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Series


America’s National Parks have a special place in my heart thanks to my father, who took it upon himself to drag me to as many of these natural refuges as he could. Though my review time is limited these days I was happy to sit through all 12 and a half hours of Ken Burns’ latest public television opus. Having seen much of Burns’ other work I was prepared for the experience, for the most part. Burns’ work quite often devolves into self parody, and concerning simple taste, I often find the man’s films overlong, the victim of slow-handed editing. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is no exception. Burns’ docs should be grand, and should cover huge arcs of time and history, but in his artistry the director tends to lose focus to flowery quotations read by faceless celebrities, meandering interviews filled with a few too many subjective opinions, false endings and goofy dramatic pauses. The matter of fact presentation of the subject matter is sometimes a bit too easy-going for its own good. There’s little suspense or surprise in story. If I were a 12 year-old I forced to watch the series by a zealous teacher I could imagine the process as tortuous. I’m an adult with an interest in the subject matter, and a relatively enduring attention span, and even I dozed off a few times. Otherwise, this stuff is painfully perfect, and thus ends the minutely negative criticism I can muster.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
The set’s first disc, ‘The Scripture of Nature’, features an exploration of the very idea of giving ownership of large sections of land to all citizens of a nation. Despite the trumping hobnail boots of manifest destiny a select few were able to convince those in power of the value of maintaining the nation’s natural wonders, partially to celebrate the country’s natural advantages over Europe, and partially out of sheer awe. The non-natives that first visited these places (in most cases starting with Yosemite) were so struck by the grandness of it all they found themselves religiously enraptured. The success of the system often came out of the same fervent entitlement manifest destiny did – this was our nation, and we were going to maintain this beauty. It’s too bad the natives and the animals weren’t quite so fortunate in the aftereffects, but at least we didn’t chop down the damn redwoods, right? This disc also features stories of the first ‘Americans’ to ‘discover’ Yellowstone (our Native American interviewee rightfully thinks this is silly), which was so utterly otherworldly it was considered a fictional place. Those who have visited the park know how hard it is to understand without seeing it. Yellowstone was marked as the first ever National Park, mostly due to railroad interests, and unlike Yosemite the land was quickly exploited. This particular disc ends with tales of continued efforts by the project’s godfather, John Muir, to keep the parks from becoming commercialized.

The second disc, ‘The Last Refuge’, starts with the new parks already in danger, and really picks up the pace concerning likely unknown factoids (I certainly didn’t know a lot of this stuff). The rampant tourism was cheapening the nature and literally destroying it with the build-up of hotels, roads, and litter, and there were still few laws concerning logging and the killing of wildlife. The US Army was officially guarding the parks against idiotic tourists, and bloodthirsty poachers, and many of them died in the harsh wilderness. Even more historically interesting some of these soldiers were of the Buffalo variety. Likely the most historically known aspect of the whole story comes into play here – that of Theodore Roosevelt’s involvement in the project, and his relationship with Muir following his election as president of the United States. This episode begins to splinter the story towards the end, which opens the door to the chronicles of many unlikely heroes, including Rudyard Kipling, who’s cynical reaction to fellow tourists, and beautiful descriptions of Yellowstone’s grandeur helped bring attention to the park, and many amateur archeologists who helped insure sites like Mesa Verde would be protected under the then new National Monument title, which was reserved to man-made wonders.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
Disc three, ‘The Empire of Grandeur’, starts with Muir dead, and Roosevelt out of office, but the success of the parks marched on thanks to the efforts of one Stephen Mather. Mather saw that the parks weren’t being maintained despite the efforts of Muir, and were reserved in title only. The self-made millionaire basically volunteered to oversee the government project, which is an almost unprecedented story in American political history. The seat almost drove him to suicide. Horace Albright picked up the baton while Mather sat in a sanitarium, and made a special effort to preserve the parks’ animals. Mather and Albright ushered the National Parks Service onto the scene to take over for the bored and tried Army soldiers that had been maintaining the parks for so long. This episode attempts to bring the Native Americans back into the story, but things turn back to the same money grubbing habits, which ended up saving and damning the parks once again thanks to the efforts of various railroad companies. WWI, ironically enough, helped. The Indians were hired as additional tourist attractions by the railroads. Not exactly the least demeaning job for a once proud people. Other subjects of this story include the finalization of the Grand Canyon’s place as an official National Park, and new park acquisitions, like Hawaii’s volcanoes, which were popularized by Mark Twain of all people, Mt. McKinley, which is photographed by Burns more dramatically than anything in the collection, Mt. Zion, the Great Basin, and Bryce Canyon.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
The plot thickens on disc four, ‘Going Home’, as the terminally depressed hero (Mather) and his stalwart sidekick (Albright) make a deal with the Devil by supporting the latest form of cross-country momentum – the automobile. Mather wanted tourists, at almost any cost, and found it difficult to find a balance between commerce and conservation. By supporting cars and highways the keepers of the park service were able to wrestle the parks away from the railroad companies, but the vehicles obviously created pollution in the parks. The cars weren’t a great idea, but the newly hired park rangers were. Unfortunately impending doom is more dramatically interesting than the story of Dudley Do Right, so I’m forced to admit that Burns lost me for a bit at this point. This eventually leads us to the story of Margaret and Edward Gehrke, who were the first people to officially start ‘collecting’ National Parks – a term that came to signify the process of gathering the windshield stickers that came with car payments. Clearly the car support worked, because this obsessive behavior is still practiced today. Meanwhile, another clinically sad man named Horace Kephart, joined forces with a Japanese immigrant named George Massa, and the two set out to topple an industrialized logging firm that was destroying the Smoky Mountains. Between increasingly long soliloquies on the beauty of nature, we also learn of continued trouble in the Grand Canyon, the acquisition of Grand Teton (boobs), and the quiet death of Stephen Mather.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
Disc five, ‘Great Nature’, features the United States entering the Great Depression and WWII. Despite these hardships, and the deaths of Mather and Muir, President Franklyn Delanore Roosevelt made efforts to expand the park idea to include even more areas, including historic battlefields. During the Depression many young Americans found work in the parks, and in return the parks were given a lot more money and maintenance attention. Later WWII soldiers found solace in the parks between tours. Beyond these arching histories, the disc features another handful of interwoven stories. A young park employee named George Melendez Wright took it upon himself to take a scientific survey of the wildlife in the parks. This continues the theme of people going out of their way on their own time and dime to make the parks better, and reiterated the importance of the animals, which were often overlooked in favour of mountains and plant life at the time. Other parks brought into the fold during this era include The Everglades, Joshua Tree, the Olympic Peninsula and the Channel Islands. This disc also features the story of artist Chiura Obata, and other Japanese immigrants that found solace in America’s natural beauties, and the story behind Ansel Adams’ influential photography. In a stroke of filmmaking genius the two stories come together when Adams photographs the Japanese internment camps.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
This take on the story comes to an end with ‘The Morning of Creation’, which covers the years between 1946 and 1980. The post war years were rough on the parks, as vets and their boomer children visited en masse. Yellowstone bore the brunt of the Eisenhower era, as seen in those famous Disney nature docs. The good news was that the Baby Boomers grew up with the parks, and were more likely to fight to preserve them in the future. The story pauses to tell the story of Adolph Murie (not Muir), who took effort to protect the wildlife in the parks, and who had more success in the long term than Wright, who died young. Murie’s work defending predators was not immediately popular, but has had a lasting effect on the world’s perception of wolves. Unfortunately the documentary barely touches upon the more recent reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. The final chapter also features stories of continued battles between environmentalists and industrialists concerning the building of more dams, and more park acquisitions than you can shake a federally protected sequoia branch at thanks to the efforts of President Jimmy Carter. The doc ends before the narrative gets to the modern story of the George W. Bush administration’s aims to draw oil from protected Alaskan lands (though continued conservation is an obvious theme).

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The

Video


The National Parks: America’s Best Idea looks better on 1080i Blu-ray disc than it does on 1080i broadcast, but not enough to damn the television version. The advantage is a lack of compression artefacts, which cropped up on my set when I double-checked for the hell of it. The disc is far from perfect, but the problems that crop up are not the fault of the disc, rather they are a product of some less than perfect original footage. Burns and company have seemingly used state of the art cameras to record current footage of the parks, but the footage itself is often lacking in the clarity and cleanliness departments. Inconsistency is the name of the game. Occasionally an image will appear crystalline, almost too clear for reality, while other images will be wrought with digital grain and muddled details. The colours are usually impressive despite the clarity, but at times I think we’re looking at upscaled NTCS footage rather than a full HD image. I’m not exactly disappointed, but there are surely better looking nature docs on the market. The interview segments are similar in their inconsistency, usually depending on the lighting schemes used to film the interviewees. Higher contrast lighting leads to more facial details. The most consistent pieces of the transfer are the black and white period photographs, which are almost exclusively beautiful in the purity of their hues and details.

Audio


The National Parks features a modestly mixed Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. There’s very little room for dynamic sound in the series’ tone, which is akin to one deep, relaxing breath after another, but the important elements are clear and warmly represented. Directional effects are a practical non-entity, but there are several bits of folley and catalog sound effects used to illustrate the otherwise silent imagery. This is often pretty clunky once noticed, but for the most part the effects are low on the track, and presented softly in the center channel. Otherwise the track is devoted to the musical score, and narrative and interview dialog. Peter Coyote’s voice is so ingrained in my mind as the voice of the documentation of Americana that he’s actually startling to see on screen. The track does a fine job of subtly separating the tone of the narrator, and the celebrities that speak period quotes from the expert interviewees. The music is tonally perfect, though a bit repetitive come hour three or four (except the period popular music). For the most part the stereo and surround channels are devoted to this music. The center channel features very little music. The mix sets the music as a sort of wall of stereo on both sides, with very little discernment between the front and back channels of each side. The LFE is used mostly with subtly, but is important to the bass of the strings, drums, and Coyote’s voice.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The

Extras


The extras start on disc one with ‘The Making of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea’ (25:00, HD). This is less of a ‘making-of’ and more of an elongated trailer for the series (it’s marked as a PBS Preview), featuring excerpts and interviews with Burns and the other filmmakers concerning the why of the production, a few shots of behind the scenes footage, and some even more subjective interviews with some of the series’ interview subjects.

Disc two features ‘Capturing the Parks’ (23:00, HD), a location featurette and obvious companion piece to the first disc’s featurette. This bit is more of a genuine behind the scenes exploration, covering many large and small aspects of the photography process, with a special emphasis on the people behind the cameras, some of whom were children when the production began.

Following disc three’s six music video selections, disc four features two sizable outtakes. The first is an interview with Nevada Barr (7:20, HD), an apparently famous writer and ex-park ranger. Barr worked at various parks, so she has an interesting perspective on the subject. Her interview would’ve slowed the pace of the doc (even more), but her stories are a fine addition as an extra. The second outtake is entitled ‘The Boss’ (10:20, HD) chronicles the story of Frank Pinkly, who found himself in charge of Casa Grande monument in Southern Arizona. Pinkly fell in love with the site, and elected to stay even after he was offered a more illustrious assignment. In a case of truth being truly stranger than fiction, Pinkly died after giving a speech he’d waited his whole to give, and was buried near the ruins. Again, this outtake doesn’t quite fit in the whole of the film, but stands as a nice mini-doc.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The
Disc five features a bonus mini-doc entitled The National Parks: This is America (44:20, HD). I suppose these sequences could be considered outtakes, but overall there’s a whole lot of repetition between this section and the series proper. This is more like a re-editing of the majority of the person specific information found throughout the doc, mixed with a few more interviews. I’m not clear on the point of the exercise, but suppose that it at least works as an elongated preview reel, and the stories of some of the interviewees do add something to the whole experience.

The final disc features five more mini-docs that were shown on PBS between other shows. San Antonio Mission: Keeping History Alive (12:10, HD) visits the San Antonio Mission national historical park during the Day of the Dead celebration, and gives a brief history of the area and the mixed Catholic and ancient Indian celebration. Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers (11:30, HD) delves a little more into the story behind the parks black soldiers than the documentary proper did, and follows a ranger named Shelton Johnson who enacts a sort of S.C.A. version of a Buffalo Soldier. Mount Rushmore: Telling America’s Stories (9:30, HD) tells the tale of Ranger Gerard Baker’s role as the first Native American on the site. Through Baker we learn about the alternate historical importance of the Black Hills area. Manzanar: Never Again (14:15, HD) looks at the current state of one of the Japanese American internment camp sites. I’d personally like to see even more on the subject, which I admittedly know very little about. City Kids in National Parks (13:50, HD) closes out the whole set with a trip to Death Valley on a bus filled with Las Vegas 7th graders.

National Parks: America's Best Idea, The

Overall


Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a bit of a trudge, but it’s quite educational, and works to spurn interest in these magical places. This Blu-ray version of the series isn’t the most perfect hi-def nature doc, but it’s more than DVD can manage, so collectors with the ability will want to spend the extra cash. Those that thought they gotten enough the first time around when the series premiered on public television might be enticed by some solid additional features. The collection’s a bit pricy, but sort of counts as a donation to public television, so buyers can feel a little better about the karma that will likely immediately sprout from their investment.

My personal checklist of National Parks I’ve genuinely explored looks something like this, assuming I’m remembering everything correctly: Saguaro (near where I grew up), Coronado, Casa Grande, The Petrified Forest, The Grand Canyon, The Santa Monica Mountains, Redwood, Mojave (the sand dunes), Bryce Canyon, Glen Canyon, Rainbow Bridge, Yucca House, Mesa Verde, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Teton, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, and The Badlands. I may have been to Yosemite when I was very young too, but I don’t recall with certainty. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Where have you been? And Burns, where’s that six part doc on American exploitation cinema I’m pretending you’re producing?


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