Ken Burns, Still Chronicling America’s Stories

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It’s inspiring to hear someone at the top of his game talk about the work he does. Especially when he describes it with a sense of joy and, even after enthralling viewers for decades, a touch of awe and humility.

From a distance the trim, shaggy-haired Ken Burns looked barely older than the Brookdale Community College students who greeted him with a standing ovation on a recent October day at the Jersey shore. Yet despite his boyish appearance, the 64-year-old documentarian infused his America’s Stories lecture with statesmanlike wisdom and fatherly words of caution.

Parenthood defines him first and foremost, Burns told Brookdale history professor Jess LeVine, who led off the interview by asking “Who do you think you are?”

Secondarily, the father of four daughters said, he thinks of himself as a filmmaker.

Speaking at colleges is something Burns rarely does, and those who attend or work at the Lincroft college could scarcely believe their good fortune when he accepted the invitation. He combined his visit with a tour of the nearby New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Vietnam is the subject he examined most recently, in a 10-part series that aired on PBS in September and took Burns and Lynne Novick a decade to produce.

Of the more than 30 documentaries Burns has made, some came in at under 90 minutes while others like The Vietnam War and Baseball ran 18 hours or more. His first film in 1981, Brooklyn Bridge, was an hour long as was his Statue of Liberty documentary four years later.

Regardless of length, each piece is the final product of vast amounts of raw material. The process is “subtractional,” he said, relying on knowing how to pare it down judiciously.

The Brooklyn native, now a longtime New Hampshire resident, likened it to making maple syrup; turning out a single gallon requires 40 gallons of sap.

His own band of syrup-makers work in a small facility near the town square of his community. If it were a cartoon, Burns said, the building would swell until it nearly burst at the seams from all the activity inside.

Over the years, their efforts have garnered two Academy Award nominations, two Grammys and over a dozen Emmys including a lifetime achievement award.

Americana in some form is the focus of nearly all his documentaries—from the Civil War and settling of the west to iconic figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Jackie Robinson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Burns has chronicled some of our shameful moments, including the conviction of the Central Park Five, and many of our finest: the invention of radio, the creation of a national park system and the evolution of jazz.

Music holds a special place in his heart. Unlike most filmmakers, Burns said, he doesn’t add a soundtrack at the end but starts with the music so its relevance is “baked in” and it feels organic to the narrative.

Telling a truthful story is critical whether the piece is fact-based or fictitious, Burns said in comparing his films to those of Steven Spielberg.

When Burns was growing up, movies of all types shaped his family life as well as his career aspirations. Watching them together, he said, helped his father share emotions he had trouble articulating on his own. His son understood early in life the power of a well-made film.

His scrutiny of American people and occurrences can be uncomfortably candid since Burns doesn’t believe in sanitizing history. He observed that many of those events are not yet behind us and continue to have ripple effects; Vietnam is still not over, he said, and the Civil War is being fought to this day.

But he sees white supremacists and other hate groups as only part of the problem. Those at either end of the political spectrum are too preoccupied with vilifying each other, he said, and the internet is making matters worse. Despite its mistakes, he added the country’s achievements and positive influence have been tremendous.

They’re also highly diverse, as the roster of upcoming Ken Burns documentaries bears out. Among the topics he will explore in the near future are Muhammad Ali, the Mayo Clinic, country music, Ernest Hemingway, the American Revolution and Benjamin Franklin.

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