Academic talk accompanies shifting visual techniques


October 06, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

PBS wants viewers to believe that "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" is a big, big television event.

It isn't.

The four-part series is one of those public television projects that's more interesting to talk about than to watch.

In fact, the seven-hour documentary has more in common with those head-on-the-desk soporific films students must sit through high school history classes than, say, Ken Burns' "The Civil War." Burns' work not only spoke the language of television with great eloquence but actually enriched it. "Columbus" speaks the language of the lecture hall and textbook.

The comparison is necessary because PBS is presenting "Columbus" the way it did "The Civil War" -- across four straight nights of prime time beginning tonight at 8 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67). And the network is using terms like "epic documentary," which critics applied to "The Civil War," to describe this program.

It's "epic" only in the dreams of PBS publicists.

But that doesn't mean "Columbus" is a total failure. It's poor television, but solid history.

The documentary brings useful information to a larger debate in our society that centers on whether celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America is a good and healthy impulse or another sorry example of ethnocentric thinking. Headlines such as "Hail Columbus, Dead White Male" have been appearing over published stories on the matter for the past year or so. It's a debate that calls for more solid information rather than political rhetoric.

The information is there in "Columbus," but is so poorly presented that the question is whether viewers will stay with the show long enough to hear it. Admittedly producer Zvi Dor-Ner had a huge problem in terms of TV technique: how to present life in the 14th and 15th centuries when you have virtually no visuals to work with. Burns at least had still photographs to use from the Civil War. As tonight's first installment of "Columbus" correctly points out, we don't even know what Columbus looked like.

Dor-Ner's answer is to use a hodgepodge of non-fiction television techniques, trying to hold them all together with the baling wire of a lecture hall narrative featuring historians, such as Franklin Knight from the Johns Hopkins University. The commentators are distinguished for their scholarship, but none of them is a Shelby Foote, of "Civil War" fame, in terms of TV presentation.

And what a strange visual creature Dor-Ner winds up with. Tonight's first hour takes viewers to modern-day Genoa to help us understand 14th century Genoa -- to get context for Columbus and his world. The form here is part travelogue, part journalism, with historian Mauricio Obregon as reporter. Obregon was another of Dor-Ner's bad calls. In TV terms, he's pedantic and off-putting -- the opposite of viewer-friendly Shelby Foote in "The Civil War."

But just when you are getting comfortable with that mode of presentation, Dor-Ner shifts to historical re-creation. The series follows a Spanish crew of sailors as they retrace the journey of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in reproductions built to commemorate the anniversary of Columbus' trip.

Monday night's two hours is spent with the re-creation, but Dor-Ner gets too involved with it, and the focus eventually becomes the real modern-day actors instead of the historical journey they are commemorating. He piles on too many extraneous stories and the connection between narrative thread and viewer is lost.

In the end, it's too bad that "Columbus" is such mangled TV. The documentary does one thing exceptionally well: It examines the impact of Columbus' discovery through different perspectives, looking not only through the eyes of white Americans of European descent, but through the eyes of African-Americans, American Indians, Hispanics and others.

Some call this being "politically correct," and some critics will say the show fails because of this tendency, meaning that it tries to offend no one and is afraid to take a stand.

But multicultural sensitivity is not what's wrong with "Columbus," it's what's intellectually right about it.

Columbus, his world and its effect on 500 years of the American experience is a huge, sprawling, wriggling critter. The nice thing to say about such PBS productions, which bite off more than they can chew, is that they deserve credit for trying.

But maybe, given the producer's inability to solve the fundamental TV problem of not having visuals in a visual medium, it's more honest to say that "Columbus" should not have been made as a TV documentary. Maybe Xerox, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could have better spent their money backing other television shows.

'Columbus' feeds the intellect

Johns Hopkins University professor Franklin W. Knight said he became involved as an adviser to "Columbus" because the documentary puts historical accuracy and scholarship above contemporary controversy.

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