His lens captures the red, white, & blue
PASADENA, CALIF. — Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns helped define the genre for an entire generation when, 12 years ago, he presented to America his five-part,10-hour masterwork, "The Civil War."
Who can forget the haunting melodies that brought such passion and life to photos from more than a century ago?
The series also launched what he calls his trilogy of American life, which investigates the great American pastime in "Baseball," and finally, the great American contribution to world culture in "Jazz." But during his 25-year career, Mr. Burns has burrowed deep into the American psyche, in many shorter forays.
Given the nation's turmoil over the past year, Burns and his host network for many years, PBS, thought the time was right to show other journeys he has made across the psychic landscape of the United States.
Monday night, the 13-part series, "Ken Burns American Stories," begins airing his earlier works. First up: "The Statue of Liberty."
Burns hopes these stories from his personal vault will help put today's social and political tenor into historical context.
"Harry Truman once said that the only thing that's really new is the history you don't know," Burns says. "I think that even in the disposable, 'what have you done for me lately,' culture, this is still true, and especially in the wake of last September.
"If you don't know where you've been, it's hard to make up your mind where you're going," he continues.
The films have been updated and digitized to improve their appearance and historical accuracy, though Burns says he has not modified them in any substantial way.
"I don't see these as works in progress," he says. "Each one of these films, like children, are filled with errors, problems, strengths, weaknesses, but it's nothing you're going to tamper with." On the other hand, he adds, "we do try to aim high when we make a film."
The documentaries share his signature use of period music and photography.
"I started off with this film on the Brooklyn Bridge and started using first-person voices, started going inside the old photographs, started using complex sound-effects," he says. "And yes, I use all of those things now."
He feels that content, more than style, should determine the value of his work.
"Each film ... is really quite different," he says. "The moment it gets stale, I'll be moving. But right now, it's almost like saying to a novelist, 'you're using those chapters, don't you think you'd like to change that?' ... People are still writing in chapters because they're a real good way to organize stuff."
Burns says that today's post-Sept. 11 climate offers a good chance to reevaluate what America stands for.
"I'm more interested in what's going on in the country. Because if you remember, September 1990 was a month and a half after the invasion of Kuwait, and there was a huge drumbeat of war fever in this country....," he recalls of the time when "The Civil War" first aired.
"By the time 'The Civil War' was done [on PBS], the appetite for war had diminished by a quarter, which the pollsters were attributing to 'The Civil War.' Now, if you've made a film that actually makes people stop and think, or at least a quarter say, 'I'm not sure we should jump into this thing,' that's a good deal."
For a full listing of shows go to: www.pbs.org/kenburns/