Tales From an Emotional Archeologist

As a journalist I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interview some fascinating individuals. Add to that list the filmmaker Ken Burns, who spoke this week at Rowan University.

It was a rare and remarkable opportunity to get to know Burns, the celebrated documentarian behind such epic works as The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. The 50-or-so students, faculty and fans who gathered inside Bozarth Auditorium were treated to more than two hours of Burns’s ruminations on his staggering body of work, “top secret” clips from upcoming projects, and lots of heady conversation about the complexity of bringing history to life on the screen.

Just before showing us an exclusive preview clip from The Roosevelts, a work-in-progress that follows the story of the American political family, Burns said, “Think about the person closest to you in your life. A husband or a wife. They remain inscrutable to the end. There’s always something unknowable about the person closest to us, which makes all biography, in a way, a failure. How can you possibly take someone who has been dead for decades and bring him to life when you don’t even know the person you sleep next to at night? That’s a fact of human beings. But we wouldn’t be human beings if we didn’t try, if we didn’t rage against the dying of the light and try to make stories.”

Perched on a tall green chair and dressed in dark blue jeans, maroon blazer and tie, the American storyteller spoke with boundless energy and eloquence. He has a contagious reverence and passion for the work he does and the reasons he does it.

“I am, at the end, an emotional archeologist,” he said when talking about how he chooses the subjects of his films. “We have, among the range of emotions, sentimentality and nostalgia, which are rather base and crude and exist below a rational world in which one and one equals two. And we usually retreat to rationality. But we forget that the things that compel our lives—the people we love or the work that means the most to us or the faith that might guide us—are about a different calculus in which one and one equals three. That’s about a higher emotion, and that’s the archeology I’m interested in.”

Of course he is. As anyone who’s seen a Ken Burns documentary will tell you, it’s not just the impossible scope of his work (Baseball is more than 18 hours long and covers more than 100 years of history) that makes it so compelling, but the artful nuance, drama, and feeling he weaves into these grand American tales. It’s a signature touch that has distinguished his films ever since he graduated from Hampshire College in 1975 and realized, “The past isn’t was but is.”

Equally remarkable is the volume of his work. Right now, Burns is putting the finishing touches on The Dust Bowl, a four-hour documentary (of which we got a sneak peak) that should be released in November; The Roosevelts (a seven-part series still another year or two away from completion); a film about Jackie Robinson; a sweeping documentary on the history of country music; and the initial research for a film about Ernest Hemmingway.

“And that,” he said with a chuckle, “brings us to about 2019.”

When one scans the landscape of important American artists, the diminutive Burns—with his bowl haircut and impish animation—stands undeniably tall. If you haven’t yet set aside the time to watch one of his films, you must. Otherwise you will be missing out on some of the most enjoyable and enlightening cinema ever created.

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