This interview and commentary first appeared in KQED's publication San Francisco Focus.
The Interview With Ken Burns:
The renowned filmmaker of The Civil War turns his eye from the nation's past to our national pastime.
BY JOAN WALSH
Ken Burns is charging up a hillside through a field of orange wildflowers, leading visitors to a red-brick replica of Thomas Jefferson's garden house that the filmmaker built behind his home a bit of old Virginia in Walpole, New Hampshire. It's impossible not to wonder if the famous documentarian has gone too far this time with his mania for history, maybe off the deep end, as he stands before his monument to Jefferson--the subject of an upcoming film--sitting surreally at the crest of the hill.
Inside the single room, walled in by high windows, are tall iron candleholders, to re-create the light Jefferson would have read by. In the field are fragile saplings grown from apple trees that grace Jefferson's Monticello estate. "If you want to know exactly how they were grown, we can get the details," Burns says. I demur, with some guilt, knowing that if the indefatigable Burns were doing the Ken Burns story himself, he would want all the details--he might travel to Monticello to film the original trees and garden house, trying to understand exactly why this twentieth-century Yankee filmmaker was re-creating the world of a long-dead Southern president in his backyard.
Burns has wielded his obsession creatively through nine films, making history come alive for millions of public television viewers, most remarkably through his award-winning series, The Civil War. "All my work," he says, "is about waking the dead."
It has been four years since Burns summoned the country to sit down in front of their television sets and watch an eleven-hour documentary, drawn heavily from the photographs, letters, and journals of those who lived through it. Critics doubted viewers would sit still for the lofty experiment in television, but The Civil War drew PBS's biggest audience ever--the highest ratings were here in San Francisco--and accounted for record-breaking sales of blank videocassettes, as millions of people taped the series for posterity.
Burns, now forty-one, has not been idle since then. His radio history, Empire of the Air, was widely watched in 1991. But the follow-up everyone has been waiting for is his epic Baseball, an eighteen-hour history of the national pastime that Burns calls a sequel to The Civil War.
The project is a gamble for Burns and for PBS. Baseball, the game, is losing fans to the fast-paced physicality of football and basketball--and this season's strike won't help. Baseball, the series, is half again as long as The Civil War, and skeptics question whether a sports history can justify the length and solemnity that mark Burns' filmmaking. Burns is ready for the naysayers. "My proposal for Baseball was twice as long as for The Civil War because of exactly that kind of prejudging: that baseball's a frivolous subject," he complains. "But we didn't make a sports highlight film. This is not nostalgia. Baseball is a guide to the inner life of the country. It's a gritty history, in which loss figures prominently."
Loss has figured prominently in the life and work of Ken Burns. He was born in Brooklyn in 1953, the first child of cultural anthropologist Robert Burns and his wife, Lyla, a biotechnician. They became academic nomads, moving to tiny St. Veran, France--"As a baby, I was the icebreaker for a cultural anthropologist trying to study a peasant village," Burns says wryly--then to Newark, Delaware, and finally to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father settled at the University of Michigan. When Burns was three, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, the tragedy that defined his childhood and ultimately, he says, his career.
"There was never a time when I didn't know my mother was sick," he says. Lyla Burns died when Ken was eleven, but it was only last year that his father-in-law, a psychologist, made a poignant connection: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive."
Losing his mother inspired not just his love of the past, Burns says, but his sense of direction and obsessive work style. Even as a child he was a voracious reader, inhaling the family encyclopedia one volume after another, always preferring history to fiction. He got an 8mm movie camera for his seventeenth birthday and promptly filmed an exposé of an ugly Ann Arbor factory. He turned down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, where his father taught, because he was set on going to brand-new Hampshire College, where there were no grades, attendance requirements, or football team. He worked hard to graduate from high school early and took a job in a record store to pay his way.
It was worth the struggle. Burns thrived at hampshire, in a liberal, creative Atmosphere that would produce an unlikely crop of filmmaking talent: producer Michael Peyser (Ruthless People, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), John Falsey, creator of St. Elsewhere, Northern Exposure, and I'll Fly Away; and documentarians Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Peter Friedman (Silverlake Life: The View from Here). After graduation, Burns established Florentine Films with friends from Hampshire and began work on a documentary about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
He worked on the film for four years, moving to tiny Walpole so he could live cheaply, getting by on $2500 a year for two years. Brooklyn Bridge was a critical success, winning an Academy Award nomination in 1982, and Burns' career took off. In the next decade he made a series of acclaimed historical documentaries--including The Shakers, The Statue of Liberty, and many viewers' favorite, Huey Long--before he "hit the jackpot," as he puts it, with The Civil War.
The 1990 award-winner showcased Burns' signature still-in-motion film technique and his single-minded devotion to his subject: He scoured 160 archives and personally photographed sixteen thousand old photos. The finished product featured nine hundred first-person quotes from a wide spectrum of participants, from legendary presidents and generals to obscure soldiers and slaves. Burns was trying to synthesize, in his words, "the best of the old school of history--great men doing great things--and the new school, which is history from the bottom up."
Fans loved both. Abraham Lincoln came vividly to life, but viewers were equally moved by a soldier named Sullivan Ballou, whose letter to his wife, Mary, on the eve of his death rivaled Lincoln's funeral as the apex of three-handkerchief filmmaking. (The sentimental Burns carried a copy of Ballou's eloquent love letter in his wallet throughout the making of the film.)
Critics were reverential. "This is not just good television, not even just great television. This is heroic television," proclaimed Tom Shales of the Washington Post. George Will went further: "Our Iliad has found its Homer," he wrote worshipfully.
The conservative Will may seem an unlikely fan of the liberal Burns, who grew up protesting the Vietnam War, admires Bill Clinton, and agrees with most left-wing American history. But Burns has an uneasy relationship with both the academy and the left. He was the first filmmaker to be inducted into the Society of American Historians--an honor he is proud of--but he is contemptuous of most academic historians. "They haven't cared how they wrote, or more important, who was listening," he contends. Likewise, he hates the "negativity" of most left-wing history. While his films expose the country's dark side--slavery, labor exploitation, the exclusion of blacks from baseball--they also highlight how we overcame our past. "Left-wing historians--whose views I subscribe to--are doing more to divide than anything else," says Burns.
The ambivalence is mutual. In The Civil War, for instance, even detractors admired Burns' artistry but challenged his emphasis on Lincoln as hero, given that the president admittedly began the war to stop secession, not slavery, and tarried in emancipating the slaves. When he asked consultant Barbara Fields, an African-American historian at Columbia University, to read Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation for the film, she declined.
"Lincoln's greatness is not in question, but the focus on him obscured the role other people played," says Fields, who wound up a critic of the series though it featured her prominently. "It minimized the role of Congress, for instance, which felt pressure from state governors, soldiers, abolitionists, and slaves themselves. And it didn't help the audience understand the white majority in the Confederacy--three-fourths of white families didn't own slaves."
In the world of public television, too, Burns is both lionized and criticized. He is admired for his filmmaking and his promotion of public broadcasting, but given his sudden wealth and influence--he reportedly got $4 million from Turner Entertainment for the right to sell his Baseball videocassettes; Little, Brown will pay him and his collaborators $3 million for a book developed with their upcoming documentary series, The West; and General Motors has promised to back his work into the next century--some people wish he would use his celebrity to advance riskier projects and issues. "Is this what the country needs, an eighteen-hour history of baseball?" asks Larry Daressa, codirector of California Newsreel. "I know he says it's about race, but then why not a film about racism? Or about education, or the inner city?"
Burns stepped up to the plate to face these and other issues in an extended San Francisco Focus interview. We met at his home office in Walpole, where he lives. The boundaries between work and family in the Burns compound are fluid: His filmmaker wife, Amy Stechler Burns, has worked on his projects (though there have been recent reports that they've separated), and their daughters--Sarah, eleven, and Lilly, seven--wander in and out comfortably during our interview.
In shorts and a T-shirt that reads "Baseball Is Life," Burns looks like a child star in one of those fantasy movies about kids who make the big leagues. But he's no rookie. In an afternoon of conversation, he finished many of my questions before I could and got scrappy at the slightest scent of criticism in the distance. The spin control is understandable: He is a storyteller himself, and he knows what his themes are. He has examined all his anecdotes for both obvious and hidden meanings.
Still, the interview is revealing. His memories of his mother's death are moving, and the way he links that loss to his concerns about racism is intriguing. He may not see the story this way, but one can imagine why a small boy with a dying mother would identify with an oppressed people and long for brave heroes to fight tragedy and injustice--and grow up to make films in which the oppressed are freed, heroes are celebrated, and the dead, for a time, are awakened.
San Francisco Focus: You've said that the thread running through all of your films is the story of the black experience in this country. Do you remember your first awareness of racism?
Ken Burns: Well, it's pretty painful. My mother was close to dying right when the civil rights movement was happening. And I remember I used to stay up and get terrific stomachaches worrying about dogs and fire hoses in Selma, Alabama. I couldn't put it together until I realized that the cancer that was eating away at my country was an easier thing for me to deal with than the cancer that was killing my family. And I think in Baseball, more fully than in The Civil War, I've been able to integrate the African-American narrative.
SF Focus: When I told people I was interviewing you, and that you'd just completed an eighteen-hour history of baseball, they divided into two camps. Baseball fans said, "Oh, I can't wait! That's going to be great!" And nonfans said--
Burns: "Oh yeah?"
SF Focus: Right--"Who's going to watch that?"
Burns: I'll tell you, I had quite a large following before I did The Civil War, and people would come up to me, mostly women, and say, "You know, I really love your work, The Shakers, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Huey Long. But the Civil War? I'm not a military history buff." And I said, "Wait. I'm making it for you." Now those people come up to me and say, "Gee, you know, I loved The Civil War, but baseball? My husband's into baseball." And I say, "Were you interested in military history?" And they say, "No, but your film was about human beings, about life, about emotions." And I say, "That's what Baseball is about. I'm making it for you."
SF Focus: And you think it will have that same widespread appeal?
Burns: Well, our consultant, Gerald Early, says that in two thousand years our country will be known for three things: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball. He's right. They're the three most perfectly designed things this civilization has ever produced.
SF Focus: You call Baseball a sequel to The Civil War. Why do you see it that way?
Burns: Because I'm telling a history of the country the Civil War made us. Black baseball before it disappeared was the third largest black business in the country. And I wanted to extend to the Negro Leagues not this very facile sense of tragedy or this very facile sense of a minstrel show. Both of them are wrong. And if you think about civil rights, what's the first progress in civil rights since the Civil War? It's not at a lunch counter, it's not on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, it's not in a school in Topeka. It's on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. So this is the story of race, which caused the Civil War to happen.
SF Focus: Abraham Lincoln was clearly the hero of The Civil War.Is there a Lincoln figure in Baseball for you?
Burns: Jackie Robinson, without a doubt. I think after Lincoln, he is the most remarkable hero that I've ever had the pleasure to get to know in the course of making a film.
SF Focus: Did you know he was your "Lincoln" from the start?
Burns: No. I knew he was the most important person, but I didn't realize to what extent. Just like I started The Civil War, and Lincoln was the most important person, but I didn't know that he would influence me the way he did. I mean, look around here [gestures around his office, which is crowded with photos and busts of Lincoln]. This is a man who means something to me.
SF Focus: One thing that bothered me about Baseball was the lack of women commentators. The only one is Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is great, but hardly enough.
Burns: Rachel Robinson is in it, and Babe Ruth's sister, and--
SF Focus: But in terms of the commentators, the voices that you keep coming back to during the course of the series, there is only one woman.
Burns: Well, Doris owns the last
two episodes. And Rachel owns the sixth episode. So there is a strong female presence. Other people that we interviewed didn't do as well. But I'm very happy with the film. I think this is essentially a male sport.
SF Focus: It does have more female fans than any other sport.
Burns: It does, yes. And I think the most impressive thing is that the best fan in the film in Doris Kearns Goodwin.
SF Focus: What I got from both Baseball and The Civil War was the twist you put on traditional history. We're not taught much history in this country, and when it is taught, it's taught as mythology, with heroic, unambiguous figures. And you undermine that, but then--
Burns: But then the ultimate product is a sense of glory greater than the false nostalgia. If you lift up the rug of history and sweep out the dirt, you don't in any way diminish the beauty of that tapestry. In fact, you may enhance it by acknowledging and setting in relief the darker side, so that you feel more passionately American. I want to distinguish between a kind of Pollyanna patriotism and one that ultimately makes you feel better about being an American, despite the fact that for six or seven decades black people were excluded from our national pastime--so therefore it's not really our national pastime. We can have these seedy, greedy sides to us, and by including them, you paint a truer picture, which is ultimately more ennobling, because out of this confusion--and, at times, evil--comes a great deal of good.
SF Focus: There is another strand of American history, the left-wing, very negative version--much of which is true. For instance, the fact that Lincoln was very slow--
Burns: That Lincoln was tardy on civil rights. Right. You see, we have two reasons why history has fallen into disrepute in our country. The first one is the academy. Academics have for the past century told only a negative story, trying to correct the Pollyanna view, and they've only spoken to one another. The second reason is television. But I believe that television can be a synthesis of the best of the old school of history--that is, great men doing great things--and the new school, which is history from the bottom up, the myriad heroic acts of women, minorities, labor, ordinary people like you and me. In The Civil War, I think we were able to synthesize the two strands--to say, "Yes, it is about Lincoln. Yes, he is the greatest president, but let's look at his dark side. And let's see ordinary people without throwing out the extraordinary people."
SF Focus: Why is this so important to you?
Burns: I think we have a hunger for national self-definition. And without a past, we deprive ourselves of the defining impressions of our being. When individuals are in crisis, you send them to a therapist, and the first things the therapist asks are, "Where did you come from? Who are your parents? What is your history?" The implication is that the airing out of history is a kind of medicine: Healing can take place. That's what I'm interested in: the healing power of history.
You know, I was at a documentary forum, and the other four filmmakers, who made contemporary films, were denigrating me, saying, "It's so easy what he does." Well, making history come alive is the most complicated stuff I've ever done. And they said, "But it's not really important. It's the past." The truth is, I've had to be led out of speeches I've given in the South. I had to be protected from an audience that didn't like the way The Civil War came out. This notion that the past is somehow safe is ridiculous.
SF Focus: Did you become more sympathetic to the South as you researched the film?
Burns: I'm interested in American history, so I wish to inhale both stories. A mother's loss--the loss of a child--whether by a pro-South or a pro-North mother, is the same pain. That doesn't mean I avoided the issue of slavery. In fact, at the very beginning we categorically excoriate the institution. However, it was important to realize that this was a family story, and that these are members of our families. My great-great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. I have no sentimentality about the cause they were fighting for. It was wrong. However, these are my family members. Just as anyone can open a family album and point and say, "Oh, he's a rogue, and that one's a scoundrel, and he's a pathological liar, and . . ."
SF Focus: But they're in your family.
Burns: They're family members! And I think one of the needless things that recent left history does is say that these people don't exist. The only criticism I've had for the Civil War films, other than from rabid Confederates who say it's pro-North, is from left-wing historians who say that any sympathy extended to the South, or any version that celebrates great men, is wrong. I'm interested in the way in which our history can include an appreciation of Stonewall Jackson's great genius and at the same time be aware of his intolerable views on slavery; and realize how wonderful Frederick Douglass is in the movement toward emancipation. If you're smart you can see exactly what the filmmaker believes without the filmmaker hitting you over the head.
SF Focus: Do the left-wing critics bother you?
Burns: I think those historians--whose views I subscribe to--are doing more to divide than anything else. Arthur Schlesinger said there's too much pluribus and not enough unum. I'm interested in unum. Multiculturalism, when it becomes an excuse for everybody going off into their own corners with their own truths, rather than the great genius of America, which is hewing to a common truth, is more deadly than the Civil War. I think we're in the middle of a new Civil War, between people who wish to pull apart and those who realize that our strength is in finding common ground.
SF Focus: I know that many left-wing scholars, and also black scholars, felt--
Burns: You can't say that. Some black scholars. I have tremendous support among black scholars who come up and say, "God bless you" for what we did in the series.
SF Focus: Barbara Fields left an impression in some of the things that I read that she wasn't entirely happy--
Burns: She's not entirely happy with anything. We included everything she asked us to put in the film, with the exception of one story that had an expletive that she used that we thought just didn't do her justice. She was a consultant for the whole four or five years, and she annotated the script more than anyone else--and we followed what she said. We're very grateful for her comments, which I think are just phenomenal, but I think that she has decided, unfortunately, to hew to the political situation when this isn't a political film.
SF Focus: You've said you love Bill Moyers, but that he's an "evangelist" and the overt politics of his documentaries would not sit well with you. When I was watching the last episode of The Civil War again, I noticed that Barbara Fields' last quote is very political, about how the Civil War isn't over as long as we have poverty and racism. Instead of ending there, you end with a quote from Shelby Foote about the human cost of the war. Moyers and other liberals would have ended with Fields.
Burns: If I were a politician I would have ended with Barbara Fields, because that's what I agree with. But politics is only one narrow way to see things, and when we're lost in politics, we're lost. See, I'm an emotional archaeologist. I am not interested in the dry dates of the past. I'm interested in the things that move me. I wish to embrace a broad, emotional canvas, and you need to have politics in its place.
SF Focus: I know what a hero Lincoln became for you, to the point where, in the course of the film, it was hard for you to have to kill him.
Burns: Well, I'd like you to get the speeches I've given. One of them I did at Ford's Theater when I finally went back there. The story is that I was in the audio mix, in the scene where Lincoln is killed, and we had laid down everything--the tinny orchestral music, the footfalls, the laughter, the Victorian performance--everything but the sound of the gunshot. So we went back to put the sound in on the very last day, and I just yelled "Stop!" And we kept him alive for a few minutes, at about five hundred bucks a minute running through the meter. And we were all crying. I just didn't want him to die. I mean, that's the whole idea, to keep these people alive. Inevitably they have to die, to cement our relationship and their importance to us. But it's always painful.
SF Focus: There are heroes in all of your films. Who are your heroes today?
Burns: Buck O'Neil is a hero of mine. Shelby Foote is a hero. Jerome Liebling, the professor of photography that I had at Hampshire College. Those are my three--
SF Focus: Anybody on the national stage?
Burns: Well, I like President Clinton.
SF Focus: What do you think about the way journalists handle the Clinton Administration?
Burns: I think there's a prurient interest in his personal life: I'm just not interested in it. I've read American history. I know this is quite often what men in power have going on. And I know a lot of women in power that have the exact same tastes and tendencies. Of course, I will not name any names, but I know the exact same thing is going on. And I think the stance of the media is unbelievably sanctimonious. It's lazy, is what it is. That's why we have so few heroes today, because we have a media apparatus that doesn't tolerate the complexity of modern heroism, which the Greeks have known for five thousand years included a dark and tragic side. I'm sorry to go off on a tirade.
SF Focus: Go right ahead.
Burns: Well, I think the media have appointed themselves the way that the Puritan elders did. They paint the scarlet letter A whenever they find a hero who has a dark side. In fact, the nature of heroism is to have a dark side. This is the complexity of human life. Take the greatest president of the twentieth century: Franklin Roosevelt. Here's a man who slept with his wife's secretary, who had an ongoing affair with a married woman; who was a cripple, and who in this day and age would never have been elected because of the worries about his health.
SF Focus: Which the media didn't expose.
Burns: There was an unspoken agreement that when Franklin Roosevelt stood up, the cameras stopped. There was tremendous pain on his face. He used to sweat profusely, and his face would go white when he stood up. Then they would lock his leg braces, and he would mop his brow and put on his smile, and then the cameras would roll again. What is wrong with that restraint? There's nothing wrong with restraint. Our Constitution is the classic example of restraint. Limiting our president in certain ways has actually made us the greatest republic on the face of the earth. But unfettered media that have no responsibility, that can go into any aspect of personal life or whatever without restraint, actually do a disservice to the notion of free speech.
SF Focus: But if you were making a documentary of Roosevelt, wouldn't you want the footage of him standing up?
Burns: [Pause] If I were making a film about Roosevelt, I'd wait until the administration was over. I might want to use that footage, or I might just describe it. I don't know that Roosevelt could get elected if people were aware of the extent of his pain. But this is the man who led us out of the Depression and through the Second World War.
SF Focus: But what if we all knew that--how much pain he was in and what a great job he did anyway. What if the cameras had captured it? Wouldn't that help us redefine our notion of leadership?
Burns: I think that's a really great question. So what about Bill Clinton, who's clearly an activist president, but every time he has a hangnail, people are ready to throw his administration away? I've never seen anything like this in my entire observation of politics.
SF Focus: Your next project is a multicultural history of the West?
Burns: Well, I hope that all of my films are multicultural. But yes. The history of the West to date has been pretty flawed. Just by virtue of its name, it implies that it's only people from the East going there. But the "West" is also the north, the south, and the east for many peoples. And it's home for many other peoples. I'm actually serving as the senior creative consultant and executive producer. It's being produced and directed by Steven Ives, who produced a show on Lindbergh for The American Experience.
SF Focus: What else is in the works?
Burns: There are five documentary portraits I'd like to do, beginning with Thomas Jefferson and including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I'm choosing subjects that won't be in any way successful. They won't have the mercantile splash of The Civil War or Baseball. And I am actually toying with the idea of making a feature film, or at least being involved in a feature film project, on the life of Jackie Robinson. I'm working with Merchant-Ivory and Hollywood Pictures on that. I'd serve as a producer and hope to have a black director.
SF Focus: What else do you think public television should be doing?
Burns: Lots of things. I think they should be a little bit more daring with avant-garde films. I think POV is great, but I think public television should be taking broader chances. I think we should have a game show on public television, something that has a broad appeal but that would be intelligent, in the Jeopardy realm, you know? I think we should do very controversial subjects. I think we should stand up in the face of naysayers in Congress and just say, "Look, this is public television. It's got to represent all of us."
SF Focus: Are you interested in doing anything for network television?
Burns: None of my films could have been made for network television! That's why when I get all these flattering and very financially lucrative offers, I turn them all down. First of all, the network would own the film--the copyright would be held in its name. Second, we forget the most important thing about public television: There are no commercials. The greatest problem in our country is no one has an attention span. Everything is in six- to eight-minute chunks. We're so distracted. So public television, without commercial interruption, is a fantastic thing.
SF Focus: Don't you think you could negotiate something with the networks where your work wouldn't be interrupted?
Burns: Well, it's like Satchel Paige said in the Negro Leagues: "The majors couldn't pay me enough to play." He was basically saying, "I have my freedom here. I'm being paid and rewarded, in my own sense, very well. Why do I need to change?" Similarly, I own my product. No one tells me to change it or to put in more sex or more violence. Why would I want to go someplace else for the immediate short-term security of more money, when, if something hits the jackpot, like The Civil War, I benefit from it?
If Civil War had been made anyplace else, the network would have benefited from it and I would have just gotten my salary. Here I'm very happy to have my modest PBS salary, which in nearly every film I've made I've had to forgo in the last month of the production in order to make the budget. But I have the satisfaction of total creative control and of knowing that if it does make money, I will be the chief beneficiary.
SF Focus: You've certainly benefited from this project already.
Burns: Yes, and with the income from the merchandising and licensing of Baseball--the T-shirts and mugs and other stuff like that--I'm starting a nonprofit foundation. I want to divert the money to Negro League charities, history education, and public television projects that people can't get funding for. Because I've been out there. I'm an independent, despite people thinking that I just snap my fingers and get funded.
SF Focus: People do think that. In fact a friend of mine, who had PBS back out of a film she was working on, was upset when she heard about Baseball. It was part sour grapes, she admitted, but it was also a sense of "Baseball? Is that really worth eighteen hours and millions of dollars of funding?" And the second part was: "Public television isn't about ideas anymore. Ken Burns is now the commodity, and he can do whatever he wants."
Burns: That's just not true. I can't do whatever I want. My proposal for Baseball was twice as long as for The Civil War because of exactly that kind of prejudging: that baseball's a frivolous subject. I had to conquer it not just in you and in your friend--who has not extended me the courtesy of seeing the film before she judges--but in the funding agencies that were not sure that this was a legitimate topic. And I did that by writing proposals that are three or four inches thick.
SF Focus: You don't seem to have any problems with self-doubt.
Burns: Outwardly I don't, but inwardly I do.
SF Focus: What are your doubts?
Burns: I'm a harsh critic. I wake up with a start at four o'clock every single morning of my life.
SF Focus: What's there?
Burns: It's like, How do I solve that problem? How do I fix that scene in the 1908 pennant race between the Cubs and the Giants? How do I make sure that the vision of the Negro Leagues is not some syrupy, liberal, bleeding-heart version but a glorious evocation of black culture? It's been there since Brooklyn Bridge, just boom! I'm wide awake, and I know what the problem is, and I have a pad next to my bed and it's filled with scratching, then I take it in to the editing room and try to do it better. So there's an outer kind of confidence about what I'm doing and how to do it, but an inner turmoil to make sure that I don't get sucked into the distractions of celebrity or the distractions of success or the distractions of the process.
SF Focus: When you talk about making history live I sense you're also talking partly about your mother. What effect did losing her when you were young have on making you the filmmaker that you are today?
Burns: It's all about her. I had a powerful cathartic experience last year. When my mother died, she was cremated, but the funeral home went out of business, and my family never got her ashes. So last year, my brother and I finally tracked down her ashes. After twenty-eight years we had some finale. And I realized how potent that was--that I had been keeping her alive in some way. It's only been within this past year that I've been able to understand that all my films stem from that tragedy. And
it's been incredibly painful, and incredibly liberating.
SF Focus: Have you ever thought about making a film about her?
Burns: All my films are about her. I don't think I could do it directly, because of how intensely painful it is.
SF Focus: But as you talk about your work, I'm struck by the way film really can make someone live again, temporarily, and what an experience that would be for you.
Burns: Well, a lot of filmmakers make a choice of being self-referential, of filming their own angst, their own sexual odyssey, the death of their parents, the death of their lovers. And I've often felt that these were powerful examples of cinema, but limited by the fact that they were simply about one thing. I don't denigrate self-referential films--I did some in college, angst-ridden stuff. But I just felt they couldn't get beyond a certain step. There's an honorable tradition of self-portrait, but the best work is looking out. It's a more complete way to be self-referential, because there's the distance of working on other material, but it's very revealing of the artist as well. I leave myself out of my films, and yet I'm in every frame.
SF Focus: Do you think losing your mother accounts for your drivenness? I ask this out of my own experience--my mother died when I was seventeen, and she was sick while I was young. Do you think you learned to keep moving to keep from--
Burns: Of course, of course. There's a kind of Red Shoes ballet about it.
SF Focus: You mean where the ballet shoes force the dancer to keep going until she dances herself to death? That's a little--
Burns: Scary? Yes. But I'm actually learning in this process how to stop.
SF Focus: How?
Burns: The Baseball project, more than any other, required so much faith in the people that work with me. It was five or six times the volume of The Civil War, so I had to let go of some of it. And letting go and seeing that it could still be done was really a fantastic gift to me.
SF Focus: So do you feel as though you learned how to delegate and perhaps how to be easier on yourself?
Burns: Yeah, a little bit this time. It will be a long process of disengagement, because of this underlying trauma, this notion of trying to bring people back from the dead. And obviously the one person I want to bring back, I've been unable to--and will not be able to. But there's something glorious in the failure, is there not? SFF
Ken Burns' Baseball, a General Motors Mark of Excellence presentation, will air on PBS on nine evenings: Sunday, September 18, through Thursday, September 22, and Sunday, September 25, through Wednesday, September 28, at 8 pm. Burns will be at the San Francisco Hilton on Monday, October 10, for a noontime lecture benefiting KQED. He will discuss his two epic PBS series, The Civil War and Baseball, and answer audience questions. Tickets are $15; $12 for KQED members with advance purchase. For more information, call (415) 553-2200.
Ken Burns' history of baseball is a hit-right out of the park.
All I need to know I learned from baseball. I grew up in New York, where my father rooted for the omnipotent Yankees, and my mother and grandmother, abandoned by the Brooklyn Dodgers, cheered for the hapless Mets, then the worst team in baseball. I learned early to root for the underdog--I loved my father but I couldn't see how, as a Catholic, he could cheer for players who always won--and to stand by my team. I knew also that if Dodgers and Yankees fans can marry, then surely we could all get along.
Like Ken Burns, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement as a child, but my passion for black people was thwarted by one thing: I didn't know any. So Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones became my favorite Mets, and it's only this year that I've worked out my feelings about race enough to admit that my favorite Giant (next to Dusty Baker) is Robby Thompson.
This is why I can't be objective about Ken Burns' Baseball. An eighteen-hour history of baseball? Too short. Burns' epic takes seriously the baseball fan's obsession with the sport and its many layers of meaning--"time, memory, family, home, and race," in Burns' words--and justifies it to the rest of the nation. Not that Baseball is just a film of ideals and rhetoric. Fans will love the newsreel footage of the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series; Lou Gehrig's farewell at Yankee Stadium; and Bobby Thompson's 1951 "Shot Heard Round the World," complete with the Giants' crazed reactions. But Burns has set himself a higher challenge than thrilling devotees. He has made a film to captivate nonfans. Will they watch it? We'll find out this month.
People who liked The Civil War will enjoy much of this new series. Burns describes it as a sequel to The Civil War, and, unbelievably, it feels like one: the same leisurely pacing, the still-in-motion photography, the characters we follow from episode to episode, the banjos and violins and tinkling pianos.
The theme connecting the two films is, of course, race. Burns has illuminated baseball's shadow side, its history of excluding and exploiting black players from the earliest days of the sport. He tells not just the story of the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson, but the longer history of how black players influenced the game.
But Robinson is clearly the heart of the series, and Burns tells his story with all the art, insight, and sentimentality he's capable of. He shows how opposing teams taunted Robinson with racial insults, spiked him at first base, and threw at his head, all while he "turned the other cheek" for three years, as he promised Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey he would. We feel the tension and injustice until we're ready to explode, and when Robinson is finally allowed to retaliate we're relieved--but we're ready for blood, not just insults. Finally, when Robinson dies of diabetes complications, prematurely old at fifty-three, Baseball makes clear that the racial struggle took its toll. His friend Sammy Haynes says simply, "It killed him."
Baseball is arranged in nine chronological innings, most of them chronicling a single decade. The first four trace the sport from the mid-1800s through the 1920s, and they are vintage Burns. I enjoyed them, but for me, the series took off in the Fifth Inning, "Shadow Ball," mainly about the Negro Leagues in the 1930s. From there through the Ninth, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite. The Ninth Inning, "Home," brings us from 1970 to the present, but its emotional climax is Jackie Robinson's funeral in 1972. It's a kick to watch Burns move toward the present and work with color film and modern music. Still photos and folk music tend to inspire his solemnity; this lets a more playful, subversive side emerge.
The one weak point for me is Burns' cast of mainly academic commentators pontificating about a sport that still has a working-class heart. Negro Leagues star Buck O'Neil and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin steal the film, and by contrast they make the white, male intellectuals--George Will, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Okrent, George Plimpton, Donald Hall, John Sayles--even more pedantic. Yet I think Burns succeeds in weaving the black experience into the film--not as a marginal subplot, but centrally, movingly--far better than in The Civil War. Series consultant Gerald Early, chair of Afro-American Studies at Washington University, mostly agrees. "He did a good job. I don't think he has enough black fans just talking about what baseball means to them, and I told him that. But it's going to get people thinking about the history of the game. And if they feel there aren't enough black people in it, I hope they'll say, `Here's my chance to tell that story.'" --J.W.
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