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Sifting through history's ashes

For documentarian Ken Burns, the pain of the personal and the public are intertwined.

September 02, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

WALPOLE, N.H. — When Ken Burns was working on his first professional documentary, in 1979, he pestered playwright Arthur Miller for an interview on its subject, the Brooklyn Bridge. Miller had written "A View From the Bridge," so Burns figured he would have wisdom to share about the stately span. But when the fledgling filmmaker traveled to Miller's farm in Connecticut, "I arrived with heart pounding, he's 6-foot-5 and leans in, 'I don't know a god-damned thing about the Brooklyn Bridge!' " Burns recalls. "I just must have looked so mortified."

The playwright did not give him a chance to reload his camera. Burns got to ask a single question and to this day can quote, to the word, how Miller replied: "You see, the city is fundamentally a practical utilitarian invention and . . . suddenly you see this steel poetry sticking there . . . . It makes you feel that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

Just like that, the unknown Ken Burns had: (1) the ending of his film, (2) a story to tell in graduation speeches he would be asked to give when he too became famous, and (3) a mantra for his life: "Maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful."

Burns, whose latest documentary series, "The War," begins Sept. 23 on PBS, has always been drawn to statements that sum things up in the broadest way. Posted on the wall of his office here, behind his own farmhouse, is a pearl from Tyrone Guthrie, the Minneapolis theater impresario: "We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again." Burns is forever quoting historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also, about how our fractured society suffers from "too much pluribus and not enough unum." So it is in "The War" that the opening minutes have former Marine pilot Sam Hynes saying, "I don't think there is such a thing as a good war. There are sometimes necessary wars," thus providing a theme that runs through Burns' seven-parter, all 14 1/2 hours of it.

Burns has a sum-it-up for himself as well. He says right out that he's about "Waking the dead" and that this stems from his mother's death when he was 11. He volunteers in interviews and speeches that there wasn't a day of his childhood when he wasn't aware of her cancer and that it influenced "all that I would become."

He did not see this link until well after he had earned renown for "The Civil War," which captured the nation's imagination in 1990 and gave people a new way of looking at still photographs, which freeze a moment in time but which he animated by zooming in, or scanning over them, the technique now called the "Ken Burns Effect." He says he was telling a friend how for years whenever he got a birthday cake, "I'd blow out the candles and wish that she'd be alive. He said, 'What do you think you do for a living? . . . You make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you think you're really trying to wake?' "

That's not the entire story -- there's the matter of his mom's ashes -- but it's a step toward what Arthur Miller urged in "Death of a Salesman," speaking of a single dead nobody, that "Attention must be paid," and now Burns takes his turn at doing that with the war that killed 60 million.

Pictures tell a story

"Here lie three Americans...," says the Shakespearean voice of the narrator as the screen shows one of the photos of World War II, a Life magazine shot of uniformed bodies on a New Guinea beach. Published in 1943, it marked the first time Americans back home had been allowed to see their dead, though nearly two years had passed since Pearl Harbor.

Burns and a half-dozen others are in a sound studio in Times Square making final tweaks to Episode 3, "A Deadly Calling." The Life photo is used in its introductory moments, following a shot of a bucolic homeland cemetery and newsreel-style footage of an island battle.

Burns, in jeans and a T-shirt, sits with a legal pad on his lap, taking notes next to his co-producer and co-director, Lynn Novick. Second by second, they are scrutinizing the soundtrack to decide when our contemplation of the cemetery should be interrupted by the sounds of lapping waves and rat-a-tat machine gun fire. "We anticipated out of the cemetery a little too much," Burns says, "and it's not about the waves, it's about the guns," so the sound man tones down the surf. But the decibel level rises through the battle footage, culminating in an explosion. Then silence -- it's time for Life's depiction of death.

The beach photo was unsettling enough in a magazine. Here Burns makes you go from one body to another as limbs sink into the wet sand. Are those maggots on that back? The only sound now is the narrator reading Life's explanation that it was time to show "the reality that lies behind the names . . . on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns." Then music -- the soft piano of Dave Brubeck, playing "Where or When," and a baby back home plays with a framed photo of his uniformed daddy.

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