Why Talking Heads?

Over the past few years I’ve wondered why history television programs use talking heads.  I can think of two reasons for using them: first, because their injection varies the narrator’s voice (much like the reenactment scenes in Lee and Grant last night broke up other visual narratives without adding much in the way of understanding as opposed to atmosphere) and because the practice appears to give a stamp of authentic expertise to the production.

That said, I think the only reason talking heads should appear is to give analysis and reflection that the narrator should not give: the talking head should serve as the color man to the narrator’s play-by-play rendering of the story.  Having the talking head simply recite the obvious while trying to muster up their inner Ed Bearss or Shelby Foote can get embarrassing; in turn, the desire of some directors to cast more appealing talking heads in the place of real experts (or to give air time to director/producer favorites) irritates me no end (and shows that faux experts who deliver second-hand observations effectively is more important than real expertise given by experts who may not come across as effectively).  I still don’t know why so much air time was given to Don Miller, for example, in the American Experience episodes on Ulysses S. Grant, except that he’s a favorite who promised to write something on the Vicksburg campaign.  Last night it was obvious that Winston Groom wanted to promote his work on Vicksburg as he auditioned to replace Shelby Foote (I remain puzzled as to the way in which the folks who did Lee and Grant used talking heads and shot them).  In this instance, the Gettysburg show trumped Lee and Grant, for Gettysburg made better use of talking heads, even if we saw some efforts to be a little more dramatic than the occasion dictated.

I don’t think producers and directors always make skillful use of talking heads, and, while I understand the desire of some talking heads to get a little face time, I think all could profit from a closer attention to the film as a production that brings together information and education in an entertaining and compelling fashion.

Sometimes it’s all in how the talking head is set up.  I had a bad experience recently as a proposed talking head for a Salt River Project on Roosevelt Dam, where I was to discuss Theodore Roosevelt.  Given the questions put to me, I knew the answers really wouldn’t work, especially under the awkward circumstances in which the whole thing was done … and so I was not surprised that I was left on the cutting room floor.  I would have been better employed as a script consultant.  When it came to American Experience, they insisted on asking questions, some of which worked, some of which didn’t, instead of telling me that they needed something about X and then letting me think for a minute before starting up.

What do you expect from talking heads?  Is the practice useful?  How would you employ them?

THC’s Lee and Grant

Given the largely negative response from most people to THC’s Gettysburg, I was not quite sure what to expect from Lee and Grant.  The good news is that it was not as bad as the Gettysburg presentation, but I’m not sure what need it fulfilled.  It was a rather odd presentation, featuring an image of someone else often mistaken for Grant to represent Grant during the first year of the war (I’ll explain this later this week) and less than useful employment of talking heads, although Winston Groom is clearly applying to be the next Shelby Foote while he pumps his book on Vicksburg, which took up much of the presentation and went off in directions away from the main subject.  At times the shots of the talking heads (which were rather odd) paused to give another view of the individual, including Groom fumbling with his glasses.

There were the usual mistakes (no one photographed the dead at Shiloh, for example); some of the reenactment footage seemed to have been picked up from the cutting room floor from Gettysburg; the maps were okay, although it looked as if we were about to play Stratego; and the interpretation was bland, with the talking heads offering little in the way of insight.  That a show devoting two hours to Grant and Lee could find but a handful of minutes for 1864-65 was a remarkable and interesting choice (I think it would have been better to have used 1861-63 as prelude to an hour of the clash between the two).  At times even the talking heads made mistakes, and I’d say that in fact the talking heads performed better in Gettysburg because they were used more effectively.  At least here women were used, and Elizabeth Pryor, Drew Faust, and Joan Waugh acquitted themselves well.

If you knew nothing about the Civil War, Grant, or Lee, you learned something.  Not much, but something.  Otherwise, you learned virtually nothing.  There are better presentations out there, and I’m hard pressed to see what was new here.