Ken Burns Speaks at the Oxonian Society (Part II)
Ken Burns, legendary documentary film maker of American history, nominated for two academy awards, and several Emmy awards, and for whom the intriguing “Ken Burns” cinematic effect was named recently appeared at the Oxonian Society, participating in an engaging discussion with Joe Pascal, Oxonian Society President, regarding his earliest roots in documentary film-making, his passion for the civil war and challenges and triumphs in documentary film-making. Burns spoke without notes in a compelling, erudite, passionate, logical manner that conjured up the magical charm of Orpheus and his lute. In short, Burns is not only gifted, he’s brilliant.
Joe Pascal (JP): Until you came onto the scene, most documentaries were thought as a still-life drawing. Your documentaries seemed to increase the depth of understanding of the subject manner while entertaining the audience with beautiful language, images, and weaving it together into a dramatic story.
Ken Burns (KB): I work with a lot of amazing people who make my job as a kind of conductor, that much easier. The key to this is that if you just tell people what you know, use documentary as essayist tool, a didactic tool, an expository tool, you fail to use all of its brain, or all of its possibility. If you trust that it has an artistic life as well, that we spend so much of our lives in a rational world where we explain things, and there’s a safety there, and we quite rightly eschew the nostalgia and sentimentality that governs cruder impulses, you then also neglect to notice that in our lives which matters most to us, which are these deeply complicated emotional connections that we have, which are actually much more precise, we just lack the language to articulate it, but much more precise than the rational world that we live in. So I decided early on that I wished to engage a documentary film which not only be expository, but interested in the art of documentary; that is to say in composition, form, style, language, in use of music, sound effects, and how you put it together, but also, much more important, in a content that was rooted in an emotional archaeology and not just a physical archaeology that was attempting to resurrect the dry dates, charts and facts. And I think it’s the emotional context that is the glue that makes the most complex of past events stick in our minds, but also in our hearts, permanently part of who we are now, and not just part of some abstract, unable to employ historical past.
JP: How did the Ken Burns effect come about—which is so aptly named after you—where you take a viewer into a frame by focusing on one of the images in the picture.
KB: As the son of the amateur photographer, as a student of still photographers, I see the still photograph as the essential building block, the DNA…I like a film that uses a great deal of motion picture, but I still like the still photograph as a kind of anchor that reminds you that motion pictures are in fact still photographs 24 times per second. It seemed to me that in so many documentary films there was sort of a terror; most people didn’t want to choose subjects until the advent of newsreels. And when they did have to use a still photograph they were so happy that they could get to motion pictures as if that was truer, and they would exhibit pictures at arms length, almost apologetically, whereas it seemed to me that these pictures are often our closest representation of the reality we are trying to come to terms with.
From the very beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge film, we were going inside these photographs. The greatest compliment I’ve ever had was at the premiere, in a little function room at the Brooklyn Museum, of my film, back in 1982, where this woman said, “Where did you get the newsreels of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge?” And I said, “Ma’am, it was built between 1869 and 1883; there were no newsreels.” She said I’m talking about the film of the blocks of stone being taken up to the top of the towers…” I said, “Ma’am, those were still photographs.” And she replied, “No they weren’t.”…So, I’ve done that; I’ve thought of employing this energetic, exploring eye that trusted, almost like that feature film maker that I wanted to be, that trusted that image could come alive, so I treat a still photograph the way a feature film maker would a long shot.
Jump ahead 25 years, and I get a call about three and a half years ago from a man named Steve Jobs who said I need you to come out and visit. So I went out there, and he led me into this room with two guys, sitting there very excited. They had apparently been working, for many years, trying to perfect a thing which they felt they had finally perfected and had wanted to put in all new Apple computers that following January; they had called it as a work in progress, the Ken Burns effect because it permitted you to take your still photographs that you had downloaded, and to zoom and to pan. I said, “ Well, I don’t do commercial endorsements.” And their faces dropped. I said, “my wife runs a non-profit and if you will give me computer equipment that I can give to her, then you can use this…”
JP: Most of your documentaries are parts of the fabric that make up the United States. Please explain this continuous theme and why it’s important to you.
KB: I am interested in how my country works. I’m interested in looking at it, celebrating it, but also being critical. I never thought when I made the first couple of films in American history that I would stay there. I assumed the next film would be something else, and it hasn’t been. I think if I were given 1,000 years to live I wouldn’t run out of topics of interest.#
For more information visit oxoniansociety.org.