Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thoughts on The War

Because so much of my professional life has been focused on history, many people assume that I must enjoy watching documentaries. Certainly there are plenty of people with similar careers who do enjoy them, but for me, I think it's a case of knowing too much. The magic disappears as soon as you know how the trick is done.

I'm currently watching the Ken Burns documentary, but only because I want to see what his team did with all the material they collected and all the many interviews they conducted. Near the beginning of tonight's episode, while the narrator described racism problems in Mobile, Alabama, they briefly showed a photo supplied to them by the Mattatuck Museum. The photo was taken in 1899 at Ansonia Brass & Copper. But the documentary doesn't explain the images we see. The viewer is left to assume that the images relate directly to the topic they are hearing about. In this case, I think most viewers would assume that the image was of a Mobile factory during the 1940s. And, just past the start of the second hour, they showed a photo of Waterbury's Fulton Market from the 1950s to illustrate something happening in Luverne, Minnesota. It's maddening for me.

I understand why documentary-makers do this. It's a visual medium, and they need to keep viewers supplied with constantly changing images, and with images that appear to illustrate the point being made. It works fine so long as you don't know when they "cheat". I stopped watching documentaries years ago, when I was watching one about Catherine the Great. There was a sequence of images of painted portraits of women, and the documentary presented the images as if they were all of Catherine. I knew that they weren't, and it pretty much ruined the show for me.

Despite all of that, I am enjoying The War, particularly the segments about the home front in all four towns. I think what I'm enjoying the most are the personal stories. At the Mattatuck Museum luncheon with Ken Burns on September 10, Ethel Goldberg (sister of Ray Leopold) spoke eloquently about how each and every person has a "glory" story to tell, and that we should take the time to recognize this about one another.

I'm also impressed by the very different perspective of the battles. World War II, unlike the current war in Iraq, was presented very carefully to the general public. There was a tremendous amount of censorship and propaganda on the part of the US government, which I think led to a sort of mythic remembrance. WWII has frequently been referred to in this country as a "good" war, and the people involved have been labeled "the greatest generation" (which seems very unfair to every other generation!). So far, this documentary has proven that there is no such thing as a good war.

In 1948, the company newsletter for the Princeton Knitting Mill (located in Watertown) ran a selection of employee responses to a question about the anticipated impact of television. One employee believed that television could bring about world peace. His response seems hopelessly naive, but I think he wasn't entirely wrong. Maybe I am hopelessly naive and overly optimistic, but I don't see how anyone could watch something like The War, which emphasizes the miseries and atrocities of all wars, and still think that starting a war is a good idea.

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