Why you should move from Word to Pages

[This post originally appeared on Medium.]

Logo_Pages○ Word is expensive, Pages is free.

○ Pages used to be bad at footnotes (while Word was always superb). Now it’s fine.

○ Word used to have a brilliant “selection” feature for sentences (Command + Click) that many writers found indispensable. Microsoft eliminated it. Then they put it back. (But by that time I was gone. Please, Apple programmers, could we have one of these for Pages.)

○ Pages is better than Word at producing well behaved PDFs. Images in the PDF are more stationary. The PDFs produced by Pages are higher resolution than those produced by Word.

○ Pages is not quite as good as Word at giving us a “map” of chapter headings. But its “bookmarks” feature is catching up. (Apple only need to look at “sidebar” then “navigation” to see why the Word version is stronger. It’s more compact and it distinguishes between chapters and subchapters.)

○ Pages handles Tables of Content more elegantly (and more automatically). Word TOC needed to be refreshed with each change to headings in the manuscript. This was a pain.

○ Pages handles the “find” function more efficiently.

○ Pages converts Word documents faultlessly, as nearly as I can tell.

○ Pages feels simpler and smarter. Less feature bloat. More “all but only” the features we need. By this time, Word is a bit of a Frankenstein. Microsoft has been “adding to” instead of “starting again” for years now.

Some big changes start small. I have written over a million words with Word. This made me what you might call a loyal user, or at least a habitual one. Then Word withdrew that “sentence selection” feature. Clearly it was an oversight because eventually they put it back.

But this sudden, apparently thoughtless, change started a cascade.

I began searching for another word processor and I auditioned several, including Mellel, Byword, Scrivener, Pages, iA Writer Pro and Ulysses. (I love Scrivener, but the lack of WYSIWYG, and the need to fiddle with output, drives me crazy.)

Once Pages demonstrated new skill with footnotes and PDFs, I signed on.

And now that I was done with Word, I began to think about leaving Powerpoint. I was already using Keynote some of the time.

And now that I was out of Word and Powerpoint, I could consider dumping Excel.
All of a sudden, I was post-Microsoft.

Microsoft has never made the best software. It has relied on an installed base, and the lethargy of people like me. But eventually, at least for me, their cynicism and/or indifference caught up with them.

And things slid away. No black swan. No radical disruption. No act of competitor innovation.

Just a self inflicted wound.

And one user escapes his Office captivity. How about you?

Google’s early warning of the rise of Trump

[This post first appeared on Medium, October 23, 2017]

screenshotAll social observers should (still) be asking themselves, “How did we miss it? How did we miss the rise of Trump?”

In a perfect world, we would have had some sort of “early warning.”

We would have detected “faint signals” that put us on notice.

I want to examine one strategy or tactic that we could classify as “early warning from big data.” I will attempt to show how Google helps twice, once with the autocomplete function and again with Google Trends.

Net worth

Some time around 2010, years before Trump was a presidential hopeful, something dramatic happened to the search term “net worth.”

(Much of what follows is speculative. Hang on to your hat.)

I think you have probably seen “net worth” pop up as a Google autocomplete suggestion. You are putting in the name of an actor, say, and Google anticipates that the object of your curiosity is how much money this actor has made.

And I think (here comes the anthropological speculation) there was a time when people loved their celebrities generously and without qualification. They didn’t care about net worth. They didn’t think about it.

And then around 2010 this changed. (Possibly.) According to Google Trends (see the image above), some people began to care what celebrities were worth…not as celebrities, where their value is, to a real fan, inestimable… but in an economic sense.

Now, to be sure, some of these inquiries might have been admiring. Net worth might have served as an additional measure of the celebrity, outsized not just in their beauty and accomplishments, but in their economic standing.

But some of these Google Search queries may have sprung from another motive. It is possible, now to engage in still more speculation, that “net worth curiosity” was an expression of incipient resentment. People were asking because they were no longer unqualified in their adoration. The attitude was something closer to, “Let’s have a look at how this guy managed to get himself paid.” Admiration was turning to scrutiny. Adoration to skepticism.

There may be a zero-sum thinking in evidence here. The searcher was asking, effectively, “how much value has gone to you that did not come to me.” Or still more inquisitively, “how much value has gone to you that came from me. How much did you profit from my adoration?” This is truly zero sum. Your win was my loss. Your celebrity came at my expense.

All speculative. We would need to do the ethnography and talk to people who are using the search term. If resentment is at work here, it will surface soon enough and we will have a chance to map its origins and logic and imagine its outcomes.

[Let me just say that the big data players are, some of them, still inclined to suppose that their data are so big as to be self sufficient. All we need, they seem to say, is quantitative data. We can detect, infer and/or extrapolate the rest. This is sad. All you need to do is ask. And if you are a trained anthropologist (or other scientist) and even if you’re not, you can get straight at motive and logic. It’s there for the asking.]

But back to the larger methodological, future-casting opportunity here. Google gives us two instruments for early warning. One is the auto-complete function which is itself a statistically driven exercise. Google is playing back what people are using as a search term. And this makes it a window for those of us in need of continuous illumination. I have to say it would never have occurred to me to consider the possibility that people were asking this question. Auto-complete worked for me as a kind of “head’s up display.” I was asking about one thing and the Google data flashed before my eyes. This happens with every search we make. We dismiss most of the autocompletes. But sometimes we say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why are people asking that?” We have just had one, fleeting, glimpse of a possible future.

There is a kind of serendipity function here. As a student of American culture and as a forecaster of American futures, I can’t possibly anticipate all the things I should be looking for. And in this event, it makes sense to have some device that peppers me with data points. Google’s auto-complete works just this way. It serves as a kind of “head’s up display.” Over the course of a day of Google searches, I will get, say, 50 opportunities to see something I would never have thought to go looking for. Effectively, Google’s autocomplete function is working as my “desktop dashboard,” a flow of messages from the deep space of the Google data sphere.

The second instrument is Google Trends. I enter “net worth” there and the results are very interesting. There is (see the image above) a clear starting point. So this is not a chronic, low level curiosity. It starts. And then it rises. We are looking at a social trend or cultural movement that erupts and then scales. Our attention is arrested. Am I right to think that these data can be read as early warning of a change in attitude towards the celebrity world and, perhaps, the creative class and coastal elites? Who knows? It would take a lot more research to know. But I am put on notice that there might be something “out there.” In a world filled with black swans, that’s valuable, especially when one of the swans is Donald J. Trump.

In the case of the ascendency of a Donald J. Trump, this “something out there” is a matter for something more than idle curiosity. Every strategist, marketer, design thinker, pollster and political party would have been well served by early notice. If there was something happening to the bed rock of American attitude and opinion, if there was a new order of alienation “out there,” we needed to know and the sooner the better.

Post script: Over the weekend I participated in an event on “Design, futures and happiness” at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Thanks to Bruce Tharp and Stuart Candy for including me in a very stimulating series of discussions. Thanks also to Hal Varian and John Deighton for conversations over the longer term on Google as a window on the future.

Goat Rodeo vs. dumpster fire

screenshotOne of the pleasures of American English is its gift for new and pungent metaphors.

My new favorite: goat rodeo.

I used it often while driving with my wife today. It is surprising how many opportunities presented themselves. Traffic jams, strip malls, bad drivers, urban blight, the back seat. I am sure I was overdoing it, but that’s how you learn.

Goat rodeo replaces my recent favorite: the dumpster fire.

The great thing about dumpster fire is how contemptuous it is. To call something a “dumpster fire,” I think, is to say that it is vivid, alarming, but, for all that, harmless. A dumpster fire looks bad but, hey, what’s the worst that can happen? The guys working in the kitchen at Denny’s gather in the parking lot to see what the commotion is and one of them says, “that’s gonna burn itself out.” And everyone loses interest immediately and goes back inside.

Which is to say, I get why “dumpster fire” enjoyed such a nice long run. What is it that’s so appealing about “goat rodeo.” Certainly, there is a standing American hostility for badly organized situations. This is expressed in words like SNAFU, herding cats, and cluster f***. Now that we live in a digital era and the world is so much less disorderly, any thing that remains intractably chaotic is a special offense. So we are, presumably, especially on the look out for new terms of scorn.

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

Plus, there is some slight implication that the people running a goat rodeo may not actually grasp how far off standard they actually are. “What? Horses? They wanted horses?” This would make the phrase a way of saying that the situation was wrong from the beginning. and that this tells us that it’s in the hands of idiots, and that this tells us it is utterly intractable. A goat rodeo stays a goat rodeo. (Even as a dumpster fire burns itself out.)

And then there is the choice of “goat.” Herding cats is sweet because cats are such dozy anarchists. They really just want to find a place to fall asleep in the sun. No harm, no foul. Goats on the other hand are, I believe, much more willful, and aggressive, and they really smell. And they will eat your shoes. Cats will never eat your shoes.

Finally, there is something so self flattering about the phrase. When you call a situation a goat rodeo you are saying that it wouldn’t be so if you were in charge. This is a bad situation, but only for people who are too dim or rural and clueless to put it right. The speaker elevates himself. And I love elevating myself. Someone has to.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Charles Dan for the photo. See his article here.

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for AncestryDNA.com. This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

CLIENT
23 and Me
AGENCY
Venables Bell and Partners
LOCATION
Los Angeles
DIRECTOR
Diego Contreras
EDITOR
Martin Leroy

 

Google Trends as life advice?

[this post first appeared on Medium]

I was in Portland last week looking for artisans to interview for the Artisanal Economies Project and stumbled upon a vintage clothing store.

A clothing store is not perfectly artisanal, but I figured it qualified. It is, after all, curatorial, small batch and non industrial.

The woman within was happy to help but she told me that her store was threatened by insolvency. We talked for maybe 30 minutes and it became clear she had stalled. She could not stay in her present location, but she wasn’t sure where she and her husband should move.

“We’re from the midwest…” Marie trailed off, “If you have any suggestions, please let me know.”

Back in my hotel room, I wondered if Google Trends could help. I had the honor of talking to Hal Varian about Google Trends several months ago, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore what it can do.

I searched “vintage clothing” and it was clear that this is in decline nationally. Marie is right to be concerned.

screenshot

Google Trends allows us to drill down by state. Oregon shows lots of volatility and a still more marked decline.

screenshot

Google Trends ranks the states. This chart shows the states that rank low. And it turns out that Oregon ranks very low indeed, 45 out of 46 states. By this reckoning, Marie lives in almost the worst state in which to have a vintage clothing store. So moving anywhere is probably a good idea.

screenshot

The next chart shows the states that rank high. It suggests that California or New York might be better choices.

screenshot

Google Trends let’s us drill down to the city level.

screenshot

This suggests Eugene would be better than Portland. (And Boise would be very bad indeed.)

There are several issues here.

1 The chief of these is whether Google Trends is, for Marie’s purposes, measuring what we want to measure in the way we want to measure it. I will leave this issue to readers. I would just say that these data must be dramatically better than the ones that Marie and her husband now have at this disposal.

2 Should Marie and her husband trust a life decision to these data. I think the answer has to be ‘yes.’ Again, at this point they have NO alternative data with which to work. (They appear to be considering a return to the midwest simply because they come from there. From an “industry” point of view, this is anti-strategic.)

3 The last question is the most obvious intellectual one. Why should vintage clothing be doing badly in Oregon? (Marie told me that there used to be 12 stores in Portland and now there are only 4.)

I would have thought that vintage clothing would be one of the best ways of ‘keeping Portland weird.’ That is to say, I would have thought that vintage clothing would have resonate with this and other cultural things that define the locality.

4 This bring us to the prize question. By the looks of things here, a change is taking place in Portland. Consumer taste and preference has shifted. It is an anthropological truth that a shift of this order cannot be trivial. It must indicate a deeper change taking place in the culture of Portland, in the very “mentality” (as the French social scientist would call it) of the city.

Any change of this kind is interesting to an anthropologist. But when it is something taking place in a city now famous for setting the trend for some part of the rest of the country, then, yowser, this is very interesting.

Best of all, this change is, at least for me, counter intuitive. I would never have guessed it. I have no ready explanation. I am mystified. And this means that the change in question is, at least for me, disruptive.

Now to figure out what it is…

5 Google trends has several clear and verified uses. Marie’s example that it might also serve for the purpose of life navigation. Career counsellors and life coaches, take note.

(post script: “Marie” is a made-up name.)

Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. So mean.

[this post first appeared in Medium.]

A friend told me about seeing a freshman on a university campus in the UK. The kid was clearly in agony. And it was easy to see why. He had made a terrible fashion choice for his first day.

Over the course of his first hour on campus, this truth began to dawn. His choice was appallingly bad. Everybody thought so. He could tell.

The kid was now trying to keep his composure until he could get back to his room. He wanted to run, but a gentleman never bows before the ridicule of others. He holds his sangfroid. Otherwise, everything is lost.

It was, my friend said, going to be a close call. Would this young man make it back to his room before his nerve failed? Or would he break into a run?

Fred Armisen, the musician and satirist famous for his work on SNL and Portlandia, would love this dilemma, this struggle for aplomb in the face of self-reproach. But then Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. He helps himself to the human comedy with no trace of empathy or compassion. Our discomfort is his opportunity.

Take Globesmen, the mockumentary about door to door salesmen that Armisen did for his IFC series Documentary Now. Globesmen is about guys trudging suburban streets trying to sell something no one much cares about on the dubious claim that a good globe (or even one from Amalgamated Globe) will make your kids as cosmopolitan as a jetsetter and your living room glow with sophistication.

Globesmen is a world of cheap suits, crummy motels, bald faced lies, and an endless stream of indignities inflicted by indifferent heads of household, rock-throwing kids, and fire-breathing managers, the last actually threatening physical violence. Being a door-to-door salesman in this period was better the bagging groceries…but not by much. You got to wear a suit and carry a briefcase. Just about everything else about this job was designed as if to humiliate you.

Armisen loves these humiliations. He documents and savors them in Globesmen. You have to be cold hearted to watch this kind of thing. But to make it? You can’t have any heart at all.
But his heartlessness is also fearlessness. Armisen can take on anyone. He even takes on cool people. This is unheard of. Everyone knows that cool kids are above reproach. We learned this lesson in high school and we have lived its truth every day since. The cool kids stand above us in the social scheme of things. It is for them to judge us. It is not for us to judge them.

Which brings us to Portlandia, Armisen’s long running series on IFC. Portlandia looks at bike messengers, locavore chefs, book store owners, and other “hipsters” sworn to keep Portland weird.

For satirists like Armisen and his comrade in arms, Carrie Brownstein, Portland is what you might call a “target-rich environment.” Over 6 seasons, Armisen and Brownstein set to work. It’s not a pretty portrait. Take their running treatment of two women who run a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. The sketches open with Candace and Toni chatting behind the cash register. Candace (Fred’s character) usually says something that is vertiginously untrue. (“All of your nerve endings are in your fingertips.”) But the skits don’t really get going until Candace and Toni take umbrage. Eventually we understand that this is what the store is for. It brings them things to loathe.

In one sketch, Steve Buscemi plays a man who enters the bookstore not to buy a book but to use the bathroom. And this is so very wrong. The bathroom is clearly reserved for customers only. Candace and Toni now have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But he may not make a purchase because he is not worthy of any book or pamphlet in the store. So he can’t stay, but he can’t actually leave.

There are many other wonderful moments here. Candace asks an air conditioner repair man to make a contribution to the store “tip jar” so that there will be enough money there to pay him for the work he is doing. This makes perfect sense to Candace and Toni. And one of the targets of this satire is the hermetically sealed logic of Women and Women First. This is a world with its own cultural properties, so to speak. Language and logic work differently here. Candace and Toni have seen to that.

Surely, it’s not for us, craven members of the bourgeoisie, to take issue with any of this. Candace and Toni are way out there on the diffusion curve. They are the first to pull away from the gravitation of the moment. They are the first to see the future. We don’t have any standing here, as the courts like to say. We don’t have any credibility. We are creatures of the mainstream, the middle class and the moment, thoughtlessly captive of the conventions Candace and Toni fight at Women and Women First.

Armisen does take issue. He holds this up for ridicule. He dares to examine the absurdities and contractions lurking at Women and Women First. He reveals Portlandia to be a place that practices a vigilance that beggars NSA snooping, and wields powers of reproach of which the colonial Protestant church would heartily approve. (It turns out we want a guy like Fred on that wall. We need a guy like Fred on that wall.) Armisen protects us from zealots.

But there is still a problem here. Armisen doesn’t show any more compassion or empathy for Candace and Toni than he did for the globesmen. And empathy is clearly called for. It’s not much fun being Candace and Toni. Being hyper vigilant is intellectually difficult and emotionally taxing. It complicates both your personal life and your social life. It is demonstrably true (by which I mean, anthropologically verifiable) that sexism is deeply, often imperceptibly, embedded in our culture. Only acts of real determination can dig it out. So we need people like Candace and Toni. They are not shock troops at all but social reformers of the Jane Addams order, people who exert themselves to create the world without which we would, most of us, be miserable.

What Armisen’s ridicule misses are the unavoidable costs borne by some of the people rebuilding American culture. Self-righteousness is the secret of self-protection.

Armisen doesn’t care. No one is safe around this guy. He takes advantage of pathetic and the sad. He ridicules the keepers of our ridicule. Cool or cruelly put upon, Fred holds us all up for derision. No one can avoid this dark satiric mill.

Photo credit: “Fred Armisen at 2014 Imagen Foundation Award” by (and with thanks to) Richard Sandoval. Used according to CC BY-SA 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hispaniclifestyle/14810641332/

Post script: Thanks to Hargurchet Bhabra for sharing the story with which this post opens.

Ken Burns, an anthropological portrait of an artist and the edge

[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]

In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.

In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.

But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.

The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.

The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.

Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.

This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.

The Ken Burns Effect

The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.

The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.

The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).

But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).

The voice-over says,

Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.

The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).

That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.

As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.

“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”

The camera moves in, and we think,

“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”

And finally,

“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”

Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)

This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.

This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.

I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.

This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.

All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.

Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.

post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.