The Civil War
Ken Burns, 1990

One thing I hadn't done in 2+ years of reading about the Civil War period was to take in an actual overview of the war (rather than one filtered through the experience of a president). So I finally got around to watching this thing, which had been lurking around the bottom of my to-do list for a couple of decades. I found it pretty dull. And yet I'm currently auditing a class on U.S. history to the Civil War, covering material I'm very familiar with, and I find it enthralling enough to get up at 8 a.m. for. The difference, I think, is neatly encapsulated by a question that often appears on Myers-Briggs tests:

illustrate principles
speak for themselves

I never completely understood what that question meant, but I think I get it now. The reason I like going to history classes is that the lectures generally have a point. Sometimes the professors will set forth their arguments first and then lay out a bunch of information to back them up; other times they'll start with what happened and then tease out what they think those events tell us. But either way, the important thing is the thesis, such as, "The chief cause of the Civil War was the South's determination to expand the reach of slavery, for fear that if it were restricted to less than half of the growing country, it would eventually be eliminated." This documentary has no such thesis. It's more like a textbook come to life — here's what happened, here are some pictures, here's a clip from a primary source, here's Shelby Foote chuckling at his own anecdote. Here, in short, are a bunch of facts, and make of them what you will! The Civil War makes no claims that anyone could reasonably disagree with: it's basically stuff like "the Civil War was a hugely important event in U.S. history" and "the carnage was horrifying" and so forth — nothing that might get an angry letter sent to PBS. So I guess the fact that I found this kind of boring tells me which of those buttons to click.

Winter's Bone
Daniel Woodrell, Anne Rosellini, and Debra Granik, 2010
#2, 2010 Skandies

This is one of those "young person tries to navigate a hellscape of drugs and crushing poverty" things, with the twist that this time we're not talking about some urban slum populated by The Other but rather what right-wing politicians call "The Real America": in this case, rural Missouri near the Arkansas border, where alternately pinched-faced and obese whites with waving American flags painted on their jackets cook meth. Apparently people were blown away by Jennifer Lawrence's performance as a determined teenager struggling to raise her younger siblings on zero income, but I found the film a little slow and kind of slight, interesting primarily because I'm a geographical voyeur and now I've seen a bit of the Ozarks without having to go there.

comment on
comment on
return to the
Calendar page