The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Burns talks history

Filmmaker discusses his documentaries on culture

Resuming the 2004-2005 season of the Tate Lecture Series, TXU presented documentary filmmaker Ken Burns last night.

Burns, the creator of a critically acclaimed trilogy of documentaries comprised of “The Civil War” (1990), “Baseball” (1994) and “Jazz” (2001), spoke on the importance of all three of the trilogy’s subjects in detail.

One of Burns’ main goals in creating a documentary is understanding the past.

“I’m interested in listening to the voices of the true, complicated past,” he said.

Burns said that history in the scholarly sense has changed.

“As we have grown older as a country … the personal histories have dried up,” he said. “History became a subject, not the pageant of everything that had gone before us.

“History began to sound like reading the phone book.”

According to Burns, “something obviously had to change.”

Enter technology.

“We’ve begun to use new medias and new [forms of communications] to promote our history,” he said.

For his documentaries, Burns essentially is trying to unearth the same thing: “emotional archaeology.”

“American history is a loud, raucous, moving kind of music,” he said. “I have to admit, I’ve made the same film over and over in various ways.”

Burns said his lifelong quest in filmmaking has been to answer the question “Who are we?”

Burns received the inspiration for his trilogy of documentaries from a professor who instilled in him that the three most important aspects of American life are “The Constitution, baseball and jazz.”

Beginning with the history his 1994 documentary subject, baseball, Burns said he most admired the language and words associated with the sports, as well as the men who played the game.

Burn’s listed off several quotes from baseball hall-of-famer Yogi Berra, known for his off-the-cuff remarks, as a favorite subject of his.

“My personal favorite is ‘If you don’t go to their funeral, they won’t go to yours,” he said.

Burns believes the history of baseball made for a great story.

“Baseball is the story of labor and management,” he said. He added that “heroes” make the game a great story.

“In our disposable culture, it’s [refreshing] to know that we don’t forget our baseball heroes,” he said.

He pointed to the success of Jackie Robinson playing baseball as proof. Burns believes that Robinson taking to the field for his first professional game, which Burns called a “glorious moment, was the first real production in civil rights “since the Civil War” and added that it didn’t take place at a lunch counter, but on a baseball diamond.

Switching gears to the subject of his first documentary to air, Burns discussed the Civil War.

Burns compared the Civil War to 9/11 in the fact that it “[ruptured] the since of invincibility and security” that America believe it possessed.

Despite such events, Burns said that we, as Americans, “are still stitched together by words and … ideas.”

The Civil War, according to Burns, was a double-edged sword.

“The war was the most defining and shaping [event] in American history,” he said. Burns finds it hard to imagine what America would be without it.

The Civil War was a test of the Constitution, according to Burns, and it was the Constitution that “set us on our improvisatory path.”

“We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said.

Lastly, Burns discussed the topic of jazz.

“It is a curious and objective witness to … the 20th century,” he said. “It’s the only art form created by Americans.”

Jazz embodies an entire range of emotions to burns including solitude, loneliness, drugs, hope and transcendence. It was the African-American jazz musicians, who were the best at purveying this method according to Burns.

“Black jazz artists, in particular, carry a complicated message,” he said. “It’s a message of hope and transcendence for all people.”

Another thing jazz embodies to Burns is “sex.”

“It is a sophisticated and elegant mating call,” he said.

Burns has various awards and accolades for his documentaries that aired on PBS. For “The Civil War” alone, Burns won two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, Producer of the Year Award, a People’s Choice Award and a Peabody Award. He is also filmed earlier documentaries — “Brooklyn Bridge” (1981) and “The Statue of Liberty” (1986) — which both garnered Academy Award nominations. Burns’ latest documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness,” highlights the career of the first African-American heavyweight boxer, Jack Johnson. “Unforgivable Blackness” aired in January on PBS.

Burns’ next project, “The War,” will take a 14-hour look at World War II soldiers from various geographical locations.

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