If ever an artist was inspired by the mysteries of humanity, and in particular our American humanity, it would have to be documentarian Ken Burns. As a prolific filmmaker, Burns defined a new form of storytelling three decades ago and has been chronicling eras and events ever since. Each of his 25 epic films has shed light on the glories and the ugliness of our nation’s history. On Wednesday, November 12, he shared his own story at a Boston Speakers Series event.
What makes Burns so exceptional is that his signature style was there from the beginning, with the film Brooklyn Bridge, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He decided to reveal history through still photos and narration, music, and sound effects, each of these elements painstakingly chosen to play its role. He found his authentic voice at 28-years-old and knew the story he wanted to tell. (I am both envious and awed by this revelation.) His curiosity about his subject has never waned, and it energizes him. He lights up a stage, a boyish spirit at 61, as excited about his work today as he was at the beginning.
Early in his talk, Burns referenced the poet John Keats’ term negative capability to introduce us to both himself and his work. This philosophical concept describes the ability of a person to transcend his context and to be open to both the terrible flaws and exceptional talents of any person. Keats saw Shakespeare as the strongest example in literature of an artist who could give us all facets of a character without moralizing about right and wrong, goodness or evil.
Burns has spent a lifetime exploring our uniquely American negative capability, our freedom. It allows us to do extraordinary good and causes us to lose our way. When we remain objective, though, we achieve greatness. His courage and conviction to root out this story came from the tragedy of his mother dying when he was 11-years-old; Burns accepted early that life is, inescapably, both sorrowful and joyful. We thrive if we rise above our circumstances yet accept that dark and light are part of every person, every leader, and every nation. He knew if he could show us these opposing and complicated forces throughout history, he would “help move humanity forward.”
This, then, is the real Ken Burns effect: a powerful inspiration to pay attention. As artists, to focus on every detail and never shirk in our duty to discover and speak the truth. As people, to pause in our narrow judgments of others and instead see them as whole beings, both well-meaning and flawed, like us. As citizens, to learn from history that we have been here before, and we have, once we’ve bound ourselves together, found our way.
A final thought. In wrapping up his talk, Burns shared this painfully relevant quote from a speech Abraham Lincoln made (in 1838, as a young lawyer) about what Americans have to fear most. I share it here because it gave me pause.
All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.