Tag Archives: Ken Burns


I call it “The Present” or “Our Winesburg, Ohio”.

One hour apiece worth of fabricated programming for eight non-existent television stations will be filmed replete with advertising. There will be:

1. A traffic channel, split into four grainy feeds. One feed shows cars intermittently driving off an unfinished road into a lake, another shows an intersection where the red and green lights are playing in predictably disastrous polyrhythms with each other. One is the vernacular image seen so frequently in rest stop security feeds of the parking lot without a building attached.

The fourth panel is plagiarized storm warning announcements.

2. A QVC clone where the presenters look the same but they’re literally pulling things out of a garbage can and placing them on the soft-lit rotating glass plate. Get actors from regional cable ads to do the chatter. Put a number at the bottom where people can actually call in and purchase the itemized pieces of garbage.

3. A news channel that loops the same video of a car burning and various incoherent sound-bites about the local politics for a locality that only exists in this fictional basic cable package.

4. A station that plays parts of 3 episodes of a syndicated sitcom package showing people in a nondescript workplace who don’t say any words but alternate laughing while patting each other on the back/handing each other cookies then laugh at people tripping over large objects and injuring themselves. It has a laugh track obviously. The advertisements are mostly for reruns of shows that never actually ran showing the same repeated actions but in a home and different looking workplaces. However interspersed in these are a series of poorly shot regional used car lot advertisements that progress over the hour to elliptically show the owner’s divorce and weight gain.

5. A CNN clone that’s actually just an intern in a broom closet reading the internet to old people. Maybe have a bunch of old people in folding chair watching him read this like they have the kids do on Reading Rainbow. A sort of Meals on Wheels program that never travels or feeds anyone.

Chaotic tickers of incoherent text run in all directions at all times.

The advertisements are like those for medical products, but stripped of the products. They consist of endless soft lit images (think Mormon recruitment videos) of smiling old people pushing adorable children on scooters or (slowly) frolicking. Each one ends with a kind voice saying “ASK YOUR DOCTOR” and an illegible list of side effects.

6. An entertainment news program where the hosts and all the paparazzi pictures of celebrities getting arrested or not getting arrested always have wide open smiles showing impossibly clean teeth. The advertisements are all just chunks of the program itself reordered to sell tooth whitening strips.

7. A PBS style documentary with various academic talking heads shot Ken Burns style nostalgically lamenting the “quirky” lost world of sweatshops and flop houses. Just tack the standard “Funded by the Ford Foundation and the support of viewers like you!” bumper verbatim.

8. An American Idol style program where the people don’t sing but just stand in harsh lights while successful well dressed people in chairs say sentences pulled from self-help books or NY Post articles about black men killed by the police out of context to an empty room that still somehow makes cheering and booing noises. Could probably just make the advertisements for it actual ITT Tech and “consolidate your debt” ads. Also an ad for a L’Oreal cream that actually replaces your face.

Add a 9th premium channel for people willing to pay extra to go into the exhibit that just shows an hour of the broadcast of the Baltimore Orioles game where no one legally could show up.


An art gallery will be parceled using cubicle dividers into different rooms with doors that may or may not lock depending. It should collectively resemble an urban apartment complex.

20 individual people/couples from different income brackets and walks of life will be given correspondingly uneven budgets to decorate and live in these rooms for a month before the exhibit opens with the stipulations that they must put at least one thing to sit on and some sort of television.

Once this process is finished, the 8 or 9 channels will be broadcast to the TVs in the rooms in a full one hour loop. Gallery goers will pay for one hour intervals to live in these apartments and watch the TVs. They will be given apartment assignments randomly when they walk in.

Gallery goers will also randomly without warning be assigned roommates, other gallery goers and people hired from temp agencies in unrelated fields as something like seat fillers at the Oscars.

Because they will all only have an hour and a remote control, they must curate what they see of the images themselves and at what volume they watch it at. The person can turn the television off if they choose to. The only thing they’re required to do is stay the hour in the room.

The cubicle walls will be purposely thin so that if a person turns their volume up high enough the person in the neighboring cubicle will hear it.

No maintenance will be done to the rooms, but among whatever objects the initial settlers decorate with, a set of cleaning products will be placed there and switched out as they run out. No instructions will be given to visitors whether they should or shouldn’t touch or rearrange any of the objects in the room. It’s a distinct possibility if people come multiple times that certain areas of the exhibit could gentrify themselves.

Gallery attendants will check on the viewers once within the hour, knocking on the door to hand out Jehovah’s Witness fliers or sell candies. They will not be labeled as gallery attendants and if possible should be actual Jehovah’s Witnesses or people selling candy to support youth basketball programs given basic instructions on how to interact with the exhibit.

There could potentially be promotions of “date nights”. The installation should run itself out until the accumulated conditions cause the gallery building to be condemned by whatever actual city it’s set up in.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.

The Dust Bowl (2012)

This will be a very short review of a very long documentary.

Pare Lorentz in his 1936 classic “The Plow That Broke The Plains” manages to say more in 25 minutes then Ken Burns says in the almost 4 hours of his 2012 documentary “The Dust Bowl.”

How can this be?

It’s not that Ken Burns is a bad documentary film maker. On the contrary, he’s a very good one. But his method, long interviews with the survivors of the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history, is inherently flawed. What made his classic documentary on the Civil War work so well is exactly what weighs The Dust Bowl down.

There are no living witnesses to the United States Civil War. There are living witnesses to the Dust Bowl. Therein, for Burns, was the temptation. When he had his actors read off the letters and diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers, Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, he realized that the people who wrote the originals were long dead. So he had to put the words into a larger historical, and theoretical context. But when he interviews witnesses to the Dust Bowl, all we get are people who don’t fully understand what they saw with their own eyes. Instead of environmental science, we get nostalgia. Instead of thoughtful reflection about settler colonialism –- and Burns doesn’t interview a single Native American –- we get a reaffirmation of American patriotism. How many times can you sit through another white octogenarian talking about what a great work ethnic his parents had?

Burns should have gone back to the 1880s and 1890s and examined people who set the conditions for the Dust Bowl, not its ultimate victims. The Dust Bowl is not without its value. If you’re a high-school teacher by all means show it to your students. But don’t watch it immediately after you see The Plow That Broke The Plains.

It’s like following Dante with Game of Thrones.