Selling Them “The Brooklyn Bridge”

Question: How did you overcome the early obstacles in your career?

Ken Burns: Well I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally, no exaggeration, millions of problems, but I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m 56 right now. I’ve been making films for over 30 years. I don’t look 56. You can imagine what I looked like when I started off and the first film I wanted to do was to tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, so people would slam the door and say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.” And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections, so I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films that I wanted to produce, convincing people that even making a film on a bridge was a worthy subject, that it was going to be hard to keep it at an hour when they couldn’t understand why a film on a bridge shouldn’t be a short that was five or six minutes in length.

Inwardly I think it was trying to find a form. I mean a style that adheres to someone has to be an authentic process and style is the authentic application of technique and in my world that meant trying to refine dozens and dozens of techniques to make the past come alive and in my case I guess for the purposes of simplicity and brevity here I deal with eight elements. Four are oral and four are visual. The visuals are pretty obvious, the live cinematography, the interviews that we do, the newsreel footage and the still photographs in which I was most keenly interested in because of my training in still photography as well in which I wanted to go into and old photograph, not just hold it at arm’s length as had been the want of my colleagues, but to live in it, to listen to it, what sounds were making to take that old desire to be a feature filmmaker and see each still photograph as a master shot that had a wide, a medium, a close up, the possibility to tilt, to pan, to reveal and to make the photograph come alive. Orally we had a third person narrator, the voice of God, that’s sort of the traditional way that you communicated in documentary, but also I added first-person voices read off-camera by actors reading diaries, journals, letters, newspaper accounts of the period, and then a complicated sound effects track, as complicated as a feature film, that would hopefully help to will to life the still photographs and the archival footage we had, and a complex music track that was recorded not after the editing, but before, so the music became as organic as an element as anything else, and that’s what I needed inwardly, creatively to figure out how to perfect or how to understand what the… how the various elements would coexist before I could really call myself a filmmaker.

Question: What advice would you give filmmakers starting out today? 

Ken Burns: You know the advice that I give is… always sounds so platitudinous because it isn’t specific to the medium of film. It’s totally specific to life. I’m in a medium in which people are attracted to it because they think it’s glamorous and only a small fraction of it is. It’s mostly a lot of hard work, so I think the most important thing that I would say would be two things. One, you have to be true to yourself. That is to say that you have to know who you are, whether you have something to say or not and it is no shame to honestly say, “You know what?” “I don’t think I have something to say.” “This isn’t for me.” “Maybe I will help in this business in a subservient role, but I am not going to be that director or producer or writer that I thought I was.” There is no shame in that, so knowing yourself is the first critical thing, to be able to walk away. You should do… Emerson wrote a beautiful essay called “On Self-Reliance” and in it he said, “You should do what only inly rejoices.” I-n-l-y. I think he was making up a word. Inly rejoices and I’ve always thought that that was true and I would wish that for every one, so despite how we are often, you know, attracted to fields that we think is going to be our discipline or we’re forced into by parents or by other circumstance you have to do what inly rejoices and you have to listen to that voice. And the second this is you have to persevere, particularly in documentary film. If you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a feature film I could tell you the steps to take to do that, but every working documentary filmmaker I know has gotten there through their own unique path. There is no career path. That’s the good news and the terrifying bad news. There is no career path and you’re alone and you just sort of have to bring something to it and what I think it is among many other qualities is a kind of perseverance. It’s keeping and collecting those hundreds of hundreds of rejections for your first film as a reminder that you know you may not have… you may not be the most talented person. You may not have the best ideas, but you’re going to see this through and I’m sure there are lots of great filmmakers or people that would have been great filmmakers had they been able to follow through that had ideas much more interesting than mine, but didn’t and therefore aren’t filmmakers and we don’t know what they are because they didn’t have that ability to persevere against the inevitable problems, the inevitable friction that attends any effort to create something new.

As a young director with a risky film, Ken Burns had countless doors slammed in his face. How did he push past them, and how would he advise today’s young artists to do the same?

Videos
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.