Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spoke with passion, wit and intelligence Tuesday night, calling on audience members, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1861, to listen to “the better angels of our nature.”
“We are still stitched together by words and most importantly, by their dangerous progeny—ideas,” Ken Burns told a packed Massey Performing Arts Center Tuesday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Burns has been America’s chief documentarian for the past three decades. His extensive films on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and, most recently, World War II have built a reputation that once prompted historian Stephen Ambrose to say, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”
Burns was on campus as the keynote speaker in a year-long series on “the art of being free.” He gave his remarks exactly one week before Belmont hosts the second presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama on Oct. 7.
Burns, a master of language as much as of his visual art, peppered his 40-minute speech with liberal quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Eric Sevareid and other notable Americans.
He focused his remarks, however, on ordinary Americans—especially as he uncovered them in “The War,” his recent seven-part PBS series that highlights the stories of nearly 50 American men and women and how they navigated the most complex military conflict in history.
Burns remarks were preceded, at his request, by a clip from “The War,” which had the nearly 1,000 attendees transfixed. It featured newsreels and photos of Americans fighting and resting, crying and working, all set to Norah Jones’ rendition of Gene Scheer’s affecting “American Anthem.”
Burns shared that he and his filmmaking team were reluctant to produce another war-themed series after “The Civil War,” which premiered in September 1990 to more than 40 million viewers—incidentally, during the first Gulf War.
“We didn’t want to descend again into the frightening but also mesmerizing world of battle,” said Burns. That conviction was eventually overturned, he said, by two statistics that disturbed him.
First was the fact that, as the new century began, 1,000 World War II veterans were dying each day. If they ignored this, said Burns, “we would be guilty of an historical amnesia too irresponsible to countenance.”
“Their memory,” he said, referring to those who lived through and fought the war, “is their most valuable asset and our greatest inheritance.”
The second statistic to change Burns and company’s minds came from the National Council for History Education, which found in the 1990s that “too many” graduating high school seniors thought the United States fought with the Germans in World War II.
Burns committed to the World War II project. “It consumed and transformed everyone who worked on it,” said Burns, mentioning its seven years of production that required dozens of interviews, visits to hundreds of archives, and traveling around the world.
He wanted to show “ordinary people,” he said, not just the “great men” who have too often dominated historical and documentary inquiry.
His brand of documentary, said Burns, necessitates what he referred to as “emotional archaeology.” The purpose of art, he said, is to understand the emotional texture of experience. As a documentary filmmaker, he uses various techniques and tools—live cinematography, newsreel footage, archival photos, interviews, music, sound effects—to convey some of that emotional truth.
In so doing, with each project, he is asking the same question: Who are we? In asking that question on “The War,” he said he was reminded of a truth: “There are no ordinary lives,” he said, repeating it for emphasis as he did several times throughout the night.
Burns spoke with passion, wit and intelligence, calling on audience members, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1861, to listen to “the better angels of our nature.”
Burns took questions for about 30 minutes, and the evening’s last question evoked perhaps the most memorable moment. When asked how he got interested in documentary filmmaking, Burns harkened back to his childhood.
Burns’ mother died of cancer when he was 11 years old. His father never cried, Burns said, until one day at a movie. Burns then realized that a movie-watching experience was powerful and capable of providing access to valuable emotions, even accumulated grief.
Burns later went to college, had professors who were documentarians in one way or another, and became interested in history. The rest is … history, including this remark from one of Burns’ psychiatrist friends:
“You wake the dead,” Burns’ friend told him, re-characterizing what Burns does for a living. “Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?”
With those words, Burns smiled, said thank you, and left the stage.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor of EthicsDaily.com.