At age 38, Ken Burns gets a retrospective

July 01, 1992|By Mark Dawidziak | Mark Dawidziak,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Documentary filmmakers are accustomed to living without the renown of their wealthier Hollywood cousins. They know that the puffy paychecks and heady headlines will go to such Tinseltown directors as Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg.

Yet a modest splash of this recognition has trickled into Walpole, N.H., where documentary filmmaker Ken Burns operates his Florentine Films company.

Although Mr. Burns may not be a household name, he certainly has established himself as the country's best-known documentary director. An 11-hour project called "The Civil War" took care of that.

The five nights of "The Civil War" averaged 9 percent of all TV homes. That's paltry by commercial network standards, but it was the highest-rated series in PBS history.

"You work for many more reasons than monetary rewards," Mr. Burns said during a telephone interview. "You're drawn to subjects and you're driven to do them. They demand to be done.

"Documentary films may not get the attention of Hollywood features, but they're immensely more complicated and difficult to make. You can't rely on formula when you're making a documentary, and the money always is difficult to raise."

The success of "The Civil War" also sparked interest in the documentaries Mr. Burns made before his 1990 masterwork. In response, PBS will air two of those films -- "The Statue of Liberty" and "Huey Long" -- in a Wednesday retrospective titled "Ken Burns -- GM Mark of Excellence Presentation Night." The films will run back to back on Maryland Public Broadcasting channels beginning at 8 p.m.

"It's a little bit weird to be 38 and having a retrospective," Mr. Burns said. "I guess a lot of it has to do with 'The Civil War' getting the greater audience curious about what I had done. And the greater audience in terms of PBS isn't too bad. Modest success on public television still means 8 million people might see what you've done. Documentaries still reach people."

"The Statue of Liberty" is a 1985 study nominated for an Academy Award and "Huey Long" is a 1986 biography of Louisiana's populist Kingfish.

Other documentaries by Mr. Burns include "The Brooklyn Bridge," "Thomas Hart Benton," "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" and this year's "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio."

"I never took a formal course in American history," Mr. Burns said. "I loved it, but this fascination with the past started when I was working on an experimental film in college. It was 1974, and I needed voices for first-person diary material.

"And it's never as much about the past as it is about the present -- how we see the present through the events of the past. History is our best teacher, and the rewards for pursuing it are wonderful. The more you chase it, the more you are fed."

Mr. Burns keeps a sign on the door of his Florentine office. It says, "We're looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again."

The project to be afraid of is a documentary series about baseball. PBS will premiere the documentary in 1994.

"We tend to think history must be this respectful, formal approach to presidents and wars," Mr. Burns said, "but history is about anything that has come before us. Baseball is truly the national pastime, and its history is our history.

"It's about racial tensions and civil rights, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective, labor and management, heroics and tragedy. It's all there."

Those interviewed for this baseball history include comedian Billy Crystal, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and writer George Plimpton.

The filmmaker also is at work on a series of five documentaries about such famous Americans as Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain.

If the acclaim for "The Civil War" gave Mr. Burns recognition rarely lavished on a documentary director, it made a folk hero and sex symbol out of 75-year-old novelist-historian Shelby Foote, the series' storyteller and commentator.

"I was happy to perform that service," Mr. Burns said. "I think we should make room for him on Mount Rushmore."

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