If you’re of a certain age, and you know you are, and you have an affection for great filmmaking and strong storytelling, you’ve known the work of Ken Burns all your life.
It is likely that average Americans learned far more about the Civil War from his groundbreaking 1990 nine-part documentary—which gave a new vocabulary to filmmaking and filmmakers, and fresh voices to the unspoken—than was ever taught in a college history class.
The eternally boyish and spritely Burns is nearing 70 now, and doesn’t wear his hair in a Beatle cut anymore. But he was eager to tell even more stories about his films and his career Wednesday evening as part of the “Distinguished Speaker Series” at Ambassador Auditorium. He showed he is just as eloquent a speaker as he is a narrator, as he unwound his tales of documenting his America.
He is one of history’s greatest fans, and like any fan, he is eager to wax eloquent on its importance.
As he told an adoring crowd Wednesday, “I’m honored to celebrate the messages of our past, that our common heritage, our past, continually directs our way.”
He continued, “Too often as a culture we have ignored this joyful noise, becoming in the process, blissfully ignorant of the power of those past lives.
“I am interested in the power of those past lives,” he continued, “and I am interested in its many varied voices, not just the voices of the old, top-down versions of our past, which would try convince us that history is only the story of great men, capital “G,” capital “M.” And not just those pessimistic voices that have recently entered our studies, voices that seem to say that our history is only a catalog of White European crime.”
Burns chose but five films that he felt best illustrated his film story telling style: Mark Twain, The Roosevelts, Not for Ourselves Alone, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Jackie Robinson.
In Mark Twain he saw a plain-spoken and celebrated American who may not ever have said some of the things that he was credited for , but said a few things few ever heard, that rang just as true. To tell the story of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their fight for women’s suffrage, he chose the story of a Tennessee legislator named Harry T. Burn, an “anti,” who was dead set against the women’s vote, but carried in his pocket a letter from his mother, who told him to “be a good boy.” Burn’s vote carried the legislation to victory.
He talked about young Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s determination as a young, unremarkable lawyer to one day become the president of the United States, like his fifth cousin Theodore, and of the unwavering understanding of the goodness of the American sensibility that informed the Roosevelt family dynamic.
He recalled the story of Frank Lloyd Wright drawing his greatest project, Fallingwater, out of thin air, in just under three hours, as his client was driving over to his office. And he spoke of the emotion of seeing every single player and coach in Major League Baseball wearing #42 on Jackie Robinson Day every April.
He told huge stories with the tiniest tales.
As Burns closed before taking questions, he told the audience, “Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of our union, from which so many of our personal, as well as collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to mutter in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else, our bright past and that dim unknown future, what finally does endure, what it codes and stores, the genetic material of our civilization, passing down to the next generation, the best of of us, what we hope will mutate into some kind of betterness for our children and our posterity.”
His stories will form part of the nation’s DNA, to tell our history and see our future