Ken Burns: Profiled in the LAT

Historians in the News

Filmmaker Ken Burns defends his work as heavily orchestrated, “manipulated truth” -- just don't call him "enthusiastic."


WHEN Ken Burns was working on his first professional documentary, in 1979, he pestered playwright Arthur Miller for an interview on its subject, the Brooklyn Bridge. Miller had written "A View From the Bridge," so Burns figured he would have wisdom to share about the stately span. But when the fledgling filmmaker traveled to Miller's farm in Connecticut, "I arrived with heart pounding, he's 6-foot-5 and leans in, 'I don't know a god-damned thing about the Brooklyn Bridge!' " Burns recalls. "I just must have looked so mortified."

The playwright did not give him a chance to reload his camera. Burns got to ask a single question and to this day can quote, to the word, how Miller replied: "You see, the city is fundamentally a practical utilitarian invention and . . . suddenly you see this steel poetry sticking there . . . . It makes you feel that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

Just like that, the unknown Ken Burns had: (1) the ending of his film, (2) a story to tell in graduation speeches he would be asked to give when he too became famous, and (3) a mantra for his life: "Maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

Burns, whose latest documentary series, "The War," begins Sept. 23 on PBS, has always been drawn to statements that sum things up in the broadest way. Posted on the wall of his office here, behind his own farmhouse, is a pearl from Tyrone Guthrie, the Minneapolis theater impresario: "We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again." Burns is forever quoting historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also, about how our fractured society suffers from "too much pluribus and not enough unum." So it is in "The War" that the opening minutes have former Marine pilot Sam Hynes saying, "I don't think there is such a thing as a good war. There are sometimes necessary wars," thus providing a theme that runs through Burns' seven-parter, all 14 1/2 hours of it.

Burns has a sum-it-up for himself as well. He says right out that he's about "Waking the dead" and that this stems from his mother's death when he was 11. He volunteers in interviews and speeches that there wasn't a day of his childhood when he wasn't aware of her cancer and that it influenced "all that I would become."

He did not see this link until well after he had earned renown for "The Civil War," which captured the nation's imagination in 1990 and gave people a new way of looking at still photographs, which freeze a moment in time but which he animated by zooming in, or scanning over them, the technique now called the "Ken Burns Effect." He says he was telling a friend how for years whenever he got a birthday cake, "I'd blow out the candles and wish that she'd be alive. He said, 'What do you think you do for a living? . . . You make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you think you're really trying to wake?' "...
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