Colony Bay TV

Slow it Down There, Mate

December 26, 2011 James Riley

A Quick Look at “America, the Story of Us”

During that strange break in the Christmas season when you pretty much know that no one is returning phone calls, or email, and everyone has reconciled themselves to picking black olives out of the appetizer trays and coasting their way towards the celebration, we fired up “America, The Story of Us” on our new Roku box, graciously given to us by Jonathan Wilson, executive producer, in anticipation of Courage being made available there in the near future.

Us has nice visuals, lush CGI (for a documentary), and judicious use of living-historians battling away in the background.   It also has the annoying talking heads, this time very high profile talking heads (Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Michael Bloomberg) and, for someone who has studied this period for quite a while, it also has that annoying Cliff-Notes brevity—flying over years of conflict, and thousands of human stories, with just enough time to summarize three years of story in three sentences.

Sometimes I think this urge to keep it quick, to cram just a few of the most interesting faces on the timeline, may actually be the reason why history doesn’t make the human connection anymore.   Somewhere up on my shelf is an elementary history text printed for early 20th century New Hampshire school children. The authors really sit down on the sofa, pour a glass of port and take their time telling very human stories about brutal conflict, bravery, and victory. The fact to interpretation ratio is very high, even if it is set in a mythic frame, so that the reader can absorb the situation without always cutting away for Richard Slotkin’s authoritative take on the matter.  (If the idea is to get us to think, why are we given so many hard and fast conclusions?)

The leisure inspection of history might be a casualty of our age — the academic need to cover a century of material by the mid term or the editorial mandate to cram Ben Franklin into three USA TODAY paragraphs — but it turns some of the greatest ideas of all time (and the greatest lives of all time) into stale cookies, served up the same way every time.

Think of this method in any other context.  Imagine if instead of hearing your favorite Van Morrison tune, you had to hear an abbreviated musical montage of his life, with just enough of each song to get you annoyed at the transitions.   Imagine never being able to settle into a single Hitchcock movie but glossing over the whole opus every time he’s discussed.   Unfortunately, that’s what  a lot of documentary programming does; it teaches a course, (perhaps with a view towards education market re-sales), but it never speaks to the soul, because when you tell a story, it’s something that takes place when we’re all looking into the campfire together, warm, and comfortable and not inclined to move too quickly.



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