What Drives KEN BURNS?
Pictured: Ken Burns
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),