Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Take a long trip through American history with documentarian Ken Burns

Illustration for article titled Take a long trip through American history with documentarian Ken Burns

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.


Geek obsession: Documentarian Ken Burns

Why he’s daunting: Burns, the patron saint of PBS, doesn’t just make long films. He makes some of the longest. Technically, since they air on TV, they’re “miniseries,” but that shouldn’t discount that Burns remains one of the most famous American documentarians. Really, only Errol Morris and Michael Moore are on his level for critical acclaim and widespread recognition, and Burns’ projects have reached arguably more people than either of the other two. Many of his massive projects would take the better part of a day to watch straight through. His longest film, Jazz, runs 19 hours, with Baseball is right behind it at 18-and-a-half hours. While he has shorter films (including his upcoming The Address, an atypical film shot in cinema verité style, debuting April 15), he’s most known for these behemoths.

If there’s a word or phrase people associate Burns with above all others, it’s “history.” (That is, if it’s not “pledge drive.”) The director’s lifelong project is to illuminate all corners of America’s past, both recent and long ago. He first broke through with 1990’s The Civil War, which also cemented his directorial style in the eyes of the public: slow panning shots over historical photographs, designed to give the appearance of motion to something immobile; famous actors reading voiceovers from the time period being depicted; occasional talking heads; footage of important historical sites as they look now. Burns doesn’t often use reenactments or anything similar, and even his films documenting the 20th century use fewer film clips than many other historical documentarians. Instead, he aims to reanimate the past by borrowing from the world of radio, using words to evoke a time and place in the imagination. Burns’ style has surely become a cliché, but that’s because when it was new, it was so different others in the field rushed to copy him. And for as much as Burns’ style has marked him, he continues to try new things, well into his fourth decade of filmmaking. The Address is very different from anything he’s done in years, and The Dust Bowl was a terrifically successful mini-epic.

Granted, Burns can be guilty of trying too hard to make his point, and his projects sometimes seem almost too comprehensive, as if trying to be the definitive documents of a particular period in American history. His miniseries have suffered from a definite and growing sense of bloat over the years. But even so, they’re always packed with vignettes and moments and memories that make them worth it. As Burns’ PBS empire continues to grow—he has films announced through 2019 and has begun planning with the network for what he’ll be doing in the next decade—it’s a fitting time to look back at the first 33 years of it.

Possible gateway: The Dust Bowl

Why?: The 2012 film The Dust Bowl occupies an excellent middle ground for the burgeoning Burns enthusiast. For one thing, it’s one of his best films. For another, it’s only four hours long, sitting comfortably between his shorter projects and the long miniseries he’s best known for. That said, it’s the kind of film where watching all of it in one night may prove to be too much, so it makes sense to watch its two installments over the course of two evenings.


Simply put, The Dust Bowl is one of Burns’ most harrowing films. While the mix of voiceovers, still photos, and talking heads changes slightly from film to film, this one emphasizes the talking heads to a far greater degree than most other items in his filmography. Burns has found many remaining survivors of the Dust Bowl, and he puts them on camera to talk, unflinchingly, about living in a time when many of them had no guarantee they would be getting anything to eat, when dust storms would be so terrible their lungs became clogged with soil. Most of these people, now elderly, were children in the 1930s, which only increases the level of pathos. That they survived at all seems a miracle.

The Dust Bowl also captures Burns as a rousingly political filmmaker. Burns has always been a progressive and an advocate of the Democratic Party, but those ideas only seep into his films in the abstract. It’s not a huge stand, for instance, for a modern filmmaker to point out the evils of slavery. Yet The Dust Bowl is a film that’s entirely about a manmade environmental catastrophe, and though it never draws a direct link between the great plow-up that devastated the Great Plains’ ecosystem and the looming possibility of global climate change, it never really has to. The Dust Bowl suggests that man will always be shortsighted, capable of only seeing over the next horizon instead of looking at the map to see what comes next. The saying goes that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and Burns, more than ever in this film, seems to be shaking his head glumly at that notion.

Next steps: The question that comes next is whether one wants to go big or go small. Burns has several worthy films on both levels, as well as a few other solid ones on the “medium” level. For those who want to go big, the best option is probably to dive right into The Civil War. It remains Burns’ most defining and iconic film for a reason, as it captures the emotions and stark realities of America’s most important conflict in tremendously moving fashion. (Those who’ve seen the film are often deeply touched just by hearing its music, completely out of context.) Another good option at this length is Baseball, which manages to tie America’s pastime to all manner of important notions in the nation’s history. It also might be his most purely enjoyable film.

For those looking for something quicker, there’s the terrific The Shakers: Hands To Work, Hearts To God, Burns’ second film. At just under an hour long, it’s a quick meditation on a religious movement dedicated to peaceful, quiet living in the countryside that ultimately failed, but ties directly into a constant yearning for utopia that’s a vital part of the national character. That can also be contrasted with his first film, Brooklyn Bridge, which was nominated for an Academy Award and captures the part of the national character that always wants to build new, impossible things. (Burns himself has said his first two films are an attempt to capture both the country’s urban and rural history, respectively.) At this length, there’s also last year’s Central Park Five, made with his daughter and son-in-law, a sobering look at a recent horror story, where several young men were railroaded into a criminal conviction just because of their race in the late ’80s. General Motors, Burns’ long-time sponsor, refused to back the film, which is perhaps his most political.

And for anyone longing for something in that “in between” space, Prohibition isn’t quite as powerful as The Dust Bowl, but it still illuminates a corner of American history that’s rapidly receding from memory.

Where not to start: Though they’re both important works in Burns’ filmography, Jazz and The War suffer a bit from his recent inclination to shove everything he can get his hands on into a film. The War, in particular, is often guilty of leaning too heavily on the audience’s sentiment when it would perhaps be better to sit back and let the men who served in World War II simply speak. Jazz’s main problem is that it crams around 40 years of latter jazz history into one episode, after spending its first nine segments on the earlier 40 years. It’s a grand, ambitious film, but it suffers from pacing issues throughout.