Procrastinate Better

A Surprisingly Entertaining Documentary About Shakers

From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today’s endorsement is from Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo.

About a year ago I noticed my Netflix list was getting alittle too staid; I’d added hundreds of movies to my queue, but I’d done so toomethodically, so there was not enough variety. During a particularly brutalBergman stretch, I decided I needed to shake up my queue, iPod style: I downloadeda small program torandomize my list of movies . Call it the Netflix Shuffle. Now every Netflixenvelope contains a surprise. And so, the other day, I opened my mail to findthe 1985 Ken Burns documentary TheShakers .

Initially my wife and I weren’t too thrilled. Even though Iam a Ken Burns addict, I find he’s best at covering wars and other plot-heavymoments in history; pairing the world’s most sexless filmmaker with a religiousgroup known for celibacy seemed like a slog, especially for a weeknight. I waswrong.

The film’s most obvious visual draw is the furniture—it isevery bit as astonishing as you’ve heard—but Burns uncovers reams of historicalphotos and Shaker artwork, plus many first-hand accounts of Shaker life. Theirswas a deeply progressive society; the Shakers were founded and in the earlydays led by a woman, Mother Ann Lee, who’d seen visions of Christ and had cometo believe that sex was inherently evil. While America was still a nation ofslaves ruled by white property owners, the Shakers were establishingcommunities in which every member was treated as divinely equal.

This is one of Burns’ earliest films, and it’s one of hisleast expansive—it runs for just an hour, about a tenth as long as thesprawling documentaries on the CivilWar and WorldWar II that he’s known for. It is, therefore, necessarily a survey, not adetailed history, of the more than 200-year story of this dying religiousmovement. But the length feels just right; at the end, I wanted to readeverything I could on the Shakers, which is probably the best outcome that TVhistory can aim for.