Burns' celebrity touches 'em all, for better, worse IT'S ALL IN THE GAME

September 16, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

WALPOLE, N.H. — Walpole, N.H.--If this were a Ken Burns film rather than real life, music would be tickling in the background. A light noodling ,, on a piano, a tune falling somewhere in that narrow yet evocative band between winsome and wistful.

The rolling New England countryside would be sepia-toned rather than the lush green of summer's end, with perhaps a crease or two in the corner authenticating once-forgotten, attic-emerged oldness. And then the talking head of Shelby Foote would appear over the horizon.

But, no, Ken Burns has yet to turn his cameras and his trademark style of the sentimentalized documentary -- call it "sentimentary" -- on his home of 15 years. Rather, he's churned out "The Civil War," the luminous 1990 series that became PBS's most popular show ever, and now "Baseball," an 18 1/2 -hour historical epic that begins its nine-day run Sunday night.

Planned to coincide with the most exciting part of the season, the pennant races that lead to October's World Series, "Baseball" instead will play as literally the only game in town. Now that the team owners have cancelled the rest of the strike-interrupted year, there will be no World Series, only "Baseball," the mega-series.

While that can only boost viewership, the pall cast over this and future seasons adds a sense of poignancy to the already emotion-laden documentary, which traces the history of the treasured American pastime from the 1840s to the present. Running as it will in the vaccuum of real baseball makes the film seem even more about something in the past, history to be revisited, rather than part of everyday life.

"It will probably do better ratings, but I didn't want the game to be gone," says Mr. Burns, a Red Sox devotee and the son of a native Baltimorean and Orioles fan. "I love my game of baseball."

Even without the strike, the near universal adulation of "The Civil War" created a natural audience for whatever Ken Burns turned out next. He's become a celebrity since "Civil War" (he's been one of People's most beautiful people, not the usual milieu of serious documentary makers), and some of that has spilled over on this mostly hidden hamlet on the Vermont border.

"Every once in a while, a car will drive slowly by the house," says a bemused Susanna Steisel, a longtime friend of Mr. Burns and an associate producer of the baseball series. "One fellow drove from California, knocked on the door and said, 'I want to work on "Baseball" with Ken Burns. I'll work for nothing.' " (He started as an intern and later joined the staff.)

Such is the cult of Ken Burns that seemingly everyone from no-name fans to stars like Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Jason Robards wanted to work with him. Or somehow get a piece of him: This month's Life magazine tells how Mr. Burns made a recent appearance in the state with local heroes including Mike Flanagan, the former Orioles great -- and it was the filmmaker who got mobbed by the fans.

"That and 50 cents will buy you a cup of coffee," is Mr. Burns' somewhat disingenuous take on his stardom. The sentiment loses some validity after it's repeated to interviewer after interviewer. Mr. Burns' celebrity is certainly buying "Baseball" a lot of free publicity.

Whole new ballgame

But, there is a downside: As is the natural cycle of media worship, the once-adoring press is starting to turn on him. After ,, watching the PBS teaser last month, "The Making of Baseball," ** Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post decried what he called "an act of institutional self-abnegation wherein PBS flung itself in adoration at the feet of Burns, who on the evidence supplied in these 30 minutes scarcely needs additional ego reinforcement."

Newsweek weighed in with this shot: "The problem is that Burns, never one to underrate the breadth of his acuity, has succumbed to a case of Heavy Meaningitis."

Yet most reviewers can't deny the power of his style when he's at full throttle. The Newsweek review continues, "Burns's strongest suit remains his imagery. The documentary trick of bringing still photos to life by panning and zooming within their frames is getting awfully tired, but rarely in this filmmaker's viewfinder. . . . You don't just look at Burns's photos. You listen to them."

It is the slow, ponderous pace and the sheer length of "Baseball" that has drawn the most critical huffing. It seems to represent the sense of bloat that has surrounded Mr. Burns since the success of "The Civil War" turned him into the proverbial 800-pound gorilla.

"My style is to open things up," Mr. Burns says in a recent telephone interview, relating how "Baseball" expanded from the concept of nine one-hour episodes into its 18 1/2 -hour length. "It covers 200 years of American history. I could have done 18 hours alone on the Baltimore Orioles or the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Any idiotic theory is going to get more than 18 hours of coverage today. Think of how much time people spend watching 'Wheel of Fortune.' "

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