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Ken Burns turns his lens to the trees

Amid the tranquillity of snowfields and big skies, the filmmaker spends his vacation shooting his 'National Parks' PBS series.

September 07, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONT. — IT'S TOO early for civilians. As dawn's first light falls on the jagged peaks, creeps down the dwindling glaciers and glides across glass-faced Swiftcurrent Lake, most of the tourists in the Many Glacier Hotel are still snoozing.

But down at water's edge, three early risers huddle around a camera. One of the guys, leaning on a tripod and waiting for the clouds to arrange themselves over the jagged peaks, has a Beatles haircut, the build of a shortstop and a face you've seen before somewhere.

Perhaps during pledge week.

"I want more of the color," he says, peering through a viewfinder. "OK, I'm doing it," he says. And the film rolls.

Yes, it's Ken Burns, solemn PBS documentarian of the Civil War, jazz, baseball, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, Congress, the Brooklyn Bridge and more than a few other American characters and institutions. Beside him stand cinematographer Buddy Squires and writer Dayton Duncan. Upstairs in the hotel, Burns' wife and 3-year-old are still sleeping.

So what exactly is Ken Burns doing on his summer vacation?

A six-part, 12-hour series, of course.

"The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is to air in fall 2009 on PBS. This choice of topic may surprise some, given the body counts and civil-rights gravity of other subjects Burns has chosen. His last series, nominated for several Emmy awards, covered World War II. Other projects in the pipeline cover Prohibition, the Dust Bowl and the Vietnam War -- doom, destruction and gangsters on every side.

So why drag his cameras out here to the Canadian border, amid the peace, quiet, scampering children and slowly retreating glaciers?

When you boil it down, Burns says, almost all of his work is about the way American geography connects with the American character. And one of the country's most startling innovations, he says, was the creation of a national park system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"For the first time in human history, land was set aside not for the pleasure of kings and noblemen and the very, very rich, but for everybody, for all time," says Burns, lounging in a chair downstairs at the Many Glacier Hotel.

If that phrasing sounds suspiciously like a Burns script, that's not so surprising. Burns, the son of an anthropologist, has been exploring American institutions on film for more than 30 years, ever since his graduation from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1975.

Those first few years were lean -- he remembers using food stamps in 1977, grossing $1,200 in 1978 while trying to woo backers for his first documentary.

"I looked 12 years old, and I was trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge," he recalls fondly. "I've got two binders of rejections at home."

The explorer

Of course he did sell the project eventually. "Brooklyn Bridge" aired on PBS in 1982, and the work has been steady, if not frenetic, ever since. Burns splits his time between tiny Walpole, N.H., and Manhattan and at 55, still radiates boyish enthusiasm, his conversation quick and thick with literary and historical allusions.

Out on the trail, you don't hear a lot of hikers huffing out such phrases as "the apotheosis of our exploration" and "the portal to immortality," but Burns does. Then again, he's also sound-bite savvy enough to sum up his life's work in three words.

"Race and space," he says. In works on the Civil War, baseball and jazz, he explored race relations in American culture. In works on the West and Lewis and Clark and Mark Twain, he explored how this country's geography and culture have shaped each other.

With the parks project, he says, he wants to explore the movement that set aside Yellowstone and Yosemite and created the national park system. These seem like astonishing, out-of-character moves, he says, "in a culture so dedicated to the almighty dollar, so dedicated to a kind of extractive and acquisitive mentality. It's phenomenal. So how did this happen? Who were these people?"

The project, written and co-produced by Burns' longtime collaborator and New Hampshire neighbor Duncan, will also look at other tensions that have long preoccupied park-watchers -- the constant jostling among recreation proponents, preservationists and commercial interests, for instance, and the big businesses that shaped the system in its early decades, especially the railroad moguls and road-builders.

Here at Glacier, that means taking notice of Louis Hill, whose westward routing of the Great Northern Railroad helped determine the park's territory. And George Bird Grinnell, the naturalist and anthropologist who pushed for the area's designation as a national park in 1910.

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