History

What Drives KEN BURNS?

 

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What Drives Ken Burns?

 

Ken Burns, Photo courtesy of Justin Altman

 

Filmmaker Ken Burns, who’s coming out with an 18-hour Vietnam War film to be shown over 10 evenings this month on PBS Hawai‘i, freely admits that he’s a workaholic; that he’s obsessive in his pursuit of archival material for his films; that his detractors dismiss him as long-winded.

 

And Burns can laugh at himself.

 

As he did when he was being honored as the greatest American documentary filmmaker of his generation. Stepping up to receive a lifetime achievement, he joked that he’d prepared a nine-part response.

 

He had to learn about laughter, since sadness and loss were prevailing childhood themes.

 

Burns, 64, is clear about what drives him and his compulsion to look at the past. It is the death of his mother, Lyla Burns, just before he turned 12. She had suffered from breast cancer for nearly a decade.

 

Burns remembers coming home from school or play every day and telling his ailing mother stories about what had happened, in effect sharing life with her. After she passed away, he recalls watching movies with father, Robert Burns, and seeing him cry, which was something his father didn’t do in other circumstances. That’s when young Burns says he grasped the storytelling power of film.

 

In a short video posted online at creativeplanetnetwork.com, Burns says: “I found myself becoming a documentary filmmaker, trying to tell stories and using American history to tell those stories that I wanted to tell. When you look back at it, the job that I try to do is to wake the dead. And it doesn’t seem too far a leap to understand, from that early decision to be a filmmaker, who I really want to wake up.”

 

From the earliest time that he can remember as a child, he says he knew his beloved mom was sick. He was not close to his father.

 

As a young man, he rejected chasing a Hollywood-type career. He says he innately knew, and was taught at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, that “there’s much more drama in what is and what was, than in anything the human imagination can dream of.”

 

Delivering the commencement address at Stanford University last year, Burns explained that delving into history can lead to personal and professional breakthroughs.

 

“The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which to observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us,” he told new graduates.

 

Burns wants this newest film with his creative partner Lynn Novick, about the divisive Vietnam War era, to spur national healing.

 

As he told an interviewer from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee:

 

“We caught something during the Vietnam War – like a virus – and we are still suffering from the effects of that virus today. I’m hoping my film is a bit like a vaccination – that it exposes you to a little bit of the disease to permit you to go past it and heal from it.”

 

I invite you to join me in viewing this new Burns/Novick film series, starting at 8:00 pm, Sunday, September 17, on your TV station, PBS Hawai‘i.

 

A hui hou (until next time),
Leslie Wilcoxʻ signature

 

 

SECRETS OF THE SIX WIVES
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

 

Travel with historian Lucy Worsley back to the Tudor court to witness some of the most dramatic moments in the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, each of whom found a method of exerting influence. The series combines drama with historical comment.

 

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived
Worsley presents Henry’s last three wives: Anne of Cleves, called “ugly;” young Catherine Howard, whose tragic childhood was abusive; and finally, the far-from-saintly nurse, Katherine Parr.

 

SECRETS OF THE SIX WIVES
Beheaded, Died

 

Travel with historian Lucy Worsley back to the Tudor court to witness some of the most dramatic moments in the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, each of whom found a method of exerting influence. The series combines drama with historical comment.

 

Beheaded, Died
Henry breaks with the Roman Church to marry Anne, but as Worsley notes, he grows tired of her and falls for Jane Seymour. Anne’s fate is sealed; she is executed and Henry immediately marries Jane, who dies soon after she gives birth to a son.

 

SECRETS OF THE SIX WIVES
Divorced

 

Travel with historian Lucy Worsley back to the Tudor court to witness some of the most dramatic moments in the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, each of whom found a method of exerting influence. The series combines drama with historical comment.

 

Divorced
Worsley examines the happy marriage of Henry VIII to first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Despite her skill and devotion as his queen, she fails to give Henry the son he needs and he falls for Anne Boleyn.

 

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