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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
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The battlefield at Gettysburg and a now-silent cannon. Photo courtesy Gettysburg CVB.
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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
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George Masa, a Japanese photographer, friend of Horace Kephart and a force behind the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"National Parks: America's Best Idea" premiered on PBS last week. Prior to its airing, I talked with its creator, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, about his new documentary and about his 1990 film, "The Civil War." Portions of this interview aired on WVTF public radio (with thanks as always for the assistance!) and on West Virginia Public Broadcasting's "Inside Appalachia," and the interview is excerpted as our November/December issue's guest column.
Ken Burns is as articulate as his scripts, and after many years of interviewing and being interviewed, there's little he doesn't know his answer to already, but his passion for his work and for the stories he tells is evident.
Cara Ellen Modisett: With both "The Civil War" [in 1990] and now with "National Parks," it seems to me you were documenting two ideas of hallowed ground. I wondered if you could talk about that concept of hallowed ground and how it relates to each film.
Ken Burns: When one visits the national parks, or when one visits the now-quiet battlefields of the Civil War, you do have a sense that these are apples and oranges, that there are two sets of hallowed grounds, but in fact they do merge, um, and we have to begin first with the national parks. For the first time in human history, land was set aside –large tracts of natural landscape – was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, as had been the custom throughout all of human experience, but for everybody and for all time. It's an American idea – we invented it – and the history of the ideas and the individuals that make it up are the most compelling aspect of the story, despite the fact that they take place against the backdrop of some of the most spectacular sceneries on earth. We feel that the national parks are the declaration of independence applied to the landscape, because they are germinated from that first seed of a democratic idea. But just like the idea of liberty, which begins with "all men are created equal," a fairly narrow definition by Thomas Jefferson – he meant all white men of property free of debt – his narrowness of that definition set in motion a larger American history that has been continually expanding that story. In fact, our Civil War would not have taken place unless people felt that "all men are created equal" really meant – all men are created equal, and the history of the United States is continually enlarging that rather narrow definition of Thomas Jefferson.
Well, the park idea wasn't static either, and it began to grow, and eventually it added not just spectacular natural scenery, the highest free-falling waterfall, the grandest canyon on Earth, the greatest collection of geysers, but it began to add archaeological sites – later, habitats, and finally, at the time of the Depression, when, ironically, the national parks thrived as never before, because they got the first shovel-ready stimulus dollars of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the national parks began adding historic sites – the Statue of Liberty, the ongoing project at Mt. Rushmore to carve into the, the walls of the sacred Black Hills the busts of four presidents. And it also began to add Civil War sites, so that now, the national park system includes not just our geological and even ethnographic history, but our recent, American history, and so they've merged, and what you find, of course, when you study the Civil War, that it is the ideas and the individuals, just like those individuals behind the national park idea, that are the most compelling. So in many ways, these two parallel hallowed grounds, um, like, like railroad tracks on the horizon, begin to bend and meet.
KB (following unrecorded question)*: You know, I feel like I've got the best job in the country. You know, it educates all my parts. But it also feeds my spirit, and when I go to these places, and it doesn't matter whether it's a Civil War battle site or a national park, you realize that you are in some molecule-rearranging place, that it is possible if you are open to it to be present to not just the present, but to all things, and all times. And so when one tramps the ground along Pickett's Charge or at Little Round Top at Gettysburg, or down near the Dunkard church in Sharpsburg and Antietam, ah, you feel the ghosts and echoes of an inexpressibly wise past, which has been my charge for the past 35 years to try to come to terms with, to try to help understand and try to in a small way explain to the American people. And I think with the national parks it's the same thing. You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you look down, you see that the Colorado River has patiently exposed rock that is 1.7 billion years old - that's nearly half the age of the planet – and you think of your own insignificance. If you're lucky you'll get 80 years. And yet, in that humility, one is enlarged, just as an egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard, so to those of us who submit to these sacred places find their horizons broadened.
CEM: When did you realize you wanted to use film to tell stories?
KB: My mother died when I was 11 years old, a few months short of my 12th birthday –there wasn't really a moment in my life when I wasn't aware that she was mortally ill. You can imagine that affects the boyhood of a young man. Several years afterwards my father and I were watching a movie together, and I watched him brought to tears by the power of the movie, and he hadn't cried at my mom's funeral, it had just been too difficult, too complicated, he had two little boys to take care of – and here he was crying, and I suddenly understood the huge, rich emotional power – I sort of said that's what I wanted to do. And I thought I would become a Hollywood director until, um, my teachers at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, reminded me that there's much more drama in what is and what was than in anything the human imagination thinks of, and I found myself on a path towards documentary films.
CEM: That had to have been a very difficult time, a difficult age to lose a mother. A colleague of mine mentioned that you had visited Shenandoah National Park I believe after her death?
KB: Well, actually, well before that, and I hadn't really realized it – it was one of these memories that got, I won't say repressed, it just got forgotten in all the loss and pain and tragedy that had overtaken my family, and so when I began work on this project, despite the Civil War battlefields I'd visited, I thought I'd not been to a full-fledged natural national park of which there are only 58 out of a system of the national park service that has 391 units, and those would be – include – those national battlefields. And we went to Yosemite, and after four days of exhausted filming, in that beautiful, beautiful place, perhaps the most beautiful place on earth, I couldn't sleep, which was very unusual at night, and I suddenly realized that this had not been the first national park, that back in 1959, when I was six years old, my father had – who had been a very distracted father because of the illness that was overtaking our family – my mother was then very, very sick and dying of cancer - um, and other demons of his own that he would not have, nor any of us would fully understand while he was alive – his himself too-short life – um, he just picked me up one day after school and we went and stayed at his boyhood home in Baltimore and I slept in his old bedroom in his old bed under his old chenille comforter, and he woke me, it seemed like a second later at four in the morning, I'd never gotten up that early and we left my grandmother's house at dark – I'd never left the house at dark –and we traveled pre-interstate system to Front Royal, Va., and began a weeklong – a weekend-long adventure together, just my dad and me, in Shenandoah National Park. We drove down the Skyline Drive, and scattered deer with our car horn and drove through tunnels and drove through clouds, and mist and fog, and checked into a little cabin and took an impossibly long hike for my little legs – maybe three quarters of a mile – and turned over logs and saw red salamanders running around and you know, thought we saw a bear, and my dad named every plant and tree and sang me songs that I've sung to my three daughters. And it hadn't been awakened, and just sort of lay dormant until I got to another spectacular national park, and a relatively modest one, though gorgeous, in the Blue Ridge – was given back to me as a great gift. And so despite all the symbolism of the tragedy that it represented, it also represents great hope, and love, and the connection to my dad that I had lost for more than 40 years.
CEM: How much time did you spend filming in the eastern parks?
KB: We focused a lot on Acadia and Everglades and the Smoky Mountains, which were the principal ones east of the Mississippi, but we were able to film in many of them, and we, we, I was able to take my middle daughter, then in her teens, down the Skyline Drive, in which I sort of re-created the trip with my dad, and this time we definitely saw lots of bears, and that was very exciting for her, and for me, and a chance for her to connect to a grandfather she could barely remember.
CEM: What was your experience like in the Great Smoky Mountains?
KB: You know, I – I – it's a very, very meaningful place, and I don't think Americans understand that it's the most visited of all the national parks, and you tend to think that must be Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but it's the Smoky Mountains, and you can see why – it's just this last gasp of the East Coast saving something that had frit- they had frittered away. It was said at the founding of our country that a squirrel could start at the Atlantic Ocean and go from treetop to treetop and not touch, not have to go down to the ground until you reach the Mississippi River. Well, we had cut down most of the virgin timber, and only a few thousand acres existed, which was set aside in the Smoky Mountains, and it's a greater diversity of tree life, plant life, than in all of Europe. And it's just this amazing place, and I think for a visitor today it is well worth the diversion.
CEM: What do you see as the greatest threats to the national parks now?
KB: You know, there's always the environmental threats, and they are accelerating at a pace that we can't even appreciate. Climate change, global warming – the parks become a kind of canary in the mine – they register so much more accurately the dangers that we face on a larger scale. But I think in some ways the greatest threat, or the greatest immediate threat, is apathy. Throughout the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and early '90s, attendance at the parks was skyrocketing. What was happening was that people were worried that too many people were coming, that they were being loved to death.
But the virtual world that so many of us, particularly our children, inhabit, have caused a kind of um, leveling off and in some places a decline as if somehow if you just played enough video games, if you just, you know, texted enough, if you just watched enough TV, you just surfed the net enough, everything would be all right. And we know there are kids, particularly our urban and suburban kids, suffer a devastating nature-deficit disorder that we need to correct, because so many of us had these iconic, memory-creating trips that we took with our parents that renewed not just our connection to our land, not just a connection to our country, a form of patriotism at its highest and best levels, but also a connection with ourselves and those of us, those closest to us, and that's in danger of being lost, if we think that this virtual world is, is any real existence.
It is, of course, not, and we are at a great existential crisis, right now, for the nation, and if existentialism can be reduced for the sake of a short interview to "a tension between being and doing," that virtual world is neither, and we run the danger of creating a real poverty of our souls, because when we pledge allegiance to the flag, when we sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the country we're talking about is not inner cities, or suburban malls. It's this land that a few of our ancestors managed to set aside for people they didn't know, meaning us, and I think at the heart of the national parks story, which is so meaningful, is this sense of co-ownership. We are all, we are all co-owners of the most spectacular seafront property, the highest free-falling waterfall on the planet – I mean, on the continent – the greatest collection of geysers on earth, and the grandest canyon on earth, and that's a spectacular legacy, and all we're required to do is go visit it. All our toys will still be there. As co-owners we are, we should go visit our, our properties now and then, make sure it's being taken care of. So my, my feeling is that the greatest threat to the national parks is a kind of apathy that is over, overcome the American people.
CEM: Going back to that idea you mentioned – the canary in the coal mine – a number of the topics you've chosen for documentaries – jazz, baseball, radio, Civil War and now national parks – have touched on areas of American history and culture that have been thought of as endangered, obsolete or disappearing. Is that part of the reason behind why you've chosen these topics?
KB: I don't think I've made these choices based on a sense that they were dying or obsolete – I've made 'em on a sense that they represent authentic American creations. Now, the radio has been supplanted by new medium, and that's just the way it goes, and yet, radio lives on – I mean, it has this huge life in talk, particularly the hopeless chatter of the political extremes of our country, which may not be a good thing, but it's still there.
Um, jazz is the only art form Americans have ever created, and – a hugely instructive story of who we are, and the fact that it's diminished only represents that it's in a trough right now.
What I have been interested in over the last 35 years is, is asking one deceptively simple question, which might suggest that I've been making the same film over and over again –and that question is, who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of the past tell us not only where we've been, that is to say, the past in the stories I'm telling, but where we are and where we're going – because history if anything is also the set of questions we in the present ask of the past, and so it is informed by all of our q-, all of our anxieties, all of our wishes, all of our, uh, issues, and I find history, you know, a great medicine and a great teacher.
CEM: I've noticed and discussed with others a growing change in how historians are approaching the Civil War – from a more humanistic, individual perspective, through the eyes of the people who lived it, rather than just a big picture look at the battlefields and strategies. What is your take on that?
KB: I think that's absolutely true – each generation rediscovers and re-examines that part of the past that makes the present meaningful. And so for many years, it is the tendency, particularly in war, to sort of encrust the story with a kind of bloodless gallantness, and what happens is that we get distracted – the reality is so painful, is so hard to deal with, is that we get distracted, and then we focus on regiments, and we focus on guns, and we focus on strategy and tactics, and we forget that real human beings fought in this war, that nearly two percent, if not two percent of the American population died in that war, and died a horrible, gruesome, horrible death – that when we personalize it, that when we humanize it, as you say, we are doing a service not only to those past events and to those lives that were sacrificed, in those various causes, but to ourselves, because we're honoring what the real cost of war is. And I think we've also spent a long time ignoring the African-American dimension to this – we've just assumed, and it's been helped – promoted by the two most popular films on the Civil War, "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind" – it's been promoted that African-Americans were sort of passive bystanders, and not active, dedicated, self-sacrificing soldiers in an intensely personal drama of self-liberation, which only amplifies, which only adds to the meaning of the story of the Civil War, that, that, this was this huge growing pain that nearly ended our nation, and that it was a crucible of leadership, of suffering, of incredible human drama that we would be well to listen to for as long as we're around as a country.
CEM: What do we lose if we lose the story of the Civil War?
KB: If we've lost the Civil War, then we've lost ourselves. We are, we will not be who we think we are, we will have become a kind of cipher, a shadow of ourselves. The most important event in American history is the Civil War. I've had the great privilege – I can think of no other word – the great privilege of working on two films about war – the Civil War and the second World War. The second World War is the greatest cataclysm in human history – nearly 60 million people's lives were extinguished. It is the most important event in world history. But it's interesting, the most important event in the history of the United States is the Civil War – that it is, as Shelby Foote once said, I think quoting someone else, that it is a "bloody lake," that, "in which a clear stream ran into that bloody lake and it flowed out clear again." We just surprised ourselves at the level of self-destruction. There's a great paradox, that, you know, at the heart of, in order to make ourselves one, we tore ourselves in two. Or another way to think about this is that when we referred to our country before the war, we said, "The United States are." Plural. Afterwards, we said "The United States is." In the beginning, we saw ourselves as a collection of states, a union, think something that was stitched together. After the war which threatened to rip us apart, we called ourselves a nation, a one thing, and we say today, "the United States is," which is ungrammatical.
CEM: Telling the story of the national parks must have presented a different sort of challenge – it's not as obvious a narrative arc, with conflict and resolution. National parks are things, places, not human beings.
KB: There… there… it's not as obvious because there are not great battles and armies going on, but the conflict is no less there. I mean, we are, as a species, and particularly as Americans, acquisitive and extractive and some might even say rapacious when it comes to our landscape. You know, the idea of, uh, progress, was how much acres of wilderness could be redeemed from nature – that is to say, cut down, you know – we were a people who looked a river and thought "dam," who looked at a stand of trees and thought "board feet," who looked at a canyon and wondered what mineral wealth could be extracted from it. It was just not in our psyche, in our DNA, to stop and say these places oughta be saved. So every instance that someone said, "hey, this should be set apart," uh, we discovered that a huge drama came up because there were those interests that said, "no. We want to continue to dam these rivers, to cut down these trees and to mine these canyons." And so every single park has the story of incredible drama, and individuals that are not just top-down, benevolent figures, not just the Teddy Roosevelts and the John D. Rockefeller Jrs., though they are hugely important and incredibly delightful characters to do, but it's ordinary people that are black and brown and red and yellow and female and unknown, as well as white and male and known, and of course the latter category is what most of American history is. And, uh – or at least how most of American history is taught. And I think what the national parks remind you, as the Civil War does, is that there is drama in so many other places, that the real strength of American history is in a bottom-up look, combined with that top-down appreciation.
CEM: I read that you extended your shooting schedule by three years for "National Parks"?
KB: We were right on schedule – we just knew from the get-go that we had you know, this spectacular challenge, that we had to film from the gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska to the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys, from the Hawaii volcanoes to Acadia National Park. And everywhere in between. And so, we had to really expand the shooting time for this because in many cases, the parks like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone, the central parks, are, to the story of the national parks, required us to film there in every season, at every time of day from every vantage, so this was a huge logistical, uh, situation...
Now, I was going to say "problem"! [laughs] You know, when you wake up at three a.m. and you've rushed out to watch the sun hit the first beautiful spires at, uh, at, at Yosemite, or the sun get down into that beautiful canyon in Arizona, or to see it strike the plumes of, of steam in the dead of winter when it's 20 below at Yellowstone, you realize just how lucky you are to be alive as a human being, and can't believe that your job actually pays you to go to these places.
CEM: I'm sure you've been asked this before, but if you could meet one historical figure from the documentaries you produced, who would it be?
KB: Well, you know, one dreams in my line of work, of getting to meet these people, and I've had the great privilege of getting to know, I think, Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong and characters – John Muir, from the national parks. I think without a doubt, if one had an opportunity to go back into time and to meet an individual, it would have to be Abraham Lincoln. To sit down and speak with the person who was the architect of our salvation, who was able to speak to us not just in actions, but in words – we are a country in which words do matter. We're the only country founded on the notion of ideas, and not conquest or geography or religion or race or language, but about words. This is a huge, huge figure in all of world history, and I think to have spent a few moments just observing him in person, I would consider the greatest gift of history. In fact, that's all that historians are trying to do is wake the dead, and maybe it goes back to my mom, you know, that the reason I got into history as the mode of expression, is that ability t… we think, as we explore history, to wake the dead.
CEM: Do you believe in ghosts, or in spirits?
KB: I believe in spirits. I, I've always said that one could, you know, that my job was to listen to the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past. Um, I believe in the idea of that, that one makes oneself available to the power that exists as you stand at the copse of trees at the high-water mark of the Confederacy that marks the end of Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg. You know, I think we take it too far sometimes when we say we can hear the cannons and do that, but, but what we're attempting to do is just place us in a relationship to a physical place that also expands that awareness in time. And in that sense, I think that when we sense the spirit of those who have gone before us, not just those who sacrificed, but those ordinary lives that have gone before us, we are in a better position to lead ourselves and our country forward in this moment.
*Note: Because the "Q" end of this interview was not recorded, some questions have been summarized. As with most interviews, the talk veered away from the original sequence of my notes, and so some of the questions are not verbatim.