Patt Morrison Asks

Ken Burns: The public's filmmaker

He's given us 'The Civil War,' the Brooklyn Bridge and baseball. And now it's our national parks.

Ken Burns is a matchmaker with a camera. He has introduced Americans to themselves, to their history, with documentaries such as "The Civil War." He also used the "pan and scan" camera technique to make still images of the long-dead seem alive on the television screen.

Burns has given us -- given us back -- the Brooklyn Bridge, jazz, baseball, Lewis and Clark and World War II, and elegantly illustrated biographies of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson. His laurels include Oscar nominations, several Emmys and the introductory video to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's call-to-action speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

He told me that he wants his films to be a form of "emotional archaeology"; sometimes, what he digs up is personal. His new six-part PBS series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which begins Sept. 27, precipitated a buried boyhood memory. He hadn't remembered, until he actually picked up a camera to begin shooting in Yosemite National Park, that when he was about 6 years old his father bundled him out of bed early one morning and drove him to the Shenandoah National Park for his first weekend in one of the nation's public preserves.

Why does he train his camera on the subjects he does? And oh, yes, that hair ... .

There's a quote from William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." You must believe that too.

Absolutely. History is not "was" but "is." You think of the past as fixed, changing only as new information arises, but it's actually malleable as our own perspectives and inclinations and emotions change.

As we've seen with Lincoln -- how he becomes a different Lincoln for every generation.

A different Lincoln! In some generations and some quarters, he's tardy on emancipation, he's a failure to the radical Republicans, he's gay, he's depressed, he's all these different things. Lincoln hasn't changed. It's just that we are now interpreting [him] a different way. Which means that history is as much about now, and also about the hope for where we evolve, as it is anything else.

Your work speaks of a great affection for this country.How do you define patriotism?

Nobody has said the word "affection" to me. [Some think] I've painted [a] Pollyanna-ish picture of America. I haven't. I have great love and affection for my country, which I think is one of the essential attributes of patriotism. The other is that you look at the past with an unvarnished eye. You don't give that Madison Avenue, sanitized version. I try to tell stories that haven't been told. So in [my] Brooklyn Bridge film, affectionate though it may be, it also reveals the corruption of New York City politics and the wire fraud perpetrated at the time of the bridge, the nervous breakdown suffered by its designer, the promotion of a Victorian housewife to essentially chief engineer -- that's all part of it too.

What's the significance of the national parks to the country?

When the Depression took place, the first stimulus dollars in American history were spent, and the first beneficiaries, the shovel-ready things, were the national parks. It's paradoxical that parks got more money in the Depression than they had [before], and attendance grew, because there was a sense that the national parks were democracy applied to the landscape.

We [all] own the most spectacular beachfront property, the most beautiful mountain ranges and waterfalls and geothermal features, the grandest canyon on Earth. We need to visit our property now and then, make sure it's OK and it's got proper maintenance, and include it in our will for posterity.

How did you come to tell stories visually?

My very first memory, at 2 1/2 , 3 years old, was of [my father] building this darkroom in the corner of our basement in Newark, Del., and then watching this amazing alchemy as a picture comes into existence. So I think the heart of my work has been rooted in this huge respect for the ability of a single image to convey complex information. And, at the same time, because life is so complicated, we negotiate that complication by superimposing structure, story, metaphor.

What you've called "manipulated truth."

All truth is manipulated, because the universe is chaotic. What we divine from it is the superimposition of some kind of order, whether it's religion, superstition, story and art, literature, science -- all of them are an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. And that wolf is the panic of chaos.

Somebody said that good writing is about editing, about being able to kill your darlings. So what was the hardest darling you had to kill?

One of those cliches is the cutting room floor: What's on the floor is good stuff. [For "Mark Twain"] we had done this beautiful scene of Hannibal, Mo., waking up as the steamboat came, and this flurry of activity, and then going back to sleep as the steamboat takes off. It was wonderful, but every time I took it out, [the film] flew. Dayton [Duncan, Burns' collaborator] would come with bags under his eyes, sleepless, and he would say, "Do you think we could put it back in?" And we'd put it back in and the same thing would happen. It was a little darling, a perfect scene, that we had to kill in order to serve scenes, some of which were nowhere near as good but contributed to a larger whole. It's hard.

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