"John Muir In The New World" debuts tonight as a part of the American Masters series on most PBS stations at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain. To ensure it airs at this time in your market, you should check local listings.
If a person lives a life that has apparently become a cliché, how fair is it to describe a representation of their life as being an American cliché? This is the essential flaw with this episode of American Masters. Its portrayal of John Muir's life is such an essential slice of American mythologizing that it's impossible to tell if Muir helped to create the myth or if the documentary's producers simply shoehorned his tale into a conventional narrative.
That narrative is this: John Muir was the son of poor immigrants, whose fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian father's strictness gave him little joy. The outdoors and education were his escapes, and eventually, he left for university. After graduating, he took a job in a factory until an accident damaged his eyes. Then he decided to become an explorer, walking from Indiana to Savannah. From there, he went along to California and became an expert on the Sierra Nevada Mountains, particularly Yosemite, eventually becoming a journalist and then advocate for national parks and conservationalist environmentalism. Along the way, he was supported by three apparently saintly women: his mother, who educated him; a professor's wife, who became his mentor and apparent surrogate mother; and his wife, who happily encouraged him to leave for camping trips, exploration, and lecture series. As his advocacy increased, he helped found and became president of the Sierra Club, institutionalizing his environmentalist point-of-view. There was even a deathbed apology from his demanding father!
Everything just falls into place too easily. Muir is the rugged individualist, creating his own destiny. He's an example of classical liberalism, rejecting the religious determinism of his father. His science is correct, his goals are laudable, his friends are important and right-minded. Everything in his life apparently exists to give him a role that only he can fulfill. This makes him almost seem like the main character of an unimaginative fantasy film or Japanese role-playing game. He decides to go on an adventure, so he does it! He builds a party of family, mentors, lovers, companions, and editors! And in the end, John Muir fulfills his destiny, becoming the king of all environmentalists!
The too-conventional narrative is especially galling considering that there are interesting discussions to be had about John Muir. Muir's particular brand of environmentalism is spiritual in nature. “Civilization chokes a man's soul” is repeated several times over the course of the documentary, in addition to lines like “Going to the mountains is going home.” These gut, aesthetic reactions have come to dominate environmentalism in American discourse, and while they are certainly valid in many respects, they're so intentionally impractical that this brand of conservationism seems almost doomed to failure.
American Masters only shows that, and any kind of narrative tension, towards the very end. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 triggered the city of San Francisco to try to create a reliable source of water by putting a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. Muir, the Sierra Club, and his political allies fought the dam tooth and nail. Suddenly, the documentary springs into life, becoming more than a simple biography/hagiography. One of the talking heads describes the perception of Muir's arguments as “elitist” and “impractical.” Other experts go on to describe how this political battle—which Muir lost—helped to define the environmental movement in America. Ten minutes from the end of the doc, there's tension, there's history, there's potential for analysis—and even that, too, passes quickly, returning to the simple personal details of Muir's life in the last few minutes.
Yet there's almost a kind of charm to how “John Muir In The New World” makes use of its simplicity. Muir has a kind of idealistic charm, one well-documented recently in films like Grizzly Man and Into the Wild. His writing includes lines like, “This was my method of study: I drifted about from rock to rock, asked the boulders I met whence they came and whither they were going,” which I find hard to resist. The slow-paced biographical elements of the documentary probably could have been sacrificed, and there are a lot of reenactments, which I'm normally not a fan of. However, those two things combine visually to depict a silent Muir surrogate wandering through some gorgeous natural settings, especially in Yosemite. It is an easy, untaxing documentary, which is a slight strength—but a much bigger weakness.