The Emotional Archaeology of Ken Burns

Ken Burns at Belmont University (photo by Will Pedigo)
Ken Burns at Belmont University (photo by Will Pedigo)

Celebrated documentarian Ken Burns appeared at Jack C. Massey Hall at Belmont University on Monday night, but he didn’t come alone. He brought with him Abraham Lincoln (his bet for the nation’s greatest president), Mark Twain (“he never wrote a bad word”), Walt Whitman and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Joining him on the stage were the more 600,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War, and the close to 300,000 American soldiers – part of the millions around the world — who lost their lives in World War II. There were civilians up there too, families and friends and ordinary citizens whose lives were forever altered.

The occasion for Burns’ appearance was the first in a new speaker series at the University titled “The Art of Being Free,” timed to coincide with and celebrate the Town Hall Presidential Debate on October 7. Burns’ stirring lecture, “Telling the American Story,” was the series keynote. It was perfect.

Burns came to the stage following a short promo reel for his 15-hour PBS documentary THE WAR. Images from the film were spliced together and accompanied by Norah Jones’ gorgeous and haunting take on Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem.” When the spotlight hit the lectern, Burns was on, and for close to an hour, he never let up in his effort to convince us why we must continue to mine and study and learn from our history, and tell America’s stories.

While he’s known as a filmmaker, Burns is also, and maybe even more so, a historian, not unlike David McCullough is, yes, an author, but also a historian. Not surprisingly, McCullough speaks as part of the “The Art of Being Free,” series on March 19, 2009. Burns’ status as one of our greatest historians was abundantly clear on Monday night. He knows his stuff, and he knows how to place it in context for us. He said that historical events need at least 25 years of distance before they can be accurately understood. For that reason he announced that in 2015 he will deliver a documentary on the Vietnam War. When Burns first completed his behemoth reflection on The Civil War, he had sworn he would not tackle war again as a subject, only to be drawn to telling the story of World War II. After The WAR, he felt he couldn’t back away from the responsibility to cover Vietnam.

What brought him to THE WAR was a series of statistics, some tragic, many disturbing. More than 1,000 veterans of World War II were dying every day. Their stories needed to be heard and their memories honored. “If we, the inheritors of the world they struggled so hard to create for us, neglected to hear them out before they passed away,” Burns said, “we would be guilty of a historical amnesia too irresponsible to counter.”

It was another “stupefying” statistic that pushed him over the edge. An “unacceptably large percentage” of graduating high school seniors thought the United States fought along with Germany against Russia in World War II. He couldn’t believe it. We were in grave danger of losing our history, and along with it, its lessons. There are students that can name five brands of jeans but cannot name five presidents, he added later during the Q & A section of the lecture. “When the proverbial you know what hits the fan, knowing five different brands of jeans will not help you one little bit. “

Burns’ grasp of the lessons of The Civil War and World War II, and American history in general, and his ability to put those lessons in context, is mesmerizing. He also never fails to find the paradox in that history.

On World War II:

“The real paradox of World War II … contrast it to today … is so evident. Franklin Roosevelt asked us to do all these things, knowing that by giving up these things, we would make ourselves richer, and not just spiritually and communally, but financially richer. Seems like a paradox. We don’t want to give up anything now.”

Burns added that we sacrificed and paid more taxes then, and ended up, right out of the Depression, the richest country on earth.

“We knew how to do without and we practiced at that,” he said. “It may take having to learn how to do without to go forward.”

Burns contrasted that time to when 9/11 happened and we were told to not worry and go shopping, because the administration would take care of it.

‘If we had been asked to do ten things, there’s not a person within the sound of my voice that wouldn’t have done all those things willingly. So many things could have been accomplished, understanding that the threat wasn’t just an idle threat, but something that could really galvanize people to work together.”

But I think the lessons Burns culls from history are a byproduct of his search for emotion in our memory. Even his new project, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” slated for broadcast in the fall of ’09, taps into that emotional archive of our consciousness, to explore how the parks impact and reflect who we are as Americans.

On National Parks:

“It’s about time, which is a merciless thing,” he said of the film, which he described as neither a travelogue, a nature show or a recommendation of which lodge to stay, but rather, an exploration of an idea. “It’s the immensity of time. You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and you’re looking at vishnu schist — that’s 1.7 billion years old, half the age of the planet, really — and you’re amazed by the immensity of time. You’re humbled by it and dwarfed by it, and paradoxically made larger, because when you realize your atomic insignificance in the scheme of things, you’re no longer insignificant. When you think you’re so big, it just really tends to diminish you that way.”

“What we also found … is that it’s not so much the immensity of time, but the intimacy of time,” he added. “That is to say, who’s holding your hand at the edge of the Grand Canyon? Your mom and pop take you there, you then take your kids, and you have a much more intimate passing on of it. We were stunned by the kind of emotional issues that we got in, that were in some ways, not dissimilar. That emotional archaeology that I’m talking about is the same well, the same magma underneath the surface of the dry dates and facts and events that usually pass for American history.”

I like the idea that perhaps it’s Ken Burns holding our hand, and we’re on the edge of the present, looking at a past that seems so bigger than us. But together, we mine that history and discover our shared significance.

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