The “far, far left,” “far, far right” and “third- and fourth-rate academics” are all wrong about America’s most famous documentary filmmaker. Just ask him.
It’s not that Ken Burns has thin skin. Maybe he did, early on, but he insists he’s different now. It’s that he has no patience for the people who pick apart his documentaries without having ever watched them. He’s talking about the eggheads, the “third- and fourth-rate academics,” the journalist sitting across from him in a French-American bistro in Manhattan, whom he accuses — falsely, I can report, since that journalist is me — of having prepared by Googling “controversy.”
Nor does he have patience for the notion that his films try too hard to be all things to all Americans — a criticism for which he has a decidedly un-PBS rejoinder: “Fuck. That.” He continues, “So that’s a criticism of Steven Spielberg and Mark Twain and anybody else who says, ‘I’m an American, and I’ve got a big story to tell.’ The criticism comes from the far, far left and the far, far right, which I am thrilled to have.”
Burns and I met to discuss his latest film, about the Mayo Clinic, which premieres Tuesday evening on PBS. During our lunch, he was by turns eager and defensive, equal parts flack and showman. He spends a significant amount of his time fundraising these days, and it’s not hard to see how he gets people to pull out their checkbooks. No one sells the work of Ken Burns quite like Ken Burns.
“While our film isn’t about the health care debate,” he said with almost boyish excitement. “What we have in front of us is something that really works.”
Ask Burns about his filmmaking process, and he springs to life with an unbridled sense of that old-time American optimism that runs through his work. He recited lines from his multiepisode epics by heart and recalled names, dates and quotes with such speed and eagerness that it was hard to finish a question, let alone second-guess him. ...