The films of Ken Burns take an America as their subject that resists, as the man himself says, the bold-faced way we look at culture. In a world where it seems all the information is available, it takes discipline and a steady hand to handle honestly a history that in the midst of so many shortcomings is singular in its vision and meaning. Mr. Burns’ new series, The Roosevelts, begins its run on the air today on PBS — and back in July, we had a sparkly preview screening of the film at The Theatre. Our very own Kelly Sawdon had the chance to chat him up in the interim.
Okay, first, what is it about the US specifically as a subject that keeps you coming back?
Well, you know I think that if I lived to be a 1,000 years, I’d never run out of good stories in American history. My brain is filled with them. I’ve already planned out ten years in the beginning to plot the ten years after that.
Lincoln referred to the United Stated as the last best hope. There’s lots of things that we do badly, but we do represent one of the best experiments of human kind. I think it’s within the tension between our best selves and our worst selves, between what Abraham Lincoln called our better angels and those lower, that they’re just amazing stories.
Roosevelt points out that these are within ourselves. That heroism is not perfection, but a very interesting negotiation. Sometimes the war between somebody’s obvious strengths, and maybe their not so obvious weaknesses.
Your style as a filmmaker manages to be both new and familiar. From your perspective, do you have a singular style?
Yeah, I think that if you analyze what the word style means, it just means authentic application of technique. Everybody in whatever medium they’re working, somebody’s painting, or dance, or theater, or whatever it is, film, you develop a recognizable style because you’re using the techniques of your medium authentically. That’s the only thing that matters.
People often say, well why don’t you, won’t you change your style up? Change for change sake is nothing. It’s being fashionable, it’s not being anything else. I don’t want to be fashionable, I want to have my own style.
While I suppose if you took a look at all my films from a distance, they’d seem similar. If you go up, each one has a kind of unique set of solutions to whatever the issues were in that film. We may be engaging the same elements, the still photographs and first person voices, and archives, and things like that. I pride myself on resisting temptations.
I think the whole idea is that style isn’t something you just sort of settle upon and that’s it. There’s a lot that goes into the formula. I think style is actually a very complicated obligation to oneself. Not just to be authentic to the process, but also to be constantly critical and trying to engage the thing you do at a higher and higher level.
Well put. One of the greatest strengths in your films is how round the texture of your characters are. As an artist, you work in a genre laden with perceptions of what is real or true. With so much information out there on the subject of your films, what makes you handle these people so evenly?
It’s funny — you’re absolutely right. We’re sort of bombarded, cascaded with information, and what we do with all that information is kind of shut down. We adopt sort of simplistic, conventional wisdoms about people. That’s part of the reason why we don’t have any heroes because we can have a simplistic definition of heroism that is perfection and then when we don’t see anybody perfect around us — and there are none — we’re then rubbing our hands and saying where are all the heroes.
What we decided to do was go back to the past to examine these people and see their complexity. All of the sudden, that superficiality, that conventional wisdom, sort of evaporates. It’s useful. The Roosevelts become deeper, one appreciates them a little bit more. They’re complex, they’ve got undertones, they’re not without flaws. In some ways, that doesn’t in anyway diminish their strengths, it actually puts them in sort of stronger place and I think it also helps make people realize that they’re human.
Too often, in a bold-faced culture, we don’t see that, they’re just on a pedestal. What I like is that the Roosevelts are among the most-bold faced, political names. In our film, they feel like the rest of us. They have divorces, they die, they get sick, they overcome difficulty, there are betrayals, there’s great love, there’s great passion. All the things that we feel and now the onus is taken off of them because we are presented with a side that makes them human, and not just the cardboard cutout expectations of what we think we know. That’s what we try really hard in our films to do.