Passing Through

History in the Making

Ken Burns has a presence in the past.

By Steve Wiecking October 2, 2009

He asked for it Ken Burns near a mural of the Great Seattle FIre of 1889.

KEN BURNS, STILL BOYISH at 53, doesn’t recall being stirred by the past as a youth. “All I remember is I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he says.

Walking through the Museum of History and Industry, Burns stops for a photo in front of a wall-sized mural of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, quipping that the caption for the shot should read simply, “Ken Burns.” The man may be feeling under the weather—he’s fighting a cold and he’s scheduled to lecture tonight at the Paramount Theatre—but his spirits remain unflagging, revealing the ardent curiosity that has captivated a generation of Americans. If much of the country knows anything of substance about baseball, jazz, or the Civil War, it’s likely due to the massive, multipart PBS documentaries on the subjects that made Burns famous.

He was once, however, a young guy who just “wanted to tell stories” and idolized the cutting-edge cinema of Luis Buñuel. But then “all my teachers at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, reminded me that there’s much more drama in what is and what was than in anything the human imagination thinks of. And then all of a sudden histories became it.”

“If you have a relationship to the past, then you have a relationship to the present, and then you actually have a future.”

“It” for him now is a seven-part, 14-hour series on World War II due in the fall of 2007. More than six years in the making, this latest documentary comes at a time when all eyes, from the Left to the Right, will be closely scrutinizing anything summarizing the United States in combat mode. But The War won’t subscribe to “the small ‘P’ politics of the particular moment,” Burns explains. “The success of the story is getting into lots of different perspectives.” The series will focus on a variety of people from four American towns, and stick to one artistic mission: “The United States of America was fairly unanimous in their sense of [WWII]. But more to the point is that people went off into hell and had no idea what they were getting into at 17 and 18 years old. We made it ‘The Good War.’ All I want to do is take off the ‘Good.’ What these people did when they were children was amazingly heroic, and it might be instructive for us as we deal with questions of what’s a just or an unjust war.”

Another work-in-progress about our national parks should bring him into contact with Washington State’s own natural wonders—he cites the beauty of Mount Rainier and the Olympics—but will, again, go beyond what meets the eye. “A little bit more than 150 years ago, people decided for the first time in human history that land ought to be set aside for everybody and not for the privileges of kings and noblemen,” he says. “It’s an amazing idea. When you are in the presence, say, of El Capitan in Yosemite, you are made small but also enlarged by the perception of your smallness. And in that understanding is a release that is a gift. And now every country on earth has national parks. But we thought of it first. So there’s a wonderful American story.”

Such stories, he says with reverence, are all that save us from relative extinction. “We’re all in the business of trying to figure out where we are,” he says. “How do you find out where you are? You measure the distance. If you have a relationship to the past, then you have a relationship to the present, and then you actually have a future. If you don’t have any of those things, you don’t have a future and you live in a kind of blurred, all-consuming moment in which the imperative of a consumer society is the only thing that occupies your consciousness. History gives you tools of survival.”

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