Does the “Ken Burns Effect” work in an age of social media?

Early last year, the NBC television show Community produced an episode entitled “Pillows v. Blankets.“ The episode depicts a pillow fight that reaches epic brother-against-brother proportions by involving the entire Glendale Community College campus. It very cleverly relates the war’s progression through text messages (complete with emoticons), emails, and Facebook updates. Footage of pillow skirmishes comes from cell phones. Episodes of Community often parody elements of popular culture (a particular favorite is an episode that mocks the show Law & Order). For this particular conflict, the writers looked to Ken Burns’ popular documentary, The Civil War.  The conversation below spooled out from our (Priya Chhaya and Vanessa Macias’) mutual love of pop culture and history.

Vanessa: I was so happy to hear that you found Community’s “Pillows v. Blankets” episode as funny as I did! I thought it was just the history nerd in me that was tickled by the spot-on parody of Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War.

Priya: I know. Part of the reason I found the episode so enjoyable was just how seriously it took the conflict, thus underscoring the Civil War’s over-dramatization in that much-beloved documentary. However, in being so obvious the Community episode illustrated the way in which our lives have changed from the 1860s. I’ll readily admit that watching the film is one of my favorite memories of my high school history class. At the time it was only a few years old (the documentary came out in 1990) and emphasized what I would later learn was social history—telling history through the eyes of ordinary people on the ground, rather than just military formations and movements. Who didn’t love hearing about the first-hand accounts and letters–or looking at the great photographs—which made the documentary so groundbreaking.

Vanessa: I remember being captivated by The Civil War when I first watched it years ago. Now the format is ripe for parody. “Pillows v. Blankets” is an effective imitation of all the signatures of the “Ken Burns Effect”—the somber voiceover, sepia-toned battle maps, fiddle-heavy soundtrack, and slow tracking shots of photographs. I stopped airing segments of the documentary in my US History classes for fear that my students’ eyes would glaze over and become heavy each time the mournful “Ashokan Farewell” plays. How can I expect my students, whose daily lives’ include instant communication via social media and text messaging, to become engaged in a documentary format that even I find slow and outdated? Continue reading