BURNS, KEN

U.S. Documentary Film Maker

Ken Burns is one of public television's most celebrated and prolific producers. He has already fashioned a record of nine major PBS (Public Broadcasting System) specials, addressing a wide range of topics from American history, such as The Brooklyn Bridge (PBS, 1982), The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (PBS, 1985), The Statue of Liberty (PBS, 1985), Huey Long (PBS, 1986), Thomas Hart Benton (PBS, 1989), The Congress (PBS, 1989), The Civil War (PBS, 1990), Empire of the Air (PBS, 1992), and Baseball (PBS, 1994) which have all won various awards and recognitions from both professional and scholarly organizations and at international film festivals.

Burns is a 1975 graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied under still photographers, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, and received a degree in film studies and design. Upon graduation, he and two of his college friends started Florentine Films and struggled for a number of years doing freelance assignments, finishing a few short documentaries before beginning work in 1977 on a film based on David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge (1972). Four years later, they completed The Brooklyn Bridge, which won several honors including an Academy Award nomination, thus ushering Burns into the ambit of public television. While editing The Brooklyn Bridge in 1979, Burns moved Florentine Films to Walpole, New Hampshire, surviving on as little as "$2,500 one year to stay independent."

Much about Ken Burns's career defies conventional wisdom. He operates his own independent company in a small New England village more than four hours north of New York City, hardly a crossroads in the highly competitive and often insular world of corporately funded, PBS-sponsored productions. His television career is a popular and critical success story in an era when the historical documentary generally holds little interest for most Americans. His PBS specials so far are also strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement.

Beginning with The Brooklyn Bridge and continuing through Baseball, Burns has intricately blended narration with what he calls his "chorus of voices," meaning readings from personal papers, diaries, and letters; interpretive commentaries from on-screen experts, usually historians; his "rephotographing" technique which closely examines photographs, paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, and other artifacts with a movie camera; all backed with a musical-track that features period compositions and folk music. The effect of this collage of techniques is to create the illusion that the viewer is being transported back in time, literally finding an emotional connection with the people and events of America's past.

At first, it may appear that he has embraced a wide assortment of subjects--a bridge, a 19th century religious sect, a statue, a demagogue, a painter, the congress, the Civil War, radio, and the national pastime--but several underlying common denominators bind this medley of Americana together. Burns's body of work casts an image of America which is built on consensus and is celebratory in nature, highlighting the nation's ideals and achievements. He suggests, moreover, that "television can become a new Homeric mode," drawing narrative parameters which are epic and heroic in scope. The epic form tends to celebrate a people's shared tradition in sweeping terms, while recounting the lives of national heroes is the classical way of imparting values by erecting edifying examples for present and future generations.

In this way, Ken Burns's chronicles are populated with seemingly ordinary men and women who rise up from the ranks of the citizenry to become paragons of national (and occasionally transcendent) achievement, always persisting against great odds. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, described by the film's "chorus of voices" as "a work of art" and "the greatest feat of civil engineering in the world," is the "inspiration" of a kind of "Renaissance man," John A. Roebling, who died as the building of the bridge was beginning, and his son, Washington Roebling, who finished the monument 14 years later through his own dogged perseverance and courage, despite being bedridden in the process.

Along with being an outstanding documentarian and popular historian, Burns, like all important cultural voices, is also a moralist. Taken as a whole his series of films stand as morality tales, drawing upon epic events, landmarks, and institutions of historical significance. They are populated by heroes and villains who allegorically personify certain virtues and vices in the national character as understood through the popular mythology of our modern memory. At the beginning of Empire of the Air, for instance, Jason Robards narration explains how Lee DeForest, David Sarnoff, and Edwin H. Armstrong "were driven to create [radio] by ancient qualities, idealism and imagination, greed and envy, ambition and determination, and genius." And Burns himself describes Huey Long as "a tragic almost Shakespearean story of a man who started off good, went bad, and got killed for it."

Ken Burns is best known, of course, for his 11-hour documentary series, The Civil War. The overwhelming popularity of this program, aired in September 1990 made him a household name. Much of the success of the series must be equated to the extent with which Burns makes this 130 year-old conflict immediate and comprehensible to a contemporary audience. He adopted a similar strategy with Baseball. "Baseball," he says, "is as much about American social history as it is about the game," as it examines such issues as immigration, assimilation, labor and management conflicts, and, most importantly, race relations. Ken Burns explains that "Jackie Robinson and his story are sort of the center of gravity for the film, the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation rolled into one." This 19-hour history of the sport debuted over nine evenings in September 1994, lasting nearly double the length and costing twice the budget ($7 million) of The Civil War.


Ken Burns
Photo courtesy of Lisa Berg/ General Motors/ Florentine Films

Burns is now executive producer on two additional projects for PBS. He has next committed to a 10-hour, seven-part multicultural history of the American West which is scheduled to inaugurate the public television season during the fall of 1996. He also has an agreement with General Motors to oversee a series entitled, American Lives, in which various documentarians, including himself, will film brief biographies of important historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain. His involvement with American Lives ensures that Burns will be a fixture at PBS into the next century.

Despite his long-standing affiliation with non-commercial television in the U. S., Ken Bums still remembers his boyhood dream of becoming the next John Ford. As he recalls, "I had always wanted to be a Hollywood director. I think as I look back now in retrospect, I realize how my whole body of work is a kind of documentary version of Ford--that is a real love for American mythology." Burns is once again exploring a subject that is intimately related to John Ford's filmic legacy in The West. Ford was a visual poet of the first order; he was also a populist, stressing a respect for the past and the lessons it can teach. Ken Bums shares a similar style and outlook in his documentaries: "All my work is animated by the question 'who are we?' that is to say who are we as a people? What does it mean to be an American? And all of these questions are not necessarily answered by these investigations as the questions are themselves deepened." In this respect, no one has ever done a better job of probing and revivifying the past for more Americans through the power and reach of prime-time television than Ken Burns.

-Gary Edgerton

KEN BURNS . Born in Brooklyn, New York, 29 July, 1953. Educated at Hampshire College, B.A. in film studies and design, 1975. Married Amy Stechler, 1982, children: Sarah and Lily. Worked as a cinematographer for the BBC, Italian television, and others; president and owner of Florentine Films, since 1975; producer, cinematographer, and director of documentaries since 1977. Member: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Society of American Historians; American Antiquarian Society; Massachusetts Historical Society; Walpole Society for Bringing to Justice Horse Thieves and Pilferers. Honorary degrees include: University of New Hampshire, L.H.D., Notre Dame College, Litt.D., Amherst College, Litt.D., 1991, Pace University, L.H.D., Bowdoin College, L.H.D., 1991, and CUNY, Ph.D. Recipient: Christopher Awards, 1973, 1987, 1990; Erik Barnouw Awards for Brooklyn Bridge and Huey Long; CINE Golden Eagle Awards for Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers, Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, Thomas Hart Benton, The Congress, The Civil War, and Empire of the Air; Producer's Guild of America's Producer of the Year, 1990; two Emmy Awards, 1991; People's Choice Award, 1991. Address: P.O. Box 613, Walpole, New Hampshire 03608.

TELEVISION (producer, director, cinematographer)

1982 Brooklyn Bridge
1985 The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (also co-writer)
1986 Huey Long (also co-writer)
1985 The Statue of Liberty
1989 The Congress
1989 Thomas Hart Benton
1990 Lindbergh (executive producer only)
1990 The Civil War (also co-writer)
1991 The Songs of the Civil War
1992 Empire of the Air
1994 Baseball

PUBLICATIONS

Baseball: An Illustrated History (with Geoffrey Ward). New York: Knopf, 1994.

The Civil War: An Illustrated History (with Ric Burns and Geoffrey Ward). New York: Knopf, 1990.

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (with Amy Stechler Burns). New York: Aperture Foundation, 1987.

Cripps, Thomas. "Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns." American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.), June 1995.

FURTHER READING

Edgerton, Gary. "Ken Burns's America: Style, Authorship, and Cultural Memory." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1993.

_______________. "Ken Burns's American Dream: Histories-for-TV from Walpole, New Hampshire." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1994.

"Film Maker Opposes Disney theme Park." The New York Times, 20 May 1994.

Leventhal, Larry. "One Man's 'Civil War' is Another's Foundation." Variety (Los Angeles), 21 September 1992.

Thomson, David. "History Composed with Film." Film Comment (New York), September-October 1990.

Tibbetts, John C. "The Incredible Stillness of Being: Motionless Pictures in the Films of Ken Burns." American Studies (Lawrence, Kansas), Spring 1996.

 

See also Civil War