Ken Burns: Citizen of the West
For one of public television's most acclaimed documentary filmmakers. THE WEST is an exuberant journey into the American spirit.
I came to the West later in my life, but Iíve become very smitten with it," says Ken Burns, executive producer and creative consultant of THE WEST, a "General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation." This new 8-part documentary, directed and co-produced by Stephen Ives, premiered on PBS stations nationwide in September 1996.
"I return to the West every year with my two daughters to explore some new aspect of it. I feel like it beckons me. And while I canít imagine living anywhere else but New England, I still feel like a citizen of the West. I think thatís true of all Americans who are touched by its breathtaking beauty, exhilarated by its vast distances and moved by its often-tragic and heroic story."
Burns is the award-winning filmmaker who moved Americans from north to south with the landmark PBS series, THE CIVIL WAR. He then used the national pastime as a metaphor for American history, politics and culture in the epic PBS series, BASEBALL. Now, he continues to explore what makes America tick by participating in THE WEST.
In every film Iíve been involved in, Iíve been pursuing one simple question: Who are we?," Burns explains. "The history of the West speaks to us clearly and frankly about who we are, and itís impossible to imagine what America would be without the West."
And what is America because of the West? For Burns and Ives, the process of unmasking the nationís complicated persona required the rejection of comfortable and misleading myths.
"What weíre trying to do in THE WEST is put our arms around a diverse, utterly American family drama that involves Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and Europeans, and see this as a broad, elucidating story of human nature and character."
Ken Burnsís own nature was challenged by his uncharacteristic role on THE WEST. For 15 years, he has been at the helm of his many productions; he was director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer of both THE CIVIL WAR and BASEBALL. But as THE WESTís executive producer and creative consultant, he had to make room for the vision, technique and style of the seriesí director/co-producer Stephen Ives.
"I was initially worried that my relationship to the series wouldnít be one I could give my whole heart to," Burns confesses. "Iíd never been a foster parent on a project before, Iíd always been the biological parent, the author. But itís actually been a wonderful collaboration."
In what Burns calls an "in-the-trenches, hands-on experience," he contributed to scripts and played a significant role at the post-production stage, but "I didnít have anything to do with how the scenes are built. It has Steveís look; what I did was guide it."
In the course of his career, Stephen Ives has worked with Burns for seven years, serving as a consulting producer on THE CIVIL WAR and co-producer of Burnsís THE CONGRESS, as well as on his own projects.
"Ken was responsible for getting THE WEST started and overseeing it on the largest level possible," says Ives. "He had a vision of the entire project and served as an essential sounding board for the big picture. And Iíve never come across anybody who delivers more pure creative input in the editing room."
Burns drolly acknowledges this had the potential to be a mixed blessing. "Iím very passionate about history and how things should be done," he explains. "To accommodate two different visions is always a great struggle. Itís to Steveís credit that he was able to handle this 900-pound gorilla he was working with."
American Lives & all that JAZZ
Since the 1994 triumph of BASEBALL, Burnsís input on THE WEST has only been part of the activity that fills his long workdays. He is currently in various stages of production on a series of free-standing biographical documentaries on historical American figures, including Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Frank Lloyd Wright, a dual portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and a fifth film on someone he describes as "a player to be named later."
The filmmaker is also well into the research and filming of JAZZ, another ambitious, multi-part series. Just as he saw BASEBALL as the sequel to THE CIVIL WAR -- paralleling changes in race relations, labor practice, womenís rights and much else to the history of the game -- he sees JAZZ as the sequel to BASEBALL. "Itís my own perspective on the sequential phenomena that shaped American personality," says Burns. "Iíve been drawn to jazz because I believe it speaks to the soul of the country."
In all his work, Burns is driven by a desire to keep history alive. "The thing that ensures that weíll have a future is an awareness of the past," he says. "Thereís a collective, medicinal quality to a knowledge of the past that provides a healing as we proceed to find out what our future is. Thank goodness that future is unknown, and thank goodness that when historians try to predict it, theyíre always wrong."
But Burns worries that Americaís awareness of its history is waning and hopes documentaries like THE WEST can renew interest. "History has lost its importance in our lives, in part because of the distraction of television. Yet television, paradoxically, has the possibility to be our new Homeric form, to be the way we talk about ourselves -- not around a campfire anymore, but maybe around an electric campfire. So Iím looking for ways in which we can share the American experience."
And Burns has a partner on his quest. "Iíve been quite fortunate in meeting up with an underwriter that has no interest in telling me how to make my films, but is as passionate as I am about sharing the American experience," says Burns of General Motors. "Itís a win-win situation all around."
GM confirms the mutual admiration. "Ken Burns is unique in the standard of excellence he brings to an equally unique creative vision of America," says Philip Guarascio, General Motorsí vice president and general manager of marketing and advertising. "We at GM want to do everything we can to fuel Ken Burnsís "electronic campfire." Thatís why we are pleased to have been the sole corporate underwriter of THE CIVIL WAR and BASEBALL; itís why weíre the sole corporate underwriter of THE WEST; and itís why weíll lend our support to all of Kenís programs through the year 2000."
Will Ken Burns ever try to build his campfire in cyberspace? "Iím a bit of a Luddite on this," he says. "Iím very suspicious of the new forms because technology has overwhelmed content. Weíre being told that information and access alone are enough, and I can tell you that theyíre not. What I engage in is a very, very difficult, time-consuming, painstaking process of distilling information. Thatís where we get meaning in our world. It is not enough to be able to press a button and have access to everything; we need to know how to synthesize that information."
"Itís like an orchard filled with thousands of apples. The Internet suggests that you can access every single one of them, and thatís true. But in order to make a pie, you can only take back with you those choice apples that fit in your apron. In order to make a great still-life, like Cezanne, you only need a handful. Itís the seeing and the doing that becomes the most important thing. Itís not enough to browse."
[Write to Ken Burns at Florentine Films, P. O. Box 613, Walpole, New Hampshire 03608.]
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