Ken Burns’s Greatest Themes

Inspired by Twain's own example, the “Mark Twain” documentarian seeks to explore quintessentially American issues of “race and space.”
  • Transcript


Question: Are your films patriotic?

Ken Burns: Well I don’t know what your definition of patriotism is, and mine is so complicated that it would take up some time. I do think that it is a form of patriotic expression. We have now come to use patriotism in the most superficial and politically isolating way. We use it to tar people whose opinions we don’t agree with or use it as a weapon to tell people why their opinions render them unpatriotic. That’s not what I’m interested in. I think that for some reason or another, this combination of an interest in film and an interest in American history has also formed in me a kind of deep and abiding love, not without criticism. Every one of my films because it deals with race is implicitly critical of the United States and the path that it quite often takes, but at the same time it understands something larger. I’m interested in listening to the voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable but also sometimes dysfunctional republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind. That’s my creed and I think that is a higher form of patriotism.

Question: Do you consciously make films on subjects that appeal to “buffs”?

Ken Burns: The quirky appeal they might or might not appeal to others or so-called buffs, as your question says, doesn’t interest me at all. I’m interested in that complicated past. I’m interested in telling stories. The fact that my interest might intersect with others who are drawn to the Civil War is I guess, good, but that’s not what I need to focus on. All I’m trying to do is tell a good story and telling a good story is an incredibly difficult and hard undertaking that requires the talents of a lot of amazing people that I had the good fortune to work with to do that.

I’m not sure that your question is entirely correct. Buffs don’t sort of attend to these films. It is true that there are Civil War buffs and they find in my film and other books and other films that have been made a kind of reenergizing of their interests, but the films themselves exist quite above whatever superficial sentimental nostalgic relationship that so often buffs have. I’m disinterested in sentimentality and nostalgia and in fact it’s not only the enemy of good storytelling it’s the enemy of good history. I’d rather though not retire to a kind of rational world in which one and one equals two all the time. That’s the safety of the empirical world, the rational world. All of us want deep down in some unexpressed way for one and one to equal three and it’s that calculus that an artist pursues. It’s that calculus that drives you. That improbable mathematical possibility that one and one could equal three is part of what we do. We say all the time that we wish the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts, but we don’t really examine the difference between the sum of the parts and the whole and that difference is what makes art, art, which makes literature work, what makes us love, which compels the most important aspects of our lives and that has nothing to do with buffs.

Question: What do you see as the central themes of your work?

Ken Burns: I was interviewing for a film biography of Mark Twain more than ten years ago the novelist Russell Banks, and we were talking about Huckleberry Finn, which I believe and he believed was Mark Twain’s most important novel, and he said, you know, it’s our Iliad and our Odyssey, which really struck me. And he said though most of us share the same European tradition that produced the Iliad and the Odyssey, we Americans were grappling with two new themes that our European ancestors weren’t and so we required a new Iliad, a new Odyssey to help us grapple with these, and Twain alone among writers and philosophers and politicians of the nineteenth century knew and understood and was willing to deal with and entwine these two themes. One was race and the other was space, not outer space, but the physical geography of the United States. I don’t go looking for race in my films. It’s just there. You can’t scratch the surface of the most important event in American history, the Civil War without coming up of course against the question of race. You can’t deal with the story of baseball, another great subject, without understanding that its finest moment is when Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the grandson of a slave, made his way to first base at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. It’s about race. That so much of the biographies that we’ve done on Thomas Jefferson, on Mark Twain, on Elizabeth K. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, on Lewis and Clark, on Jack Johnson inevitably I don’t know a film with a possible exception of Frank Lloyd Wright that didn’t engage race in some way or another, not because we went looking for it, but because we had committed as we were to dealing with not a superficial portrayal of a certain event in American history it had found us and so race is always there.

The space is a different thing. The physicality of the United States works on us in ways where we’re so unaware. First of all we have this magnificent continent, particularly the western part of the United States, which has been a draw to people from all over, but we’re also because we’re a democratic society or a society trying to be democratic experience the freedom of movement at all class levels. Traditionally movement was of armies or of the very rich in Europe and in other situations that a family in a futile situation could stay for hundreds and hundreds of years in the same spot, but in American even the lowliest worker could travel and did and the national parks become part of the verifying of that co ownership of the idea of America as well as the physicalness of America, so we’re always bumping into a question of race. We’re always bumping into this question of the physicality, the space of the United States and it was nice to have someone as brilliant as Russell Banks, a great, great novelist in his own right, deliver it to us in such an easy understandable thing, but he was essentially describing what has engaged my energies for 35-plus years.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen