I Like to Watch

America the dutiful! After PBS doc "The Anti-Americans" makes us feel fat and dumb, Ken Burns' "The War" reminds us that we're muy macho.

Topics: I Like to Watch, PBS, Television,

I Like to Watch

America has been feeling pretty impotent lately. The march of freedom screeched to a halt a long time ago, and we’ve got a feeble grip on our national identity. After decades of fancying ourselves sexy and invincible, we’re suddenly scrutinizing our teeth in the mirror and second-guessing the Ultrasuede loafers we once thought were so cool.

Thankfully, a new presidential race is heating up, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Who better to put the spring back in our step, than a brand-new lover, one who loves absolutely everything about us, from our stubborn independence to our somewhat delusional egocentrism? With pulpit-pounding conviction and an openly flirtatious grin, our new suitors say they see past the bald spot and the ill-fitting pants, they remember when we were young and brash, when we grabbed the world by the throat and had our way with it.

Hillary flatters us endlessly, Obama gives us long, moony, “Endless Love” gazes, and John charms our socks off. But which of these courtly callers will make us feel like our old virile, bossy selves again? The candidate who can soothe our egos, woo us out of this self-hating stupor and make us feel strong and special again will win the big prize!

Put the past behind you
Today’s candidates could learn a thing or two from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who loves us with such reckless conviction, he’s spent the last six years creating a film about our finest hour: World War II. “The War” (premieres Sept. 23, check listings) provides an expansive and detailed look at the global conflict that shaped our national consciousness for decades to come.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why would I want to spend my time learning facts about stuff that happened a long, long time ago?” And you raise a good question, really. Who has the time to learn about history? Don’t we all have much more pressing and important things to do, like repeating its mistakes?

And Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War” may have thrilled us, but how could Burns do World War II justice, really, when we already know everything there is to know? Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, Guadalcanal, yada yada yada. Didn’t we read all those Time-Life books our parents bought about the Third Reich? Didn’t we watch “Saving Private Ryan”? The world goes to hell, then some bad-ass Americans come in and save the day, but France never even sends a little thank-you note, those stuck-up jerks!

Like a clever lover, though, Burns asks America to tell all of its most oft-repeated anecdotes again, listening with rapt attention like he’s never heard them before. The magic of this kind of passionate curiosity, of course, is that the stories take on new life and vibrancy.

Even Pearl Harbor transcends its “day that will live in infamy” sound bites. Pairing alarming photographs and footage (made much more visceral with booming sound effects) with colorful, moving first-person accounts, “The War” evokes the horrors of that day all over again. “Pearl Harbor was a Sunday, and together with the whole family, we’re all getting ready to go to church,” Daniel Inouye, who was just 17 at the time, tells the camera. “The disc jockey’s going on with Hawaiian music, then suddenly, he sounded hysterical. For a moment I thought this was an act, so I stepped out into the street and sure enough, there are puffs of smoke coming out of the Pearl Harbor area. So I called my father out and said, ‘Look at that.’ Then all of the sudden, three aircraft flew right overhead. They were pearl gray with red dots. I knew what was happening. And I thought my world had just come to an end.”

Other sequences cover less familiar events of WWII. The Bataan Death March may sound familiar to most, but the devastating experience of the soldiers stranded in the Philippines isn’t detailed in shorter documentaries about the Second World War. For weeks after the Japanese invaded, American and Filipino soldiers held off the Japanese and were told repeatedly that reinforcements were on the way. Finally, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family left the Philippines for Australia, leaving thousands of men behind. Glenn Frazier, a member of the infantry who was only 17 years old when he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, tells of his worries when he heard that MacArthur had abandoned them. “When he left and went to Australia, that’s what I call doomsday for Bataan. He issued orders to fight to the last man, and that’s when we knew what our fate was going to be.” Seventy-eight thousand American and Filipino troops surrendered, and asked that they be treated decently. Instead, the Japanese marched them hundreds of miles with little food or water, beating and murdering soldiers randomly along the way. Somewhere between 6,000 and 11,000 of them died on the march, and 16,000 more died at prison camps after that.

Frazier says he had a sip of water and no food over the course of six days of marching. “If we had known what was ahead of us at the beginning of the Bataan Death March, I would’ve taken death.”

Burns picks great interview subjects, men and women who know how to paint a picture and give us a feel for the times and help us to understand their perspectives. In discussing his reasons for enlisting, Sam Hynes of Minnesota explained, “You have to imagine what it was like to be a teenage middle-class kid in Minneapolis in 1941. The chances for excitement were fairly limited … And then suddenly, you could be a pilot or a submariner or an artillery man or any damn thing, but it was something exciting, and it was something adult. All of a sudden you could choose to be an adult just by writing your name.”

It’s still a month away, but clear your calendars, because when “The War” airs — four nights of two-hour segments the first week, and three nights of two-hour segments the second week — patriots, history buffs and common know-nothings alike will be glued to the TV sets for this riveting, heartbreaking epic documentary.

Feel the love/hate
At least we know it has a happy ending: We saved the day, plain and simple. You’d think we’d get a free pass for being so macho and spreading freedom hither and thither, but no. It’s not good enough to bail out those pansy-ass Europeans. We’ve also got to ban greenhouse gases and respect stupid international treaties and pretend to care about what some bonehead from Namibia thinks of our policy in Iraq. What, do we look like good listeners? We’re Americans, damn it! We’ll only listen to you if you hold a gun to our heads — or wave a platter of cheese sticks around in front of our faces.

Maybe the U.N. should consider serving cheese sticks at its big meetings. Then our ambassador wouldn’t roll his eyes and sigh audibly every time someone grabs the mike and starts riffing on our diplomatic missteps.

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In case you haven’t had enough of being hated lately, PBS presents “The Anti-Americans: A Hate/Love Relationship” (premieres Monday Aug. 27, check local listings), a lighthearted romp through the extreme fear and loathing that America incites overseas — namely, in Britain, France and Poland.

The filmmakers behind this documentary are actually pretty merciful, leaving out Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other places where our name is mud. And as far as you can tell from the film, the complaints are fairly simple: The British think we’re dumb (That is correct, sir), the French think we’re fat and annoying and have bad taste (Too true), and the Polish admire and respect us for being so brave and helping them out of a bind or two over the years (We are very brave, let’s face it). But the Polish also think Ronald Reagan is one hell of a guy, so how can we take them seriously?

Like the teasing taunts of a scorned lover, the tone of this documentary is jocular, which is why we don’t kick it out of bed and throw its clothes out the window immediately. If we wanted a depressing and humorless look at the very real gripes that the rest of the world has against America, we’d just turn on the evening news and watch the foreign world peoples burning our flag at the Down With America pep rally du jour.

“The Anti-Americans” focuses more on cultural misperceptions and sweeping generalizations. Obviously, just as most of us are completely confused about other countries and cultures, most other countries and cultures have a pretty ignorant view of what we’re all about. For them, America begins and ends with McDonald’s and seriously bad taste in everything from music to presidents. Most of them don’t seem to have much firsthand information, of course, having gleaned their views from “Rambo” movies — which is sort of like criticizing the sexual techniques of a suitor you haven’t slept with yet, based on his porn collection.

But then, sometimes we look around and think that we’re lame for the same reasons, so can you really blame them? Anyway, “The Anti-Americans” is both fun and thoughtful, and while you might be tempted to punch a few French people in the face when you watch it, you have to admit, they do look pretty good for their age, and you wouldn’t mind a sip of that lovely red wine they’re drinking.

Road food for the soul
Ignorance is bliss, let’s face it, for them and for us. As long as you’ve never been to France, you have no idea how attractive and smart French people are and what relaxed and enlightened lives they’re living: eating great cheeses and breads, taking trains through the pretty green countryside, never working too hard. I swear, all they do is buy cool shoes and then go out and drink wine and argue about stuff.

America is better off not comparing itself to France, the George Clooney of rival nations, because it will only feel charmless and dull and slovenly the more it considers those jaunty frogs, with their jaunty thousand-year-old statues and their jaunty cream sauces.

But if America wants to boost its ego, it should hang out with Alton Brown, the host of “Feasting on Asphalt” (9 p.m. Saturdays on Food Network). Alton Brown (whose trademark show, “Good Eats,” recently won a Peabody Award) is madly in love with America. Alton Brown wants to marry America and have, like, a million of its babies.

Go ahead, try to convince Brown that America is less cool or has food that’s less tasty than France’s. Alton Brown adores America and its quirky culinary delights, so much so that he drives all over America, shoving its tasty local cuisine into his pie hole.

The best thing about driving across America is, of course, eating the random stuff that you find there, from chicken and biscuits to baked ham sandwiches to fried crawfish. But at first Brown’s manner with the down-home chefs he meets on the road can feel a little pesky: He talks a lot, gets dramatic, teases by demanding to know their secret recipes. But after a few episodes, it’s clear that Brown’s geeky demeanor brings his subjects out of their shells. Whether it’s the girl at the drive-through doughnut shop, offering him a free glazed doughnut, or Arthur Davis, cook of the best fried chicken Brown has ever tasted, singing a song about how his chicken is made in heaven, Brown’s new friends are quick to loosen up in his presence.

And as repetitive as some of Brown’s tomfoolery can feel, the overall pace and mood of the show is deliberately meandering: Brown pretends to be having a bad allergic reaction in a parking lot in Natchez, Miss., so that Geraldine, the cook at Club 601, will tell him the ingredients to her spaghetti (which is served with fried catfish, strangely enough). The next morning, Brown and his crew wake up at a campsite, borrow salt from some neighbors and take the time to make eggs, sausage and grits for breakfast before hitting the road. Then Brown races along on his motorcycle, all the while speaking into a headset about the history of the Natchez Trace Parkway. In the end, all of these at-times-rambling segments add up to a feeling that you tasted the doughnuts and the chicken and met Geraldine and Arthur and the rest of these likable characters yourself.

“Feasting on Asphalt” is like “Good Eats” on a road trip, and Brown obviously enjoys it. Why shouldn’t he? Alton Brown eats and talks and eats some more for a living, and I’m as jealous of him as I am of those damn French, with their lean frames and their jaunty handbags.

Comfortably dumb
But good taste and intelligence aren’t everything, America. I bet those Frenchies don’t have 5,000 square feet of carpeted, air-conditioned space to stroll through while eating cheese-filled pretzels and listening to Soulja Boy. In fact, I bet most Europeans have to leave the house just to walk their dogs. Suckers!

You’ve got to get your swagger back, America. If the Republicans don’t make you feel like a man anymore and you’re not buying Obama’s pillow talk, then it’s all up to you. Remember, you’re (sometimes) good enough, you’re (almost) smart enough, and gosh darn it, people don’t like you — but that’s only because they haven’t taken the time to really get to know you yet. If they knew you, they’d hate you even more than you hate yourself.

Next week: Is desperate the new sexy?

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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