Monday, September 7, 2015

Watching Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' after Dylann Roof

The PBS documentary turns 25 this year, just as the Charleston murders and the Confederate flag debate freshly exposed a nation’s racial wounds—wounds the film mostly ignores.

In October 1862, the photographer Mathew Brady opened an exhibition in his New York studio called “The Dead of Antietam.” In it he presented nearly 100 images of the Civil War battlefield that saw what was, up to that time, the bloodiest confrontation ever fought on American soil. In one day, more than 20,000 men had been killed, wounded, or gone missing
Brady’s assistants, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, arrived soon after the fighting was over and turned their lenses on the corpses of the Union and Confederate soldiers, capturing the grotesque reality of death in an age when people still imagined that war was a chivalrous affair. Here were the bodies piled on top of each other in “The Bloody Lane,” there were the bloated cadavers of Confederates, their pockets turned inside out by pillagers. One of the most memorable images was of a dead gray horse that looked as if it were resting, and only the caption informed the viewer that both the animal and the man riding it had been killed.
Eventually, most or all of these photographs were available for purchase as “stereo cards” which could be looked at through special lenses until the full depth and horror of the sepia images leaped out at the viewers. The cameras used by Brady’s team, you see, recorded the American Civil War in 3-D.
Filmmaker Ken Burns used a great many of those gruesome pictures from Antietam and the many other battles fought between 1861 and 1865 in his monumental 11-hour documentary film series, “The Civil War,” first broadcast 25 years ago. Now, to mark the silver anniversary of that momentous television event, PBS will rebroadcast it over the course of five consecutive nights, beginning on Labor Day, and in a never-before-seen high-definition version that should be almost as vivid as Brady’s stereo cards.
But if you saw the documentary a quarter-century ago, or indeed one year ago, you are likely to feel as I did, after binge-watching it once again over the last few days, that the experience is very different than it was in the past, and not because of the technology, but because of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of this year.... READ ON

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