Burns busy with 'Baseball,' biographies

January 08, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- It might seem to some as if Ken Burns -- creator of "The Civil War," the highest-rated series ever on the Public Broadcasting System -- is making more deals than films these days.

Burns, who has been at work on a documentary about baseball since 1990, announced two more deals at a press conference here yesterday.

One has him as executive producer of a 10-hour, seven-part series on the American West, titled "The West." The other is an agreement with General Motors that will keep Burns at PBS until the year 2000 doing biographical films on Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens).

According to Burns, "The West," which is scheduled to air in 1996, is going to be TV's first "multicultural" examination of the frontier.

"It is important to remember that the West was many things to many different people," he said. "It was certainly the West -- of hope and dreams -- for white Europeans. But, it was also the North for many Spanish and Mexican missionaries and settlers. It was the South for Canadian and Russian fur trappers. It was the East for Asian and Hawaiian peoples. And it was, more to the point, home for the hundreds of American native peoples who can not be quickly pigeonholed into that one narrow description 'Indians.'

"There were nomadic tribes, agricultural tribes, fierce warriors, peace-loving peoples. There were as many different kinds of Indian tribes as there were other cultures in Europe and Asia. Our series . . . will attempt to reflect how complicated that dynamic was and is," Burns said.

The filmmaker spoke about how he sees TV as a medium for telling a culture's most important and complicated stories.

"This medium has been accused . . . of being quite superficial, unable to deal with and wrestle with complexities," he said. "But I think 'The Civil War' was the first sort of shot over the bow that rejects that thesis. . . . Rather than shy away from stories that involve complex diversity and multiple points of view, we embrace it . . . in a piece like 'The West.'

"In 'The Civil War,' we were able to do a northern town and southern town, follow the grunts on each side as well as the generals. We were, most importantly, able to bring up the black experience, which had been ignored by Scarlett and Rhett and the 'Birth of a Nation.'

"We believe that we can apply that same sort of concern for the multiplicity of views, the multicultural perspective, without descending into political correctness. . . . And that television is especially suited for that task."

Burns underlined his point about TV's potential for eloquence with a presentation from "Baseball," the documentary scheduled for broadcast on PBS in the fall of 1994. It was the first glimpse critics had of the 12-hour documentary, which Burns said is only about half finished.

Though the segments screened were rough, they were as evocative and moving as some of the finished work in "The Civil War." "Baseball" looks like it will be worth the wait -- though even Burns acknowledged that his method of filmmaking is "excruciatingly and painstakingly" slow.

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