he is well-known in Europe, and respected as a filmmaker, Michael Wilson unveils a different perspective of his work. In Wilson’s film,  Moore appears as the embodiment of evil because of his twisted ways of presenting “the truth”. In other words, Wilson exposes how Moore manipulates the footage to make the audience believe falsehoods presented as facts. Interestingly enough, while interviewing Penn Jillette, Wilson includes a piece of meta-narrative that questions the ethical approach of his own film as if falling in the same stratagems used by Moore. Then, Wilson empowers the audience with the opportunity to question the ethical validity of his own narrative. It would have been interesting if Ric Burns would do the same in his movie. But he doesn’t. That reality leaves me with a restless feeling of “what could we do?” as historians/public historians to expose the guts of our own historical products. Why are we so afraid to give in “a little”? Wouldn’t it make it a more fair relationship to allow our audiences to make their own decisions about whether the product is good or just a bunch of bologna?


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