US History Scene (USHS): How is film uniquely positioned to help people feel history and get to bottom up narratives?
Ken Burns: The operative word in your question is ‘feel.’ I’ve always described myself from the very beginning as an emotional archeologist. The combination of film, imagery, voice, music, and effect combine, if done honorably and authentically, to will the past alive. It reminds people that the word ‘history’ which for many people is a dull and boring word, is mostly made up of the word ‘story.’ With us [Florentine Films], it’s about trying to make old photographs come alive with complex movements, sound effects, period music, first person voices from the past, as well as third person narration—all of that makes you feel something.
Now, I do want to qualify the word ‘feel’ a little bit because too often we think this means ‘sentiment’ or ‘nostalgia for the past.’ Sentimentality and nostalgia are the enemies of good anything. Good filmmaking, good history, good anything. We tend to retreat from that understanding to a rational world where 1+ 1 always equals 2. What we’re all after, whether we know it or not, and we find it through our faith, through our science, through our reasons, through our art, through our relationships is those rare moments when 1 + 1 equals 3. These are the higher emotions that our Founders believed we had a possibility of sponsoring for our citizens if they were entitled to self-government. It’s what artists and historians are interested in as well.
The feelings we’re after are not based on sentimental feelings, but more complex and higher emotions that speak to the highest aspirations of the human spirit.
USHS: Many of the primary sources used in “The Dust Bowl” and “The War”came from the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). One of your next projects is on the Roosevelts. During the Great Depression, FDR employed historians and storytellers. President Obama admits history and art are the first subjects to go in budget cuts. How can we argue for the value of history and filmmaking in this business-centered culture? Do you wish we had a new WPA today?
Ken Burns: I certainly wish we could have a new WPA, which would represent a broad stimulus program that would help kick-start the economy, something that was denied President Barack Obama except in the most modest means. I certainly would like the government’s support of the arts and history. First of all, we know that it makes sense from a business standpoint, that every dollar invested in the arts and heritage returns ten-fold to the community. As an engine of economic development, it just makes incredible sense, but I also think it makes sense for democracy. We have stumbled the last thirty to forty years in which we think our principle argument should be whether government is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The United States government has done some really bad and stupid things in its lifetime but it’s been for the most part an extraordinarily important force of good in world history. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to point out negative things. I am making a film right now on the Vietnam War. There were blunders by five American Presidents in a row and significant and inexcusable blunders by the rest of the government apparatus. Having said that, one of the best things we have ever done is arm still photographers during the Great Depression with film, and cameras, and salaries to go out and record the human cost of the Great Depression. They were asked to look into the eyes of other Americans and understand that ‘there but by the grace of God go you.’
Documentary films were commissioned. Writers were hired. The works that they produced like the WPA guides to the states are still in use today. They produced some of the finest non-fiction literature that we have. Government has a role in the arts. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but it makes sense both from business perspectives, but also from the perspective of our soul.
These things have nothing to do with the defense of our country; they just make our country worth defending.
USHS: Without a WPA-like entity, are we depriving future generations of historical resources? Or do you think technology like Instagram and personal blogs where people report historical events as they experience them will allow American lives to be just as thoroughly documented?
Ken Burns: I don’t think they will be as thoroughly documented. I do want to separate the WPA which was a gigantic entity that provided brick and mortar jobs. People built highways, built bridges, built high schools, built landing strips, and tunnels all across the country. There was a modest fraction of these people who were employed as artists, playwrights, still photographers, filmmakers, historians, etc. I think that was hugely important. I think without our government taking an interest in recording what is going on, we will suffer from a lack of awareness.
We already have a historical amnesia that is inexcusable. That amnesia is spreading. People can tell you five brands of blue jeans but can’t name five presidents. They don’t know anything about the geography of their own state, let alone their country. They don’t know the most basic and rudimentary aspects of our civics. That comes in large part from a media culture that is stultifyingly committed to making us consumers and nothing else.
What Franklin Roosevelt understood during the Depression was that we need to find new ways to cohere as human beings. We couldn’t just focus on the commerce of a country which had come to almost a complete halt. There had to be other things. Our past and our heritage were part of that.
A lot of his efforts were multifold—involved the WPA, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, the “Plow that Broke the Plain” (1936) a seminal, early documentary sponsored by our government [written and directed] by Pare Lorentz that documented the toll of the Dust Bowl.
Roosevelt began to add to the National Parks system, historical sites, battlefields that had been loosely held together by various branches of the military, and began to aggregate them all under the Interior Department’s National Park Service and it became as important in representing our historical past as well as our vast and grand geological past.
All of these projects were part of an attempt to create cohesion at the worst of times. We are nowhere near the worst of times now, but it seems the lessons of cohesion have been forgotten.
As we watch our politics today, they are so dialectically preoccupied. There is now, because of the 2012 reelection (which is the essential element of the democratic process), twenty-five percent of the people who believe that a secessionist movement would be an important gesture.
Now, I made a film about secession movements. They don’t work!
The only thing secession settled was that secession wasn’t an option. Think about the idea that we could be so historically ignorant that we could even entertain secessionist ideas because it seems to be ‘the thing to do’ is both racist but completely un-American.
[Brief discussion of our experiences in Texas during the 2012 Presidential election.]
USHS: Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” Can you describe how your personal relationship with history and new media has evolved throughout your career? How do you envision your films could be used in teaching history?
Ken Burns: When I made the first film that I signed my name to [“Brooklyn Bridge”], I had no idea that for the next forty years I would be engaged in doing the same thing—approaching American history. That tells you the way American history has strengthened throughout my life professionally and personally and spiritually. It’s become a guide for how I’ve grown as an artist but also how I’ve grown as a person. I have become somewhat of an evangelist for the power and importance of history in our daily life.
I was reluctant to wholly embrace new media at the beginning. You have to make sure that the technological tail doesn’t wag the dog. Just because you can watch something on a tiny screen doesn’t mean it has the same effectiveness as watching something in a theater or sitting in a darkened living room on a large screen and watching it. The effect sometimes is lost—we’ve permitted a tyranny of the democracy if that incongruous statement makes any sense. We’re permitting these technological devices which are neat and cool and serve an important purpose to say ‘this is the best way to watch.’
The notion that you can watch “Lawrence of Arabia“ on your smartphone is insane! This is one of the great works of cinematography; it’s a majestic epic that will run your phone out of batteries, which means you have to stop, interrupt –it’s too small of an image to understand the nuances. Technology is great in terms of making things accessible, but they all come with cons. I’m not saying we should put a break on any of this, but just be prudent in when and how we engaged in this.
My films are widely used throughout the United States in classrooms. Today is a school day in America and the “Civil War” is being shown hundreds of times. That’s exciting and very thrilling to know that that’s taking place. I understand that they are only watching parts of it. That has its own educational value. You can’t sit them down and make them watch “The Civil War” for eleven and a half straight hours. I get that. At the same time, I work on these films for years with extraordinarily talented associates.
Our idea is you are meant to watch them in dark rooms in the company of strangers, your family, and friends. The television set is the new electronic campfire around which we sing our epic verses in Homeric fashion.
USHS: Both historians and documentary filmmakers interpret the past through forms of storytelling. I remember you once said on Real Time with Bill Maher that academic historians tell history in a way that’s an abstraction. How does first person narration and film contribute to the ‘story telling’ aspect of history in a different way from traditional academic history?
Ken Burns: I want to defend academic history, being not in it. When you tell stories, you tell stories.
The laws of storytelling that apply to Steven Spielberg apply to me but also apply to historians. The problem has been that for way too long, some people in ‘the academy’ have eschewed narrative, the telling of stories, the basic DNA of how human beings communicate to one another. They have been more susceptible to what I’ll call ‘various fashions’ in the academy.
When I first became aware of it, Marxist historical perspectives and economic determinism was a huge part of how history was understood. Later it became about semiotics and deconstruction and cultural symbols. Recently there has been queer studies as a framework for how we superimpose and receive things. My belief, and I have weathered a lot of criticism from that same Academy that was wedded to one particular fashion or another, is that narrative, when done well, is sophisticated, powerful enough, and has broad enough shoulders to be able to contain all of those varieties. It might just be that fashions in historiography permits the academy to veer one way or another in its interpretation of the past. I don’t want to ‘poopoo’ those. They are important spokes into the center. But they are also just that. What you want, and what I believe narrative can deliver, and academic historians are often times among the best narrative historians that I know, is that you have the opportunity to tell a much broader, fuller, and richer portrait by mobilizing a multitude of disciplines and using a variety of inquiries that are propelling your research and your writing.
It is essential that writing be good. You don’t want to hide behind these fashions and not demand of yourselves and your colleagues good writing. That abstraction is often not, it’s just merely bad prose, which anyone knows can make the most exciting story boring beyond belief. ‘Boring’ ought to be a sin for the Academy as well as the general public. I’m afraid that it isn’t. There is too much promotion—but of course ‘boring’ is relative—and the depths to which scholars go into things is incredibly important and necessary. I think sometimes that pursuit for research has masked a responsibility to speak to and educate a larger public. If the public can’t access something, then no one can. It doesn’t trickle down.
USHS: Issues of race, space, gender, sexuality, class, and empire are very dominant in academic historiography. These are all present in your work, but you also seem to stress perseverance through history. What lessons have you learned from interviewing historical subjects?
Ken Burns: I think you hit the nail on the head. Why would we study the past if not to have exemplars for the present that could guide us into the future?
Those exemplars we call ‘heroes.’ What virtues we look for in ‘heroes’ have unfortunately in this media culture descended into a simple black/white/ good/evil kind of thing. When, in fact, we know that all of human life and existence is complicated. There are shades of gray. Life is not black and white. I think that’s what we want to access when we pursue history. What we don’t want to be are the blind men describing only one part of the elephant. I’m afraid that sometimes the fashions of academic historiography have too often led people to just see the elephant from the one part of it that they are touching. I do believe narrative is inclusive enough and sophisticated enough and elegant enough to embrace all of those modes of inquiry.
What I find continually are aspects of individual human heroism (for lack of a better word). This has to do with perseverance. This has to do with courage. This has to do with triumph. These also can become misleading and lead to triumphalism or the celebration of American exceptionalism at a point where you shouldn’t.
I’m interested in the major subtheme that I run up against all the time which is race and then class. That, to me, is an animating thing to look at. We say ‘liberty and justice for all’ and we know that is an ideal we tilt towards, but we haven’t achieved it. What we insist on and what we hope is that there is some sort of fairness. What we know for most of American history is things have rarely been fair for all people. The target of that unfairness shifts from generation to generation. It’s interesting to see a prominent Catholic hierarchy within our media and political system which seems as intolerant as Protestants who were attempting to exclude their grandparents two generations ago. That needs to be pointed out.
History has that delicious ability to hoist people on the petards of their own hypocrisy. There was a time when being Catholic in America was a stigma. Now, this is being accorded to immigrants from Mexico or African Americans perpetually. That is a shameful forgetting of one’s past. I have not gone looking for it, nor has it found me, it just seems to be the logical extension of a deeper dive in American history (i.e. not a superficial Madison Avenue sanitized version of our past) will always bring you front and center with a question of race.
USHS: One of your films “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson…”
Ken Burns: Yeah, like that one! [Laughter]
USHS: [Laugher] “Unforgivable Blackness” is one of my favorite documentary films to use in a class. It’s amazing to watch students respond to it. Did anything surprise you when researching and writing about a historical subject like Jack Johnson who is steeped in racial mythology?
Ken Burns: For all of us who are not African Americans, we need to be very, very careful, because we could get a benevolent patronism attitude that enters into our studies. The popular version of the Jack Johnson story a generation ago was called “The Great White Hope,” a wonderful play on Broadway and later a pretty good movie, both of which stared James Earl Jones that really launched his professional career. But, at the heart of it was something a bit patronizing that assumed that this beast of an African American needed white handlers and needed to be guided. The fact of the matter—which was a constant refreshing reminder during our investigations into Jack Johnson—was that he wished only to be his own self.
He [Jack Johnson] was an extraordinarily good writer; he held three patents with the United States Patent and Trademarks Office for tools he designed to fix the fast cars he liked to drive. He was his own person and he was his own worst enemy; as is the case with all of us. These were played out on a grand, grand scale. It was important to add this measure of truth. Too often when we exalt the underdog, we avoid looking at their faults. We did not in “Jack Johnson.” That was really important to tell a complicated story.
USHS: As a filmmaker trained in photography, you bring photographs to life in your films. What are some of your favorite moments in time that have been captured in still photography?
Ken Burns: I’m actually trying to put together a book of the history of the United States in just still photographs.
USHS: Wow, excellent.
Ken Burns: It will have very little captioning, so at least initially it will exist as an aperture monograph in which you could take images that were not necessarily famous or of famous people, but were incredibly great works of art and revealing to a time and a place. They capture a moment in America. I have a beautiful shot of kids in my living room that I’ve had for years. It’s a framed photograph of kids in the lower east side of Manhattan with laundry hanging above them in a little alleyway playing baseball. This game that we see as a pastoral thing played in open American fields was also born in crowded cities. I love the hopefulness amidst the poverty and squalor of the situation. One can find in baseball this transcendent moment.
There was a series of photographs taken by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz of African Americans attempting to prove through bone structure and other ways their inferiority. These photographs reveal a transcendent nobility of these African slaves in America that belie the scientific (or pseudo-scientific arguments as we would now call them) that Agassiz was trying to make.
These are among my most favorite photographs.
One cannot be unmoved by the perspective looking over the shoulders of young nineteen- and twenty year old men about to have an LST (a landing craft) arrive at the shores of Omaha Beach and the extraordinary heights they will have to scale under the most withering fire. Not to achieve conquest or economic domination, but just pursue a simple idea of freedom. Now, it was a much more complicated dynamic, but none of those kids were involved in a complicated dynamic.
Theirs was a very simple one: get to the top of that hill on June 6, 1944.
USHS: Do you have a preference aesthetically between black and white or color?
Ken Burns: No, no. I think things work or they don’t work. I deal in the distant American past, in which most material is available in black and white, but I also deal in the contemporary past, which has a great deal of color in it. I’m not a snob! [laugher] What works, is what works, is what works.
USHS: When can we expect this book to come out?
Ken Burns: If I were a bettin’ man, I’d say 2014.
USHS: I know your life is pretty well mapped out through 2020.
Ken Burns: It’s true. “The Roosevelts” will come out in 2014, so I can’t publish before that. It will have to fit it in between the book that will accompany “The Roosevelts” and our Vietnam series.
USHS: In developing a film and telling a story, is history about discovering previously unknown answers or learning to ask questions?
Ken Burns: [Laughter] Always the latter! What a good question you asked just now! It’s always the later. Sometimes the problem with exposition of any kind is that it can be an expression of an already arrived at end rather than a process of discovery. In the presentation of our process of discovery, it’s not a sense of definitiveness on our part in our communication to our audience, it’s the sounding of a complicated question which at its root is, I suppose “Who are we?” but also “Who am I?” because the individual version of “Who are we?” is “Who am I?” These are deeply Socratic and Aristotelian questions that we ask and continue to ask. God forbid there should be an answer. Human life and human history is too complicated. We merely wait for the echo of our question to come back and learn as much as we can from it.
Ken Burns is an internationally acclaimed director and producer of documentary film series including “The Civil War” (1990), “Baseball” (1994), “Jazz” (2001), “The War” (2007), and “The Dust Bowl” (2012). He is in final production for “Vietnam” while working on a new miniseries with HBO chronicling the life of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson based on his documentary “Unforgivable Blackness.”