Why the American Experience Intro Makes Me Cry…Every…Time

At this point I’m tired of it, just plain tired.  It’s been exhausting to even belly up to something as bereft of emotion as Minnesotan settler migration to Alaska, or The Amish.  Is having an “american experience” now more about struggling with these fractures of identity in the span of forty seconds, than waiting an hour to see how the Minnesotans decided it wasn’t really for them and eventually move back?  As a history student…nay, Historian, I have established my textbook and life experience understanding of what American identity is woven with, but this, this is something I am unable to unpack.

Before I give this critique of my “sunk patriotism”, I of course need to thank the good people of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) whom for the last thirty years have been the most effective Sheppard’s for me in the realm of audio-visual communication.  I also need to give them credit for assembling a crack team of production designers and film editors who managed to deliver this symphonically evocative and visually tight and coercive representation of what is to be the “american experience”.  I am past the point of cynical finger-pointing toward this shadowy gang for highlighting just these specific moments, or for favoring this oft filmed power broker or drumming up the heartstrings as the solo violin floats me past the…Chrysler building(?!). No, it’s not about them, this is about me.

This is about how I respond to an unwritten record and how that record is organized into emotive symbolism and interpreted from my subject position.  Discussing the McLuhan “massage” is part of this critique, but only in so far as the video form draws on an already restive assumption about American history and its figures.  It’s about why I can’t control feeling Amelia Earhart, climbing out of the cockpit, for the last time.  It’s about why I am balled over when the African American soldier returns home from Vietnam to hear his parents say: “you made it home son, my god, you made it.”  Would I feel this same way if John Ford lived to film Washington crossing the Delaware? Or even better, the unshackling of a nameless slave at the end of the Civil War?  Let’s come back to this.

By process of deduction, these are the scenes I do not respond as strongly to: “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio, Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Jackie Kennedy and baby – corresponding 19th century woman and child, (even as I review this piece with the film, it’s still happening, and it’s both incredible and exhausting, there is power here).  Perhaps these characters of well-known fame are safe for my conscience.  The slow pause of the indigenous face, nameless for me but recorded and known elsewhere.  The people begin to take the stage, volcanic iron works erupt on cue.  It speeds up, images begin to checker over each other with one controversial moment, one iconoclastic figure, one barely estimable joyous scene after another.  To and fro, the images jostle between stars and stills, Lincoln and last wills.  Modern knowable cohesion begins to form from the tone of one war to the other: napalm, to civil war, to WW2 and finishing back with coming home.  What would I give for Flanders’ Fields?  How would I handle the French Indian War or the burning of the white house in 1814?  Mark Adler, the composer of the score, was responsible for the completion of the project in 2000 – however, had this intro included scenes one year later on 9/11, would I respond the same way with all the reflexive angst I imbue that period with?

I am not Glenn Beck, I am as outwardly dispassionate about American patriotism as the earth is round.  Perhaps this is my true Zizekian liberal ideology showing itself through an otherwise vanilla mobile prepared for a converted middle aged audience.  What I take from this experiment however is my desire to narrate.  The lack of voice, the lack of text, and the resounding coupling of visual and audio narration challenges my print and vocal based senses and forces me to rewrite this snapshot.  In fact, that was not Amelia Earhart’s last flight.  It’s the fact that her mysterious disappearance and vanquished aspirations have overshadowed the amazing tale that is Amelia Earhart’s life; first solo woman in flight!  I have no idea if the returning soldier was drafted, signed up for the cause, killed hundreds or sat at a typewriter in Saigon.  The images make me empathize with a veteran’s story that draws out the struggles which individuals, making up one family, dealt with as a generation of young men, whose parents came out of the civil rights era in a climate to give the country a third, fourth, or fifth chance to make good on the promises declared 200 years earlier.

These scenes do not detail America.  In fact, it’s just a collage of clips used in the documentaries produced by the series.  The scenes themselves play on association and imagined communities largely based on the privileging of top-down history.  But what gets to me are the nameless, the tragic, and the typical.  This is not America, or something waxing and poignant that Hawthorne or Twain said, nor is this the snapshot of the American experience.  What this filmic narration is for me is my experience as an American with assumptions about our past.  A way of linking images to a time I have no recollection of, and in a way which fits into what a time looked like and knowing if I am responsive to that time.

In short, I hope to always cry at the intro to American Experience, for when I no longer draw from that well will be the day I forget my American assumptions and connect them to American realities.

2 thoughts on “Why the American Experience Intro Makes Me Cry…Every…Time

  1. Beautifully written article, as a fellow fan of history, I could not have said it any better.

  2. “The images make me empathize with a veteran’s story that draws out the struggles which individuals, making up one family, dealt with as a generation of young men, whose parents came out of the civil rights era in a climate to give the country a third, fourth, or fifth chance to make good on the promises declared 200 years earlier.”

    This is one of my goals when teaching history, and something at which history is distinctly suited I believe: to teach not just sympathy (“oh, how awful!”) but empathy (“I have tried to understand where he or she is coming from and am a better, more thoughtful person for it”).

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