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American Experience: Walt Whitman
American Experience Walt Whitman
Actor: Voice of Walt Whitman by Chris Cooper
Directors: Mark Zwonitzer, Jamila Wignot
Genres: Television, Educational, Documentary
NR     2008     2hr 0min

To family and friends, Walter Whitman Jr. may have been just an old bachelor but with his book, Leaves of Grass, he offered up his poetry and his persona as a reflection of the America he saw; daring, noble, naive, brutish...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: Voice of Walt Whitman by Chris Cooper
Directors: Mark Zwonitzer, Jamila Wignot
Genres: Television, Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Television, Educational, Biography, History
Studio: Pbs (Direct)
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen
DVD Release Date: 05/27/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/2008
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2008
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 2hr 0min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

All about some Walt!
Jeffery Mingo | Homewood, IL USA | 06/01/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)

"When I was in high school, English teachers would often equate Madea with the vamp in "Fatal Attraction." Equating something old with something new or current helps keep modern people's interest. This work uses that tactic by showing an 1800s New York and the current city. The work emphasizes Whitman's praise of Abraham Lincoln and this reminded me of how numerous voters have great hopes for a certain, living Senator from Illinois, if you know what I mean. Also, the word itself is emphasized here. One sees a lot of Whitman's handwriting. The narrator wouldn't just say, "A reviewer disliked the poems": there'd be a huge close-up on the word "beastly," for example.

In seeing photos from Whitman's grandfatherly senior years, or those photos in which he wears a cowboy-like hat, it is easy to note the poet's butchness. Please remember that later gay poets not only praised him for homoerotic verses, but specifically for MASCULINE, homoerotic verses. In this documentary, they show a photo in which Whitman looked quite femme. Sometimes, his eyebrows are perfectly arched and seem like they are meant to contrast with his light-colored eyes. One interviewee stated that Whitman sometimes wore pants designed for women. He was not 100% butch as some may assume.

One interviewee accurately stated that words to demarcate sexual orientation were invented in Germany when Whitman was a middle-aged man. Thus, this work often stated that the poet "liked young men," rather than stating Whitman "was gay." It places acts over an identity. Still, the word "heterosexual" was said twice and the word "homosexual" is never stated at all. Further, this documentary presents Whitman as if he were bisexual, more than gay. This could be true, but it could also be overstated. They quote a poem in which Whitman praises the looks of a woman, but they don't really suggest that he had many, or any, liaisons with women. As the work ends, the narrator states "Whitman never had a wife." Well, maybe that means something! Further, the work states that Whitman was involved with a man for three years who later left him to marry a woman. The narrator states that no photos of that man exist. However, it never names Whitman's other lovers. There is a photo of Whitman with Peter Doyle, a man assumed to be his lover in existence. They never show it. Again, this work may have been de-gayed a bit, even though it doesn't completely avoid the topic.

The American Experience typically wraps things up upon the subject's death, but there are two things that I still felt were missing. There are many modern references to Whitman and they never come up here. Remember when the Black femme gave the white, butch main character in "Two Girls in Love" a copy of "Leaves of Grass"? Whitman has been brought up on "The Simpsons" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." As much as this work tries to equate the past with the present, this aspect is absent. Further, while Whitman's sexual identity might not be pinned down, numerous gay authors have cited him as a mentor or idol. I can name Andre Gide, Langston Hughes, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Yukio Mishima, off the top of my head. Whitman's influence of poets who strongly identify as gay is never mentioned here."
Albert Imperato | New York, New York United States | 06/22/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"No need to overly intellectualize the strengths and weaknesses of this documentary about Walt Whitman. For the newcomer to his work, for the reader of his work who doesn't know much about his life, this American Experience biography provides more than enough to deepen our understanding of Whitman and take a moment to appreciate his greatness. Despite being a PBS production (I can hear young people yawning) this video has a refreshingly light touch and doesn't smother Whitman's work and life with complex layers of analysis. What we get, instead, is a sense of the real world that infused itself into Whitman's spirit as a man and as an artist.

Chris Cooper's narration of Whitman's poems is a highlight of this video. The words sound so natural, so relaxed and yet so full of feeling that they sound as though he could have written the poems himself. The music throughout the documentary has a very natural feeling that enhances but never overpowers the scenes.

More than anything, this documentary makes you grateful for Whitman's gifts to our cultural heritage. The great poet hoped that his "Leaves of Grass" could heal a nation tragically fractured by Civil War. We read his poems now, in our own fraught times, and realize - for good and for ill - that not much about man's essential place in the world has really changed since Whitman's times; that we still possess an unrealized hope for peace and joy and eternal love.

Recommended to anyone interested in what "American" really means."
The Voice Of Young America
Alfred Johnson | boston, ma | 10/28/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Sure, it is always appropriate to thumb through the pages of the 19th century poet laureate of democracy Walt Whitman's "Leaves Of Grass". After wading through Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier and the other Brahmin and Brahmin wannabe poets who dominate the 19th century `aristocratic' European-influenced American poetic academy old white-bearded Walt is like a breath of fresh air. And let's put it this way, while everyone has, and should, take a peek at those other 19th century poets, if no other reason that to compare work, it is old Walt that those of us in the 21st century WANT to read. Therefore, it is appropriate that PBS's "American Experience in 2008 produce a documentary that is, while filled with biographic information, centered on Whitman's long struggle to produce his masterpiece, "Leaves Of Grass".

This documentary does yeoman's service in setting the context in which Walt Whitman had to work including the trials and tribulations of his long suffering over his troubled working class family affairs; his free-wheeling experiences in breaking out of the family and establishing himself as a newspaper writer in New York City; his invention of himself as a proto-hippie in that city's bohemian milieu: his various, mainly homosexual, romantic experiences that eventually find themselves noted heavily throughout his master work; his dramatic and traumatic Civil War time nursing services to the Union wounded; the shock of Lincoln's death; and, his post-war struggles to expand and deepen his poetic works. That sets the pace for the many `talking head' academic commentaries about the meaning of Whitman's work, his place as the poetic, warts and all, 19th century democratic champion of the fragile American republican experience, and the breakthrough nature of his more or less explicit sexual, erotic and homoerotic passages in his work.

Finally, poets like other types of writers, run through period of fashion and neglect. My recent road back to an appreciation of Whitman is a case in point. I have been running through (again) and reviewing the work of the 1950s "beat" writer Jack Kerouac (himself the subject of the vicissitudes of fashion) in this space. Kerouac makes clear (as do many other writers and poets) that Whitman's poems, his lifestyle and his championship of the "common man" deeply influenced him in his early formative days as he struggled to write. That is a common story when the name Walt Whitman comes up. So if you need a little refresher on Whitman this well-done documentary fills the bill. But, really, go read some of the poems