After the release of writer/producer/director Ken Burns's monstrous serial documentaries - "The Civil War," "Baseball," and "Jazz" being the best-known - some of his older work is making its debut on DVD, here through new distributor Paramount.
Though less grand in scope and length, the 90-odd minute works nevertheless contain the same enormous wealth of archival visuals that made viewers of his larger works stop and pay attention. Using elegant cinematography and intercutting between photos, archival interviews, newsreels, and surviving audio recordings, Burns's doc captures the pros and cons of American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
One can trace a particular thematic similarity to the art of Norman Rockwell; that is, an artist whose work showcased particular views of American life via an identifiable style that often reached pop culture status. Whereas Rockwell's art is better known - frequently sampled or parodied in TV and print ads, for example - Benton's less idyllic angles on the American south often got him into regular trouble. Battling executives, museum directors, art critics, and becoming a vociferous whiner against the evils of the abstract movement (as practiced by former student Jackson Pollock), Benton's work also showed a lewd side of the American psyche, which shocked more conservative minds in his day.
Burns's doc is an excellent portrait of the artist using archives, Benton's original art, and a balanced mix of loving supporters (from his daughter), friends with a realistic grasp of Benton's persona and ego, and a mix of critics who either enjoyed his eccentricities, or pegged him a lousy artist; the fact a nay-sayer is allowed by Burns to call Benton a maker of bad art for myopic, naïve art lovers is pretty startling (and funny).
The excess of personal style was also commercially appealing, and the political and entrepreneurial astuteness learned from his politician pop no doubt helped pay the Benton family bills over the decades, largely for commercial and civic commissions which Benton often instigated himself.
PBS's DVD boasts an excellent transfer of the doc, featuring footage not present in the original broadcast version. The included two extras are actually from "The Civil War" set. "A Conversation with Ken Burns" is a Q&A session with Charlie Rose discussing his technique in creating a narrative that's independent of the demands and focal limitations of commercial network TV. The interview also has Burns discussing the death of his mother, and his affected childhood. "Making History," while largely visually favoring music and stills from "The Civil War" doc, illustrates the methodology in filming stills, and the immense chore of editing a narrative from the mass of archival materials.
This PBS title is available alone, or as part of The Ken Burns's America Collection, which includes "Brooklyn Bridge," "The Statue of Liberty," "Empire of the Air," "The Congress," "Thomas Hart Benton," "Huey Long," and "The Shakers."
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan