New Yorker profiles Ken Burns

Historians in the News
tags: Ken Burns



Related Link Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War (NYT)

... “Documentaries are traditionally advocacy: ‘Here’s a big problem. Here are the bad guys. Here are the good guys. How do we change this?’ That’s fine. It’s like an editorial, and that’s what editorials do.” He described his own films, in contrast, as exercises in “emotional archeology” that aspire to be works of art. “We just happen to work in history,” he said. (He sometimes talks of the need to enliven “the dry dates, facts, and events of the past.”) Burns frequently—almost hourly—says, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time,” paraphrasing a remark made by Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz.” Burns uses the line less to acknowledge historical uncertainty than to advertise inclusiveness: a desire to guide all but the most sectarian or jaded viewers through an obstacle course of their own biases. He is not disengaged from his material, but his sense of a subject, and his sense of an audience’s reaction to that subject, seem to be fused. He once said, “I want to bring everybody in.”

That instinct, from which Burns is afforded little respite, can give him the air of someone running for office. In the late eighties, while making “The Civil War,” Burns started carrying with him a copy of a letter written by a Union Army officer, Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, a week before his death in battle. Ballou’s words, which have some of the iambic sinew of the Gettysburg Address—“how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution . . .”—became well known after they were included in the film. “I can’t tell you how many lunches and dinners he’d pull out the letter and read it aloud,” Dayton Duncan, a writer and producer of Burns’s projects, said. “The other members of the family would be rolling their eyes, but I always found it moving.”

In the decades since “The Civil War,” Burns has evolved into an editor-in-chief. After Florentine has committed to a subject, the company sends out proposals to seduce funders. A director starts identifying interview subjects; a writer starts on a script. Geoffrey Ward, who has written the bulk of Burns’s scripts since the mid-eighties, as well as his own books of American history, wrote “The Vietnam War.” Burns sometimes still conducts interviews, although Lynn Novick did eighty-five of the hundred interviews filmed for “The Vietnam War.” These sessions use a single camera. The eyes of an interviewee are flooded with light, as if for an ophthalmological examination. The setting, Novick told me, has to register as “a real place—not a studio—but not so much of a real place that you’re curious about where you are.” (Her apartment, on the Upper West Side, has been used in eight documentaries.) A session often begins with an effort to dampen an interviewee’s dreams of becoming the Shelby Foote of the new series—the alpha anecdotalist. ...




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