Ken Burns knew he wanted to be a filmmaker by age 12, but didn’t find his niche until his early 20s.
“I watched my Dad cry at a movie, a little bit after my Mom died. He hadn’t cried at her funeral, but a movie made him cry,” Burns said before his lecture at Trinity University on Wednesday. “I thought, ‘Wow, I get it.’ It provided this emotional safe haven.”
Burns, considered by many as the greatest documentary filmmaker of his generation, has directed historical documentaries for almost 40 years. Since the Academy Award nominated “Brooklyn Bridge“ in 1981, Burns has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. He is known for his skilled use of period photographs, music, and periodicals in his films, as well as his inclusion of archival materials. In Sept. 2008, The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
At first, Burns wanted to be a Hollywood filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock, his cinematic hero at the time. Once he reached college, however, he had his first encounters with social documentary still photographers, who reminded him of how much drama there was in captured moments preserved in single images.
“And that was linked with my own completely untrained and untutored but passionate love of American History,” Burns said.
Some critics peg “storytelling” as manipulating the truth or the historical record. To this, Burns says that everyone has to accept the subjectivity of things. The style of film that Burns and his team try to make offers multiple perspectives.
“A carpenter manipulates wood, a painter manipulates paint and canvas to do things, and a filmmaker working in American History just happens to take a lot of different facts, and through the selection – you can’t say everything that happened, you don’t want to be an encyclopedic, you want to tell stories, which means that you cut to the chase — you pick symbolic and representative things to stand in for many other things,” Burns said.
Some of Ken Burns’ future projects include films on Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Ernest Hemingway, who ended his life with a shotgun; the history of country music; baseball great Jackie Robinson; the history of stand-up comedy; and the Vietnam War.
Referring back to the concept of storytelling and “getting it right,” Burns talked about one of his coming films.
“Making a film like the Vietnam series we’re working on (has) a million, maybe five million different problems,” Burns added. “But I don’t see the word problem as a pejorative thing … I see it as a positive thing, something to be overcome, forks in the road to take, an opportunity to transform material.”
Focusing mostly on his award-winning epic Civil War and World War II series during the lecture, Burns focused on the subject of war and how our shared past experiences in society tell us who we were and what we have become as a nation.
He recalled the words of Abraham Lincoln: “We must live through all time or die by suicide,” a statement that speaks to the nation’s deep North-South rupture during the Civil War that reverberates down time, its aftermath still evident today. The idea that our greatest enemy is ourself is one that Burns continues to explore.
Even after Burn’s Civil War series aired in September 1990, viewed by more than 40 million people, where frame after frame of Americans killing other Americans revealed the cost of a war fought more than a century earlier, the nation was in the serious grip of war-fever.
“(During this time) we massed our forces to attack Iraq, which had invaded Kuwait in early August,” Burns said. “There is, I am sorry to say, a part of human nature common to all societies, that possesses an enthusiasm for war, a profound forgetfulness of war’s painful calculus.”
Even in a post-9/11 world, Burns said that we continue to struggle to find ourselves in the wake of that convulsive time in U.S. history.
“It is interesting that we come back again and again to that earlier war and Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “We are still stitched together by words, and their dangerous progeny: ideas.”
Through it all, human nature remains unchanged, Burns said.
“My job is to listen and see those patterns and realize how much, as William Faulkner said, ‘History not was, but is.’ The much more interesting themes are the ones that resonate with today, and you begin to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. If history is the collective memory of humanity, then war is a kind of forgetting.”
Burns’ talk was part of Trinity’s Distinguished Lecture Series, made possible by an endowment gift from the Walter F. Brown Family of San Antonio.
*Top image: Ken Burns speaks to the media about his trajectory as a documentary filmmaker. Photo by Rocio Guenther.