While we have American Idol’s phone number on speed dial to text in our vote for our favorite singer and we can instantly recognize the latest twenty-something starlet with nothing more than a two-second glimpse of her sunglassed profile, our “now”-dominated cultural landscape does little to rescue the stories of American history from disappearing forever down our collective memory hole. That’s where filmmaker Ken Burns comes in.
The prolific, profound, and ridiculously hairstyle-challenged Burns has built a body of work with his documentary films that serve as a cultural Noah’s Ark for the American experience. Speaking with The Independent recently, the man who, thanks in large part to his longstanding relationship with PBS, has brought us intensely entertaining and exhaustive looks at everything from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Civil War to baseball and jazz music, summed up his approach by saying simply, “I’m interested in American history that doesn’t branch off into world history. And, of course, I’m interested in good stories and telling good stories.”
And it is the latter that really is Burns’s calling card. Working in a genre that can all too easily trend toward something you fall asleep watching in a high school history class, the New England native succeeds again and again at bringing touchstones of the American identity—things we all know of but rarely ruminate on—to living, breathing life and telling their backstory in a personal way seldom experienced in a text book.
Take for example his most recent effort, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. In the six-episode series that premiered on PBS last summer, Burns takes a topic we all know something about, lifts it up, and finds the ground beneath it teeming with remarkable stories of crusading individuals and surprising waves of meaning for society at large.
Typically feature fodder for single-purposed travel shows and nature films, the story of the National Parks and their creation, which Burns calls “an utterly American impulse,” gets a new and multi-faceted lease on life in his series. The geyser-riddled wonders of Yellowstone become a John Muir love poem, the automobile (an ever-popular whipping boy of 21st-century environmentalists) is championed for helping Americans rediscover the vast nature in their backyard, and a whistle-stop tour by President Theodore Roosevelt gets recast in the narrative of U.S. history as a crucial step in the fight to protect open space.
Setting aside what he calls the “disposable arrogance” of our current age, Burns reckons the real magic—and importance—of his work is the realization that viewers have while watching. “Human nature has never changed,” he explained. “When you get past the powdered wigs and quill pens, you find that they [those Americans who came before us] felt the exact same way about things that we do. When you understand this, suddenly the uniqueness of contemporary things isn’t so unique … It really gives you ammunition to go forward in life.”
As for what’s next on his plate, Burns rapid-fires through several topics that are in various stages of production—Vietnam, the California Dust Bowl, the Central Park Jogger case from the late 1980s, a follow-up to his 1994 baseball series. Working with a tight-knit crew of little more than a writer, a coproducer, and a few associate producers, Burns, at 56 years young, is showing no signs of slowing down. “Even if I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of stories to tell from American history,” he said with a laugh. Lucky for us, he isn’t kidding.
Thanks to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, Ken Burns will be at the Coral Casino in Montecito on Monday, May 24, to talk about his vast and varied experiences while documenting the American experience. The evening’s festivities, which will be emceed by Paula Poundstone and will include dinner, are a fundraiser for UCSB’s education programs. For more info, call 893-3535.