When Ken Burns presented his 10-part documentary, "The Civil War" on PBS, it was a revelation: This is what television is capable of - history as it affects not only the large sweep of events, but individual lives.
Ken Burns thinks big. His films are grand, demonstrating the intricate, complex relationships of people to events.
He never condescends to the viewer, and he never sinks into the merely grandiose. He is on a journey of discovery with each project. His latest, "Frank Lloyd Wright," made with long-time collaborator Lynn Novick, is a superb portrait of a difficult genius.
The gripping three-hour PBS documentary (Nov. 10-11, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) reveals the architect's huge contributions to world architecture, as well as his tragic personal history and the scandals that clouded his flamboyant life.
"He is one of the great figures in American history, and one of the greatest architects of all time," said Mr. Burns, when asked why he chose Wright as a subject. "And he reflects an utterly American impulse - a remarkable legacy of art and a complicated personal life. He is American history running on all cylinders."
Wright's earliest major contribution was the Prairie Style - beautiful, functional homes. His first marriage broke up when he left his wife for the wife of a client - almost snuffing out his career in the early 20th century. Later, he built the legendary Taliesin, his private home. But personal tragedies followed, and by the Great Depression, his career appeared to be over again.
Then at the age of 65, Wright reinvented himself. He started a school of architecture, invented a style of low-cost housing, made speeches, produced hundreds of drawings and dozens of projects, and created three of the greatest buildings of the 20th century - Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa.; the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisc; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Wright was a driven, difficult man. Burns and Novick anticipate viewers' questions about this blustering modern master in due course. At the same time we feel that the filmmakers are revealing their own process of discovery.
"There is a sort of logic to it, just as there is in music," Burns says. "I think that most films are expressions of already-arrived-at conclusions - the filmmakers already know what they want to say and then have to solve the problem of expressing it. For us, these are processes of discovery. So what seeps out around the edges are enthusiasms and the excitement of discovery that then gets passed on to the viewer."
Burns is passionate about history, though he says he is a filmmaker, not a historian. "To me, [in] finding out who you are in the past, you find out who you are now. What is history? The past is gone and done, so there must be something in the act of history for the present - it holds a mirror up to who we are now. William Faulkner said history is not 'was,' but 'is.' So history is a way to come to terms with oneself - either in a collective or in a personal way. You can't alter the fact that Wright was egomaniacal - so why go back [to look at his life] unless the asking of questions can improve oneself? The reason we are interested in biography is that, it seems to me, learning about another life might make me a better person."
For Burns, making visual histories is also about accumulating wisdom. "So baseball might be about time and family and memory and home. The Civil War might be about division and reconciliation. Frank Lloyd Wright might be about genius and its cost," he says. "You are constantly developing a much more complex view. We live in an information age run by a media that is simply black and white, yes and no."
Burns points out that understanding a man like Wright, even with his flaws, deepens our sense of the complexity of life and our ability to tolerate complexity: "That's [what] I'm interested in."