Monday, September 24, 2007

The War

I submitted to the full-on Ken Burns treatment last night, taking in Episode 1 of the documentary filmmaker’s latest effort, “The War.” My initial thoughts:

Damn, these people look good for a bunch of 80-somethings. Burns was partly motivated to make “The War” after reading statistics that suggest there will, at some point in the relatively near future, be few folks left in the U.S. who participated in WWII. He has rounded up a fascinating bunch of veterans and other witnesses to events of that time, including Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. My favorite “character” is Katharine Phillips from Mobile, Ala., who breaks any number of stereotypes about elderly southern women in that she is neither sassy, spunky or twinkly. She is, however, a naturally gifted storyteller with surprising charisma. As she reminisced, I could picture myself back in 1942, all the boys on my block having gone off to fight, and the notices arriving, one by one, that a good number of them would not be coming back.

“Survivor” is a ridiculous concept. There is Burns’ footage of the battle for Guadalcanal—a jungle landscape where U.S. Marines faced nightly ambushes from the enemy and constant shelling from the Japanese navy, not to mention monsoons, malaria, starvation and the stench of rotting corpses. Compare this with last week’s premiere of “Survivor: China” in which viewers were asked to care about yet another ragtag group of attention junkies who once again failed to build adequate shelter against the first-night thunderstorm we all knew was coming. The stakes in the former—no less than life and death. The stakes in the latter—fleeting fame and fortune. Wanna bet which program draws higher ratings?

The Post Office has some ‘splaining to do. Burns somehow manages to ratchet up the tension—will our boys emerge victorious at Guadalcanal?—even though we all know the outcome. (Well, some of us. Burns also decided to make this film after learning a fair number of students today aren’t clear about whom the U.S. allied itself with during the war.) He does this by emphasizing the deprivation—the lack of food, reinforcements or adequate weaponry. Sidney Phillips, brother of the aforementioned Katharine, is our guide for much of this segment. When he recollects that in the midst of this hell he received a letter from home that just happened to arrive on his birthday, all I could think was, the Post Office can deliver to the South Pacific during WWII but it can’t get me my InStyle on time?


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