Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky longs for the day that Ken Burns interviews him for the inevitable documentary on the history of DVD Verdict.
"To me, the reason why these are the valuable milestones in human existence is because there is some larger emotional component to them. They aren't just the sum of their parts. And this other emotional part is what we're after. Why not have a history that's like that?"—Ken Burns
Meet some of the most complex and controversial figures in the American experience, seen through the lens of a master documentary filmmaker. PBS and Paramount make seven of Ken Burns's historical masterworks available in one boxed set.
Facts of the Case
If you are not familiar with the Ken Burns style, which has become the most easily parodied of all documentarians, it goes something like this: period music, articulate talking heads who speak gravely and with a touch of wit, readings in the voices of the characters, dramatic pauses for chapter breaks, and cameras panning across archival photos, documents, and empty historical locations. But so many other documentarians do this too. So why does it work so well for Burns that it has become his signature style and one to which all others are compared? Ken Burns makes it seems so effortless. Every moment conveys gravity and importance. His documentaries run long (18 hours for the history of baseball?), but they never seem to flag. Indeed, the biographical details are always concise and focused, showing the development of these characters as much as necessary. For example, when Burns wants to cover Thomas Jefferson's student days, he focuses only on a single crucial mentor and the general influence of the Enlightenment. In only a few minutes, Jefferson's entrance into the social realm and his philosophical underpinnings are sketched out. Then Jefferson moves to Monticello and starts building his own house based on these influences.
Other documentary filmmakers might say too much, or too little, but Ken Burns has mastered dramatic precision. If any historian has taken to heart Gustave Flaubert's mandate to find le mot juste in his descriptive efforts, it is the babyfaced, articulate Burns. If his productions, all created for PBS, seem long, it is only because his subjects warrant the attention. Sitting down to one of his documentaries is akin to climbing into a comfy chair with a great work of prose nonfiction.
If you want to get a taste of his work, but feel reluctant to approach his larger series (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz), then PBS has a deal for you. Ken Burns: American Lives collects seven documentaries that aired between 1997 and 2004. In these films, all of Burns's favorite themes are played out. The larger projects aside, Burns really excels at biography. It is the biographies, the ones in this set, that show to best effect his ability to balance humanism and historical sweep. Even in The Civil War, the characters, from the soldiers' voices to the cantankerous commentator Shelby Foote, are what remains most memorable. Burns finds the most complex figure for a particular era, then works through the conflicts of that age by showing the conflicts in that individual's life.
• Thomas Jefferson (1997)
There is no better American figure to begin with than Thomas Jefferson, no better man to embody the contradictions of America itself. He was industrious, inventive, curious. As an architect, he was a master designer, but could never finish his house. He was an aggressive statesman, but so modest that he did not list his presidency on his gravestone. He was also a profligate spender and enjoyed his slaves (in more ways than one) while speaking about freedom out the other side of his mouth. No wonder historian Joseph Ellis calls him a "sphinx," as he may be our greatest national enigma.
Burns nails the curious details. Why are there no portraits of Jefferson's wife Martha? Such trivia suggests much about Jefferson's own mysteries, but Burns never needs to dwell on the point. Such details make these documentaries worth repeat viewings, like a layered work of written history that does not just convey information but pleases as a work of inspired prose.
To carry the story, Burns always picks exactly the right voices. Ossie Davis is a perfect choice to narrate here. Not only does he have a great voice, but positioning a noted black activist in the role of commentator on Jefferson's conflicted views on freedom and race highlights the greatest puzzle of Jefferson's life. And Sam Waterston captures the weary wisdom of Jefferson (as he did for Lincoln in Burns's seminal The Civil War). Could anyone else dissect the words of the Declaration of Independence in such a way that they sound entirely new?
A word about technical presentation for the discs in the American Lives set. Most are presented in full frame with 2.0 audio—basically the minimum effort put forth by PBS. They are all in good shape, although you should remember that archival photographs and film footage may show their age. Unforgivable Blackness, the most recent documentary in the collection is matted to anamorphic widescreen with the option of a 5.1 surround track to highlight the Wynton Marsalis jazz score.
Several of the discs, Thomas Jefferson included, offer a pair of generic featurettes. "Ken Burns: Making History" (7 minutes) was made to promote Lewis and Clark and shows the director's willingness to let the story evolve from the exploration. "A Conversation with Ken Burns" (10 minutes) gushes about the Constitution, baseball, and jazz—and our penchant for improvisation and invention. He may still look like a teenager, but Burns is an articulate "emotional archeologist" who really sells the magic of history. I will note other features of the discs as I review each one.
• Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
The ambitious companion to his biography of Thomas Jefferson, Burns's survey of the Lewis and Clark expedition runs a third longer than its predecessor (four hours over two discs, as opposed to Jefferson's comparatively trim three hours). For a year and a half beginning in 1804, amateur scientist and sometime depressive (and Jefferson's personal secretary) Merriweather Lewis and practical outdoorsman William Clark, both good friends before their trip, led a crew of what Lewis called "stout, healthy, and unmarried men" (including one slave) across the country's newly purchased Louisiana territory (bought, incidentally, for 3¢ an acre from Napoleon) and the disputed Oregon frontier. The "Corps of Discovery" had no idea what to expect.
We travel with them on their journey, touring the landscape from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. The struggle of these men holds the tale together. We learn what they eat (and who caught it), who they met, and how they managed to make it there and back alive. There are touches of droll humor (listen to Stephen Ambrose describe the Corps' favorite medicine, a laxative called "Rush's Thunderbolt"). There is plenty of character-driven description, thanks to the extensive journaling done by the members of the team.
The journey of Lewis and Clark is about the possibilities of America, as it looked west to shape a new identity after casting off Europe. Jefferson (still played by Sam Waterston) was the driving force behind the expedition, obsessed with a northwest river passage across the continent. The prevailing emotion that lingers after watching Lewis and Clark is hope. Hope for the possibilities of a future that stretches out like the Great Plains, like the welcoming arms of the natives ("friendly and well-disposed savages" according to Lewis without a trace of irony) the expedition met along their journey. And then we remember how many of these possibilities have been squandered since…
Disc One includes two full-length interviews with Charlie Rose. One is from 1997 and features Burns and writer Dayton Duncan. Burns calls the Lewis and Clark expedition "the best road trip" through "the largest museum in the world." A 1996 interview with Stephen Ambrose focuses on his book Undaunted Courage. Disc Two includes the aforementioned featurettes, plus a making-of featurette. Burns saw his challenge as a need to create suspense in stories whose outcome every school kid already knows. It is that ability to imbue these stories with wonder that marks Ken Burns one of the premiere nonfiction filmmakers of our generation.
• Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
Wright saw the entire world, from music to nature, through the lens of architecture. No wonder he had a tremendous ego: He saw himself as a divine builder in the business of rebuilding the world. His contemporaries hated him in the way that only envy can create (and they were more than willing to admit their frustration with his genius). Wright was arrogant, boisterous, and, as one of his colleagues called him, "200% alive." His buildings leaked and were sometimes impractical, but they were adventurous in a way classical architecture, the accepted means of artistic expression, was decidedly not.
I came late to an appreciation of Wright's work. I was always fairly indifferent to it until visiting Fallingwater, his residential masterpiece, one summer (it was a pleasant afternoon drive from my wife's home town). But I recognize Wright as the perfect character for the rise of industrial America in the twentieth century. He is as big as the national character of the Gilded Age itself. From his tempestuous childhood in the years following the Civil War, to his apprenticeship rebuilding Chicago after its devastating fire, to his inspired early public buildings, we see Wright as a self-made (and self-promoting) genius who embodied his description of the Larkin building as "power applied to purpose."
He was also a flawed man (as are all of Ken Burns's heroes). Taliesin, his masterpiece of a residential mansion, was built to house the married woman he dumped his own wife and family to live with. One architectural historian calls Wright a "confidence man"—and he means that as praise. Crushed by scandal and relegated to obscurity, Wright fought back in the 1930s to try and save his legacy, first through a (somewhat cooked-up) autobiography and an apprenticeship program, then with his grand comeback project: the inventive overhanging Fallingwater. But even to the end, he spun his own legend in a way that outstripped even his formidable talent.
Burns (codirecting with Lynn Novick) uses Wright's own words (many of which come from a 1957 television interview with Mike Wallace) to link Wright's views of the world with the events of his life. This turns out to be a marvelous choice, since the force of Wright's personality is so important to understanding the man's work. In the supplements, the two directors sit down with Charlie Rose for a 1998 interview. Burns calls the story "history on all cylinders." (The other extras are those same two featurettes repeated from the previous films in this set.)
If you want to follow these discs with respect to historical chronology, save this documentary until the second to last (after Horatio's Drive). Still, I will follow the PBS order, which is organized by production date.
• Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
It seems odd to suddenly notice the relative dearth of significant female characters in these documentaries. Perhaps we simply accept this about history: Powerful women are few and far between. Martha Jefferson is a mystery; Sacagawea is curious miracle among the men of the Corps of Discovery. Frank Lloyd Wright loved too many women, and often not well.
But now Burns tries to cover half a century of American history that has gone nearly unmentioned. We hear the name Susan B. Anthony, but almost no schoolchild learns anything about her. And nothing about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was an outgoing middle-class matron; Anthony was a quiet Quaker woman with a sharp mind and willingness to play the political game more shrewdly than any man. Together, they took women on a tougher journey than Lewis and Clark took. And ironically, neither lived to see their goal fulfilled.
Remember, Aristotle called politics a fraternity, and men took that literally for two and a half millennia. So it is no exaggeration to say that the struggle of Stanton and Anthony was radical beyond nearly anything else done in the history of social revolution. Even Jefferson could not claim to be so bold in his rebellion, steeped as he was in the popular ideas of the Enlightenment.
I grew up knowing little more about the suffragettes than a Schoolhouse Rock song that dropped names to a Janis Joplin–style groove. But the real revolution was much more. Nineteenth-century women had no rights: They could not own property, had secondary custody of their kids, and were even considered incompetent to testify in court. No rights at all. But in 1848, the revolution began. It would involve violence (always against the women and never initiated by them) and betrayal (Frederick Douglass promised support but sold out the movement to negotiate a separate peace for black male suffrage), and alienation from their peers. In a way, this is a companion piece to The Civil War, in that Burns shows the complex interactions between the anti-slavery/black rights movements and the women's rights movements, and how social change never comes in discrete packages, but often overlaps and conflicts. Rights for some often mean others must wait, compromise, or hitch their fortunes to other groups.
The only extra this time out is an 8-minute making-of featurette. Both Burns and coproducer Paul Barnes had never heard of Stanton—and were shocked to learn that such an important figure had been cut out of the mainstream historical record. Maybe this documentary will rectify that somewhat.
• Mark Twain (2001)
I reviewed this one some time ago, for another site. So, with your kind indulgence, I will repeat my thoughts (with a little judicious editing) on this personal favorite Ken Burns documentary:
They travel along a river, these two. One is merely a boy, haughty and adventurous. The other hides bitter secrets, pain the likes of which the boy can barely understand. Once they get into an argument about the wisdom of Solomon. The boy, exasperated, cannot understand why the man keeps arguing with him, why the man cannot understand that Solomon is wise. Or why the French do not speak English. After all, the boy was told it was true, and so it must be. And so the man must be a fool.
But what he does not see is this: that the man, who cannot read or write, who has spent his entire life in bondage as a slave, has a keenly logical mind. The boy has been taught his whole life that the man and his kind are animals, that they cannot learn or think. Soon, the boy will come to realize that just because he was told these things are true, a more profound truth about the triumphs and tragedies of the human soul has escaped him for too long.
The novel is called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Its author suffered all these triumphs and tragedies himself, and he committed them to our cultural memory. He was funny and bitter. He traveled the world, a rambling exile everywhere, but always looked toward home, though he felt at home in both the North and the South. He believed in God and the perfectibility of man, but he had his doubts about whether he might see either proven true. William Dean Howells called him "the Lincoln of our literature," and indeed he was, liberating the American language from the influence of Europe and struggling with the American character until it took its own shape. He was born Samuel Clemens, but like his varied life, he had a dual identity. His pen name comes from the cloudy depths of the gaping Mississippi River that cuts across our nation. Mark Twain: the point at which safe water and dangerous water meet during our journey across the river.
Once again, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns finds a story that helps deepen our national character. Indeed, Mark Twain himself quipped, "I am not an American. I am the American." Like the soulful music of Burns's sprawling Jazz, Twain's voice (performed by Kevin Conway) drives the story of his life. In this sense, it is surprising that Burns has taken so long to attempt a film biography of Samuel Clemens and his literary alter ego.
And few figures on the landscape of American art had as many highs and lows as Mark Twain. As spectacularly inept in business and unlucky in family life as he was successful in his mastery of language, Twain fought his entire life against racism, corruption, and imperialism. Although his first successes were with seemingly simple tales that captured colloquial humor—he once remarked, "Great books are wine. My books are water, and everybody drinks water"—he built a following as a disarming satirist. By the time Huckleberry Finn burst forth, the product of seven years of struggle to shape the manuscript into something more than a child's adventure story, Twain had watched the promise of Emancipation and Reconstruction turn to ashes. All the hope Twain had that America might unlearn racism poured into the character of Huck—and the moment when Huck decides that, in spite of all his society has taught him, he cannot turn his friend Jim back over to slavery, accepting damnation in favor of the greater moral choice, becomes the turning point for all of American literature.
"Ah well, I am a great and sublime fool," said Twain. "But I am God's fool. And all His works must be contemplated with respect." From Sam Clemens's boyhood in Hannibal to his adventures around the world, from his early joy with wife Livy to his business failures and exile in Europe, from his bitterness over the deaths of his wife and daughters to his public celebration as a national hero, all of Twain's life, as portrayed by Ken Burns, gives us the opportunity to examine this complex man from many angles. That is not to say that Twain comes across as an enigma, a man whom we cannot pin down. What is revealed to us is a host of Mark Twains: the committed advocate for human freedom during a time when freedom was rarely fashionable, the man who struggled to find humor in the darkest places of the human heart—in short, a man who was, though he might sometimes regret it, entirely human.
In one of the interview outtakes including as a supplemental feature on this double-sided DVD, Arthur Miller refers to Twain's "cry for freedom," that sense of bitter humor, empathy, and fierce resistance toward both tyranny and hope that characterizes Twain's life. Twenty-five minutes of these additional interviews and alternate takes, though rather scratchy, offer plenty of psychological insights—even at nearly four hours, the regular feature seems like it is too short to take in all the nuances of a figure like Twain. Seven minutes of additional photography accompanies more quotes and anecdotes read by Kevin Conway.
In "The Making of Mark Twain," Burns actually talks very little about the making thereof, offering a 10-minute summary of the feature. Instead, writer Dayton Duncan offers a ten-minute overview of the writing process and production. Again, "Making History" and "A Conversation with Ken Burns" are included.
• Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003)
I was not even aware of this gem before receiving this boxed set. It has slipped under the radar even of Ken Burns fans. At 106 minutes, this is almost a footnote in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Indeed, I suspect that Burns, exhausted after Jazz and Mark Twain, probably cranked this one out for a lark.
In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson (voiced by Tom Hanks) took a $50 bet that he could drive from San Francisco to New York. To compare: Lewis and Clark took 18 months to make their trip to the coast. Wagon trains in the 19th century took 6 months. Jackson had a month. And on top of that his newfangled automobile was less reliable than a horse-drawn wagon. Over dirt roads (pavement was nearly unknown in most of the country), railroad trestles, and sometimes even just dirt, Jackson and mechanic Sewalle Crocker undertook an odyssey no stranger than that of Lewis and Clark. You might even call this documentary a spiritual sequel to Burns's earlier celebration of the Corps of Discovery. Indeed, Burns treats it as such, using Jackson's letters to his wife to celebrate the American landscape. In fact, the rural townsfolk reacted to the new "auto-mobeel" with all the wonder of natives meeting their first white men.
While entertaining and informative, this documentary does not properly fit into the American Lives series, since Jackson really is not the center of attention here, nor is he a significant or interesting historical figure. Like Empire of the Air (Burns's film on the history of radio), Horatio's Drive is more about the history of a technology and the chronicle of an era: in this case, the transformation of our country from a fragmented collection of nearly autonomous rural zones (few people ever traveled more than a dozen miles from home) to a unified network of highways across which anyone could visit any point in the country. But overall, this seems like the sort of thing that a guy like Ken Burns knocks out in a weekend. Again, it feels more like a modern retelling of Lewis and Clark, touching on some themes of the impact of mass-produced culture (automobiles, travel photography) without developing them in more than cursory fashion. Indeed, even the extras are thin: A making-of featurette and some deleted scenes (Ken Burns actually leaves something on the cutting room floor?) are all you get. Consider this disc a palate-cleansing sorbet before the final course in this boxed set.
• Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
And the final course is all meat. Racial politics, popular media, the urgency of competitive sports—Burns is in his element. The beginning of the 20th century marked a backlash against the gains of Reconstruction. Black people were seen as a menace—and boxer Jack Johnson embraced that menace by beating up whites in the ring, sleeping with white women, and living larger than any celebrity of his era of any color. Whites longed for a "great white hope" to crush Johnson, a sign of their need to hold on to their sense of power by defeating the biggest, baddest black man in American history up to that time. Jack Johnson scared everyone, because "he insisted on being free," as the narrator Keith David intones. For African Americans, his triumph was theirs, the greatest moment in black culture since Emancipation—at least until he crossed too many boundaries and made enemies of them as well.
Johnson (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, the king of attitude) is an epic figure. His story, from his childhood in a poor Texas community, to his first victories in "battle royals" (groups of young black men thrown into a fight until one man was left to claim a few coins thrown by the white audience), his eager rise to the heavyweight title in 1908—all while enduring the racist taunts of even those who claimed to respect him—almost reads like that of a Homeric hero. And like those mythic heroes, Johnson was brought down by hubris and the intolerance of his era for his outsider status. As an act of defiance, he courted white rage by dressing up and partying with a prodigious appetite. He moved into white neighborhoods, slept with whomever he wanted, smiled for the crowds while pounding his opponents to bruised heaps. As Jack London put it, "It was not a case of too much Johnson; it was all Johnson."
After Johnson destroyed Tommy Burns in 1908 to win the heavyweight title, every caucasian fighter tried to play the role of the "great white hope" that would return the championship to what they insisted was its rightful place. Former champ Jim Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement to save white pride. Well, a $100,000 purse helped. Johnson destroyed him and made even the Great White Hope a believer.
The fall comes in part II of the film. Johnson wanted everything he was told he could not have. And this in a world "that wasn't ready to accept a black man as a total person," according to James Earl Jones (who had his first acting triumph playing a thinly veiled version of Johnson in The Great White Hope. So the government looked for ways to prosecute him for moral transgressions under a law designed to protect women from forced prostitution, because he took his white girlfriend across state lines. Under the racist regime of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson never had a chance. His career in ruins, he tried gamely to stay in the spotlight, but white pride had been satisfied—at least for a few more years.
Unforgivable Blackness marks a new attentiveness on the part of PBS toward Burns's work. As noted above, we get this two-disc set in widescreen and the choice of 2.0 or 5.1 audio mixes. The more expansive mix highlights the jazz compositions of Wynton Marsalis (whose contributions to Burns's Jazz were invaluable). The DVD includes a music video with a medley of Marsalis's groovy cues. A making-of featurette focuses on Burns's fascination with the intersection of race and sports. Writer Geoffrey Ward succinctly notes that Johnson is "not an easy hero." Their difficulty came in tracking down Johnson's fight films, many of which were banned for years, but which are crucial in giving us a sense of Johnson's speed, power, and charisma beyond still photography. An extensive collection of deleted scenes and alternate cuts (nearly a half hour's worth), narrated by Ken Burns himself, are included.
Ken Burns is a documentary filmmaker who rises to the level of his subjects. When he tackles larger-than-life figures (Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, Jack Johnson) whose real identities were even more complicated than their (often self-created) myths, Burns finds clues to the experience of America itself. The bigger the topic, the better Burns's work is. Oddly, he seems the most lost when the topics (as in Horatio's Drive) are smaller in scale, as if the canvas will not fit all the brushstrokes.
Still, this huge set contains uniformly excellent work, for a price less than the cost of purchasing these documentaries individually. Learn from them, pass them on to your children, and take pride in the fact that America can still produce heroes as adventurous and talented and flawed as the ones portrayed here. Because the day mediocrity robs a filmmaker like Ken Burns of meaningful subjects to cover is the day we are all probably doomed.
History has vindicated all the subjects of these documentaries. Ken Burns is released to continue his important work. Case dismissed.
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