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Ken Burns: Was a backlash inevitable?

His familiar style of documentary filmmaking has bred some contempt on the part of his critics, who can't wait for his new opus, 'The National Parks.'

September 20, 2009|Scott Timberg

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has a story he clearly loves to tell. He was walking in New York City a few years ago -- on a date -- when he heard a man he'd just passed yell violently back at him: "What about Mingus?!" Preceding the name of the protean jazz bassist was a pungent (and unprintable) expletive.

Burns turned to his date and reassured her. "It's just about 'Jazz,' " he said, referring to his 10-part history shown on PBS in 2001, which drew big audiences and critics' complaints that he overlooked key figures.

But Burns had to laugh, privately: Charles Mingus actually had a substantial role in the program: His critic, Burns concludes, must have taken an ill-timed bathroom break.

Burns, 56, laughs good-naturedly about it now, and the phrase "What about [expletive] Mingus?!" has became a kind of mantra to him when he's accused of various narrative or cinematic crimes.

The filmmaker may need to keep this phrase handy in the next few weeks, as his new six-part documentary program -- "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" -- unrolls on PBS stations. While Burns is one of the best known and most watched documentarian of recent times, he has also acquired his share of detractors. Though he's generally respected by critics and scholars, a backlash has been building, dismissing him as middlebrow, charging that he's repeating himself, that he's too earnest, too dark or naively patriotic.

"The National Parks" will open in a far less welcoming environment than the one that greeted his breakout work, "The Civil War," in 1990.

Burns himself is confident, keyed up and personable when he talks about his projects. For "The National Parks," he engagingly quotes John Muir and Thomas Jefferson. His claims are both gracious and overreaching: "We think this film is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape," he says, in blue blazer and hiking boots during an interview this summer at Pasadena's Langham Huntington Hotel.

And it's clear he feels the beauty of, say, Yosemite: "These places are not just as they were 150 years ago, when John Muir walked in, but 15,000 years ago when the ancestors of the Ahwahneechees first laid eyes on them," he says, referring to a Native American tribe.

With his enthusiasm, practiced patter and clear commitment not just to visual images but to ideas themselves, it's easy to imagine him walking into a room of potential underwriters or public broadcasting executives and knocking them dead.

Some of the criticisms Burns attracts are of the "What about Mingus?" variety. But others take aim at his central claim: that his cinematic subjects embody the American spirit, and that our democracy is unique in the world. For example, jazz is presented in his documentary as a mirror for our democracy, with the suggestion that American culture is all about improvisation.

"This sort of unreflected populist Hallmark-ese seems a strange mixture of New Deal and New Age," Tim Page wrote in the Washington Post around the time of "Jazz," "and I don't believe it for a moment."

By now, the combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism have become well-known. Apple even calls a function on its iPhoto program "The Ken Burns Effect."

Of course, no artist reaches Burns' level of success and ubiquity without criticism. But there may be something about the filmmaker, and the size and scope of his projects, that earns him a special kind of antipathy, whether it's little digs on "The Simpsons" or jokes about his distinctive haircut.

Burns founded his company, Florentine Films, in 1976, just a year out of Hampshire College; in the '80s he made films about the Statue of Liberty, painter Thomas Hart Benton and other subjects. But his first stab at world domination came with "The Civil War." That five-part, 11-hour series, narrated by David McCullough, sought to establish that conflict was the key to American character.

Burns says criticism was strong even then.

"I have always been thrilled," he says, "by the extreme left, the Marxist historians, who consider the film to be hagiography about Lincoln, with not enough on the radical Congress. Legitimate. And those on the extreme right who persist in believing that this is about states' rights and not about slavery. They're wrong.

"But when you've got one percent on each fringe, and 40 million people -- the highest ratings PBS had ever had -- and then later with 'Baseball' the same thing, you realize, this is what happens. . . . It was great! It just brought more attention."


The Burns formula

Despite the carping, "The Civil War" is considered Burns' masterpiece, the subsequent films regarded as flawed each in their own way, following too closely the "Civil War" formula.

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