Ken Burns’ work captures crucial moments in U.S. history in cogent images, sound, and story. His seven-disc DVD collection, Ken Burns: American Lives, is so extensive, so nerdishly passionate, and so overwhelming in its depth and breadth, that you simply have to give in. In spite of the sappy music, freakish earnestness, and exhausting long takes. Resistance is futile.
At the same time, though, we have to fault Burns’ reductive liberal pluralism, which sometimes leads him to be less critical than he should be of history-changing events. Thomas Jefferson uses the new pop orthodoxy about the subject: he was complex, he owned slaves, and so reflected the deep contradictions of his times and the “American character.” For historian Joseph Ellis, one of the talking heads here, Jefferson is an “enigma,” with a “mysterious character,” like “a sphinx, Mona Lisa or Hamlet.” At least Burns addresses the Sally Hemming “issue” and includes some smart academic commentary. But the film never stops adoring Jefferson.
Part of the problem is that Burns is determined to use the old “great man of history” model, with a few humanist modifications (the great man or woman might be flawed, too). The hero worship frequently overpowers the nuanced assessment. That problem is especially evident in Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. While the film includes talking-head critiques of how this kind of exploration led to problematic political developments, like expansionism and Manifest Destiny—and white settlers pushing American Indians off their land—again, the larger narrative keeps returning to idolization. We get a full sense of the friendship between Clark and the nervous Lewis, but we could have used a fuller sense of Sacajawea.
Yet this DVD set is not just nouveau hagiography, because Burns uses the aggrandizing form to talk about people who never got such treatment before. So when he’s framing Jack Johnson (the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing title, in 1908) or suffragists in The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Not for Ourselves Alone, Burns enshrines oppositional voices within “history.” The Stanton and Anthony film reveals what their “friendship” really meant for them—it helped two great women endure debilitating social pressures as they fought for a then radical cause.
Johnson’s story in particular is compelling, perhaps because it is less well known. As scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward says in the featurette, “The Making of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” “Johnson is not an easy hero, but [the film is] a marvelous look at America at the turn of the century.” Wynton Marsalis’ score enhances Burns’ cuts of old fight footage (adding close-ups of Johnson smiling while he knocks out white opponents), and interviewees assess Johnson’s emergence as a symbol in Jim Crow America.
Johnson tried to live his life, Ward says, “as if the color of his skin didn’t matter,” and the white establishment tried to crush him for it, often by punishing him for his relationships with white women. Johnson’s life struggles epitomize the dynamics of turn of the century racism, and Burns’ film captures those themes with urgency. One reason for this sense of speed is literal: Burns uses quicker cuts here, departing from his usual languid cuts.
At their best, Burns’ films crystallize an emotional understanding of U.S. history, versus an intellectual understanding. The focus on individuals’ stories encourages viewers, as Burns says in “A Conversation with Ken Burns,” on the Jefferson disc, to go “beneath the skin and get into people.” Burns calls himself an “emotional archeologist.” He doesn’t quite convince us of that. It’s more like he puts layers of material together, but he doesn’t necessarily take you into people’s inner lives.
His focus on individual character can irritate when it turns into a formula. What great thing did this person do and what momentous challenge did she have to overcome to do so and what do his inner demons tell us about the warped but exceptional American character? Burns himself gets that treatment in the interview, because his interlocutor gets him to recount how his own mother’s death made him search for greatness. When you see how easy it is to replicate the formula, it seems even more banal.
Look no further than Mark Twain for a writer who won’t fit a formula. In Mark Twain, the hagiography exists uneasily alongside more lively revisions of Twain (like Forrest Robinson explaining that Clemens’ pen name might have referred to chalk marks for his bar tab). Twain is slippery, and painfully insightful at times. Some of the experts get that, but the psycho-babbling narration misses the point (Burns insists Twain got depressed about the world later in his life and he suffered the losses of loved ones, so his late fiction is darker; scholars used to tell that story, but most depart from it now).
If Burns is trying to make a portrait of America (and the American character) by closely examining some of its great leaders, the other two films in this set don’t contribute much. They seem quirky and marginal, and it’s hard to see these more idiosyncratic stories as being central to understanding American culture.
Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip chronicles the first man to drive cross-country in his automobile in 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a bit of a crackpot whose steadfast belief (and media attention) helped usher in the car age. Frank Lloyd Wright puts the amazing buildings alongside Wright’s infamously polarizing personality and behavior in his personal life. Both men are paradigms for thinking about how transportation and building technology alter our world and consciousness. But Jackson isn’t that interesting (if he hadn’t driven around, someone else would have). And the stories about Wright’s three marriages and countless kids and scandals grow tiresome. Their stories here focus more on personal eccentricity or drama than on the American collective unconscious Burns’ other films excavate.
But regardless, I give up. I’m happy Burns has gathered all this important historical footage, cogent talking heads, and sometimes vapid images together in one place. Let’s just use his own formula to say he is both problematic and momentous, he reflects his times (perhaps an effort to sustain the narrative discourse of American exceptionalism but also be critical about U.S. history). He says in the conversation piece that his composition process is open-ended and flexible, always “in the process of becoming,” much like he thinks “our genius as a people” is about that. He’s both goofy and deep. He even laughs about wearing people out with the interminable length of his films, but he insists, in “Ken Burns Making History,” “At the end of the day, our attention is all that we have.”
Marsalis, in the featurette on the Johnson film, explains why he likes Burns: “he’s dealing with a certain truth of the United States and trying to search for something. I have tremendous respect for it.” Okay, I’m still going to groan, but I’ll admit that it’s good to have these films.