It is no small irony that a new film by Ken Burns, the director who has done more than any other to infuse life into the past, gets treated, by some, like an already-ossified product upon release. Whereas so much buzz surrounds the latest film festival darling — I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m hearing (and believing) that Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence may be the greatest documentary ever — many of us give the latest work by Burns the same attention as the year’s edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Nothing could be more wrong. And it has to stop, starting with his new seven-part series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which premieres this month.
Not that any tears need be shed for Burns. He’s been able to make more films his way, to a wider audience, about his chosen subjects than any other documentary director. And he’s riding high on an unheard-of 15-year contract with PBS that will keep him gainfully employed through the year 2022. It’s funny that a documentarian has better job security than LeBron James.
And yet, the neglect I refer to may be an understandable occurrence. His work can appear similar, and he has been producing it with such regularity for so long, it’s not surprising that it can be taken for granted. Nonetheless, it’s time to reconsider Burns’s place in the documentary stratosphere. He needs to be properly placed up there with the likes of Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Michael Moore and the pioneers Albert Maysles, Agnès Varda, D A Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman — without any qualification.
I bring it up because I had an epiphany in August when I prepared to sit down with Burns at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where we had a sprawling two-hour conversation about his process, the roots of his aesthetic drive, the truth about the Ken Burns Effect, as well as some of the deeper emotional underpinnings to his work. The interview is being published as a Kindle Single.
I stumbled into this. I’ve always appreciated Burns’s work, but with only one eye on the road. But in late July, I had gone up to Hampshire College to check out a new documentary summer program called the Creative Media Institute, which Burns is spearheading, and something began to germinate in my brain. We agreed to do an interview in Chautauqua and as I prepared, I did a deep dive into Burns’s work, and I began to realize that a no-holds-barred appreciation of the greatness of his work is due.
I know that, to many, this notion is so obvious, that to make the point seems ignorant. But this is not for you. I’m talking to those inside doc circles, the programmers and younger filmmakers and doc commentators who travel from festival to festival and laud the latest gems as genius.
I’m also talking to myself. I’ve always put a mental asterisk next to Burns’s name. “Sure,” I have always thought, “He’s one of the greats, but his work is just that archival talking-head pan-and-scan TV-history stuff. End of story.”
I’m also talking to the British Film Institute and the contributors, including 100 filmmakers, to Sight & Sound magazine’s recent “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” poll, which included 50 fantastic films that broke new ground by documentary titans including Pennebaker, Maysles, Wiseman, Moore, Morris and Herzog. But nothing from Burns. There was room for several recent wunderkinds (including Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing), but not for Burns and The Civil War? What?
I’ll tell you what: The credibility gap between broadcast documentaries and theatrical documentaries has done Burns a great disservice.
For a long time, I have placed Burns’s work in a separate category from my most favorite documentary filmmakers. I now think that that was a categorical error. Despite writing a blog at POV, I have always had an unfair bias in favor of theatrical documentary.
But, I’ve been behind the times. Partly thanks to a book I am writing about the significance of the video store era, I have come to think more clearly about how vital and culturally resonant the home viewing experience is.
There have been paradigmatic shifts in screen watching. First, there are the improved home entertainment systems. Second, so much culture is now ingested on small, mobile screens that it’s anachronistic to cling to the theatrical prejudice. Some top filmmakers have been telling me that they are now designing their films’ sound for iPad. We’d all better catch up.
The other huge shift is creative. It’s been said many times now that television has taken the place of the novel. Sunday nights have become the center of cultural experience as episodic television — starting with The Sopranos and still thriving with Mad Men, Game of Thrones and others — continues to astound us with its quality. The rise of these shows has seen the commensurate esteem with which we hold the showrunner. So why not Burns? He is the documentary equivalent of a David Chase, David Benioff or Matthew Weiner. But he’s been doing it for much longer.
Alas, when his work gets reviewed, it’s usually by television critics. And if you thought that movie critics know nothing about documentary, then check out some of the criticism on Burns. It may often be adulatory, but it is too often a chronicle of content rather than the sort of rhapsodic appreciation of form now heralded in reviews of Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, etc.
It’s time we look more closely at the formal, aesthetic accomplishments of Burns, and what it takes to weave together a narrative that spans 10, 14, 18 hours. He’s more than just that little pan-and-scan application effect you used for the pictures from your niece’s Bat Mitzvah.
At Hampshire, Burns spoke about how you could enter a gallery full of Cezanne paintings and they would all be of the same hill. From a superficial glance, they may appear the same. But to look more closely, one could see that the artist was profoundly working, and reworking, his subject. It may be a lofty comparison, but I think it’s fair to apply to Burns.
I’ll have more to say about Burn in my next Doc Soup column, but you can read the extended conversation with Burns in the new Kindle Singles, where he lays out more of what prompted me to revisit his work.
“A lot of my colleagues, they are speaking to a cognoscenti,” Burns told me. “I have no interest. I want to speak to someone in Oklahoma as much as I want to speak to someone in Manhattan.”
I can see Burns saying to all of this, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He doesn’t want or need my sympathy. And he might cite, as he did, his theatrical and festival successes or the critical appreciation he’s received.
But this is something I wanted to do for myself. And I ask you to consider doing what I’m doing — to remove the asterisk that sometimes, erroneously, follows Ken Burns.
“Ken Burns: The Kindle Singles Interview” by Tom Roston is now available at Amazon.com.
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