Ken Burns on America: ‘We’re a strange and complicated people’

Through war, baseball and music, Burns monumental TV documentaries have told the story of the USA a goal he says is even more urgent in the age of alternative facts

Many birthday presents are rapidly disposed or ignored, but a endow given to a 17 -year-old Michigan high-school student, on 29 July 1970, converted American television. Ken Burns received an 8mm movie camera, the first step on a move that procreated him such a revered figure in documentary film-making that, five decades later, his birthday this year will be celebrated with a whole epoch of his work on the PBS network.

If 66 seems an strange birthday to be so celebrated, it is because, on the more conventional landmark last year, Burns was locked away editing his latest eight-part, 16 -hour series, Country Music, which auras in September. That work forms, with Baseball and Jazz, a liberate trilogy about emblematically American plays and culture. Those serials are a peacetime balance to another thematic trio: The Civil War, The War and The Vietnam War, grippingly definitive revisitings of the conflicts in which America was engaged between 1861 -6 5, 1941 -4 5, and 1954 -7 3.

What had Burns learned from selecting his retrospective?” While the floors I have told stretch from the 18 th century to the 21 st, all asked one deceptively simple question: who the hell is we? That strange and very complicated people who like to call ourselves Americans. I’ve had the privilege to work for 45 years in the opening between this two-letter plural pronoun’ us’ and its capitalised equivalent in my country: the US. The opening not to tell time a traditional top-down story- Winston Churchill in the battle chamber- but the bottom-up story of what it’s like to be on the battleground or the street .”

‘ Baseball was a sequel to The Civil War’ … Ken Burns. Photograph: UPI/ Alamy Stock Photo

Although Burns had procreated earlier impact with cinema documentaries- Brooklyn Bridge and The Statue of Liberty were both Oscar-nominated – his defining occupation had been launched in 1990 with a move into long-form television histories, for the nine-part The Civil War, showing the fight between north and south over bondage. For Burns, this was the only place to begin his grandiose project of historical self-analysis.” It was ,” he says,” the greatest existential threat to the United Country. We had been founded in 1776 on the assumption that all men are created equal. But- four compose and 5 years later- four million Americans were owned by other Americans .”

Critics, with their cataloguing wonts, have assumed that Burns set out to create a war trilogy. But the film-maker demonstrates:” It actually wasn’t. There’s been no plan. I have been drawn to subjects entirely emotionally: I’m finishing something up and my look is drawn to something else. When The Civil War series was finished, it had been so emotionally wrenching to work on that story- even though we were at a remove of 150 years- that I swore never to do another film on conflict. Then I realizing that my next streak, Baseball, was actually a sequel to The Civil War. Although beings ever look at me as if I’m crazy when I say that .”

Such lookings are resembled in my bemused silence down a phone line to Burns’ position in New Hampshire. He asks, though, that” the first real progress with regard to race after the Civil War” came when, on 14 April 1947, Jackie Robinson walked out for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African American to play Major League Baseball.

Milestone moment … Jackie Robinson in Burns’s film Baseball. Photograph: NBL

Working on Baseball, Burns decided that the best melodic soundtrack for that narration was jazz:” And I realizing that- though I had grown up listening to jazz, which my father enjoyed- I was woefully ignorant about what it was, and its racial significance. So, for me, Civil War, Baseball and Jazz are a sort of fight trilogy .”

When Jazz was released in 2001, Burns was still expecting to stick to his promise never formally to document another American conflict.” Then I have known that 1,000 Americans a period, veterans of world war ii, “d die”, and I realised those remembers were quickly going to disappear. I likewise discovered that numerous, numerous high-school students believe we pushed with the Germans against the Russians. I was so dazed at that gross innocence that I decided to do the world war two cinema. Then, even before “were having” finished that assignment, I was determined to do Vietnam, which took virtually 11 years .”

The projects take so long because of the exhaustive collection of information-” For Country Music, I had 101 interviews, representing 175 hours of gossip, and 1,500 pictures”- and the perfectionist assemblage of the final film.

‘ I was woefully ignorant about what it was’ … Burns’s documentary Jazz. Photograph: PBS

” Many of my colleagues in this business ,” says Burns,” will research for a certain period and then write a script, which informs the hitting and the editing. We never stop researching, never stop say, looking for pictures, writing. Nothing is set in stone. I’ve got a neon clue, in cursive script, in my editing apartment that reads: It’s Complicated. Although most of the process of editing is by nature subtractive, often the last thing we do in the editing area is add something .”

Rewatching The Civil War after having seen The Vietnam War, I was struck, in retrospect, by how impudent Shines had done so start the earlier successions with none of the elements- living observers, contemporary news footage- that helped to realise the latter so impressive. Had he worried at the time about filling 11 and half hours of TV with a story from a pre-cinematic era?” Abraham Lincoln, faced with a whole fibre of second-rate, inferior generals, said,’ We must use the tools we have .’ Each cinema has been an exercise in saying,’ How do we do this ?’ Sometimes, there can be a tyranny towards too much footage. Sometimes, in Vietnam and Baseball, we worked still photographs, although there is cinema was available .”

Audacious film-making … Union army general Ulysses S Grant in The Civil War. Photograph: PBS

Burns is fearful of formulas for film-making.” I hear style as the genuine application of technique. And the authorities have dozens of proficiencies that might be employed. Put simply, I have eight basic elements at my dumping: four visual, four aural. At any time, we have the possibility of- visually- interviews, or’ talking heads ‘, live cinematography, still photographs, picture show. Aurally, we will have a third-person narrator; a chorus of third being tones, predict the gazettes or love letters of the period; a complex Hollywood-style sound-effects move; and music, which is recorded before the editing .”

Availability, though, should not mandate use. The first three images in Country music, documenting a theme with a gigantic movie and Tv repository, are two still photos and a painting. Jazz and Country Music have another technical divergence:” In documentary film-making, music is usually this important thing, but always in the background. So there is a beautiful shock in the music suddenly reaching this hyper-ground right in front of you. It happens to us several times while revising Jazz and Country music .”

A measure of Burns’ meticulousness is his attitude to” lower one-thirds”, the captions at the bottom of a screen, linking talkers. Blazes affords the number of jobs that they held at the site in the narrative we have reached, so newspaper reporters who subsequently became celebrated novelists are identified with the job title on their press poster at the time. That’s likely a path of scaping hindsight and keeping in the present tense.” Utterly. In the world war two lines, we interviewed a woman who was a widow, but we expended her maiden list because, at that point, she was the sister of brethren we were talking about. It’s only in the final escapade of the cinema, when she gets married, that we use her married identify .”

Bill Monroe on theatre at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, c. 1958. Photograph: Les Leverett Collection

In the first escapade of Country music, which planneds the geographical spread of the structure, even superstars are identified by where they come from (” Dolly Parton, Tennessee “), rather than who they are.

Yet, even for a producer as strict as Burns, there is the challenge of living in an age when President Trump has pioneered the idea of” alternative happenings”, and online posters increasingly regard biography and news as a matter of opinion. Is that upsetting for a manufacturer of biography programmes?” Well, it’s certainly upsetting as a citizen of the world, where we consider not just the willingness of parties to be undertaken by dissembling, but the technological they are able to do so. But a huge majority of your readers- and my viewers- are still interested in fact.

” In anticipation of what we thought would be our most controversial film, The Vietnam War, we made what we called our fight area of Republican and Democrats on different places of the debate, who were skilled in putting out shoots. We did not need to use them because we were so fiercely steadfast to facts. If you do that, people trust you. We tried to show that there can be more than one truth in fighting .”

What it’s like to be on the battleground … from Burns’s cinema about world war ii. Photograph: PBS

In an address to the graduating class at Stanford University in California in 2016, shortly before Trump became the Republican nominee, Burns told that the reality-TV star had” a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, phases fingers, ever realizing the other wrong … The smell of commonwealth, of shared relinquish, of confidence, so much a part of American life, is deteriorating fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started .”

Three years on, Burns says:” Everything I said, I’m so very sorry to say, has come true .” But, as a historian, does he understand the 45 th president as an oddity or a continuation?” I think he is without precedent, which is what offsets him so dangerous. And hitherto he is the embodiment of certain tendencies and attitudes that have been present throughout our history- anti-immigration, anti-black, sort of proto-fascist, dissembling, all of that. We’ve just never had it so glaringly in a united states president. And it seems to be what’s in the drinking water of the Earth at the moment as you watch the ascension of Boris Johnson, the rise of dictators in Turkey and Hungary and the Philippines. There is a tendency to suggest that you can be expedient with the truth- and I don’t think you can .”

Burns’ accidental war trilogy is about to become an informal quadruplet, with a meant line about the American revolutionary wars of 1775 -8 3.” I don’t want, as we tend to do in this country, to make it a superficial, sanitised occasion among a few dozen white subjects in Philadelphia, but to cover everything that was going on from New Hampshire to Georgia, members of the public who stayed loyal to Great Britain, African-Americans, British soldiers, American officers. And so, despite forever never wanting to make another war film, I save doing so because it is where human beings reveal themselves most prominently- for good or ill .”

* Ken Burns Day is on PBS on 29 July. Country Music is broadcast on PBS from 15 September.

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