Burke v. Clark

I’ve been watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilization and James Burke’s Connections. Both are BBC produced documentary series that focus for the most part on what is traditionally called Western Civilization. Clark’s program relates the history of art and architecture from the dark ages to the twentieth century (using music from the historical periods discussed as incidental music and drama – Shakespeare, really – as occasional interludes) while Burke follows the web of connections that leads from one technological innovation to another until he and the audience arrives at a significant modern invention. I find both of the series intrinsically interesting – being that I am a compulsive autodidact (on top of my long march through graduate school) – for their unrepentant old-school universalism and their bravura approach to the canon (one art historical, the other technological).

But that is the stuff of guilty pleasures. What I find more interesting in a more public sense is the way that these two documentaries – such as they are from a political and cultural perspective – casually present a powerful visual metaphor for the ongoing process of globalization circa the late 1960s and early 1970s in England and North America. The first thing that strikes most viewers is the astonishing tourism of it all. Clark and Burke pop in and out of worldwide locales with the cut on edit.

Clark’s impossible leaps in space seem to be more motivated – he speaks of Chartres and there he is in the foreground as the towering gothic facade looms over his shoulder in the distance. There is a weight, in both the corporeal and intellectual sense, to Clark’s use of his body in relation to the space and volume of the art and architecture that he encounters. Due to his subject matter, he is for the most part confined to Western Europe, but nevertheless he travels easily through space to cover most of the territory that was part of the European story through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernity. And by traveling through space, shrinking the spatial coordinates of Europe, he also, by virtue of his art historical enterprise, travels through time. The physical and aesthetic residue of the above named epochs linger unrepentant throughout the continent and the British Isles. But what strikes me most – and mostly because I live in Los Angeles, Hollywood tinsel town – is Lord Clark’s poorly maintained teeth. Being on a daily basis confronted with hideous masks of “beauty” resulting from plastic surgery (or more accurately, resulting from an addiction to plastic surgery), it is comforting to realize that there was a time when a celebrity host could sport crooked, yellow, slightly decayed teeth on television (albeit the BBC) and still get a close up.

As for Burke… He is levitas to Clark’s gravitas. Puns abound as Burke glob trots from one imperial location to another. As once the sun never set on the British Empire, the same could be said for Burke (unless, of course, night is called for in the script). More so than Clark, and predictably building on the aesthetics laid out by the makers of Civilization, Burke uses his body as a marker for the location in which he stands. He interacts with his locales in ways that call to mind the tourist, but also the professor, the fat cat, and the fool. All of which makes for enjoyable, if at times queasy, viewing. And like Clark, Burke through the magic of film cutting is able to transcend time as well as space. He does so more often and in a manner that calls attention to his spatial-temporal dislocations – now he’s standing on the bow of an Elizabethan sailing ship, now he’s in the cockpit of the Enola Gay. In each of these locations he addresses the audience directly, but unlike Clark who spoke directly to his viewers, Burke addresses the audience as “you.” The audience is a fellow traveler in a touristic sense.

Finally, Burke’s signature body performance is not crooked teeth, but fuzzy tufts of hair cascading down from the top of his balding head. In fact, he looks like a clown of a sort – lacking the makeup. And his clothes for each episode – as if it were a costume in the circus – is a beige polyester pant suit. How suitably seventies…

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