September 3, 2017

"Ken Burns sees a connection between his father’s distress and his own productivity."

"He meets deadlines and keeps to budgets. There are only a few examples of failed ideas, and in these cases Burns was not at fault. A biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., was defeated, Burns said, by the King family: 'They wrote me a letter saying, "We think you are the person to do the biography," and I said, "You are right." And I went to visit them in Atlanta, and I realized they weren’t going to let go.' He added, 'This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so desperately tried to control in death.'"

From "Ken Burns’s American Canon/Even in a fractious era, the filmmaker still believes that his documentaries can bring every viewer in," by Ian Parker in The New Yorker.

Burns grew up with "a dying mother and a mentally ill father," as he put it. His mother died of cancer in 1965 when he was 11, and his father was in a mental institution for 4 months in 1958. After the mother died, Ken and his brother Ric "were running the show—we were more parents than my father." And:
When Ric was in tenth grade, and Ken in eleventh, their father took a research trip to Morocco and the French Alps for several months. He left a checkbook; Ken paid the bills. This upbringing created unusual freedoms, Ric said, but was still a “Bergmanesque, dark thing, which Ken is determined to save himself from, and determined, in some sense, to save the world from, too.”

35 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

Comment about Ken Burns' haircut.

I am Laslo.

Beloved Commenter AReasonableMan said...

I am looking forward to seeing this. Not sure why. I have never sat through a Ken Burns documentary before and the one I did try to watch, Jazz, was crap. Still, I am quite keen to see this one.


Dave Begley said...

I suspect Burns and the King family couldn't reach a detail on royalties. Money.

Recall there was some statue or monument of MLK and the family wanted to be paid for carving the words of the speech on the rock.

The family lives off of MLK's IP.

The "I Have A Dream" speech is copyrighted; as it should be. But it is all about a fair and reasonable royalty.

And thank you DMCA and DIS.

Dave Begley said...

Defail = deal

Dave Begley said...

And, of course, as taxpayers we pay for PBS and Ken Burns.

If you think Trump has had a tough go of it, wait until he trys to defund PBS and NPR:

rcocean said...

So, he's selling his new Series "Vietnam". No doubt, it will be good, but I doubt I'll watch, too depressing - and long winded. And what the hell does this quote mean?

"A motorboat, flying a Trump flag, stopped not far offshore. “I don’t think they’re going to fish,” Burns said, and he made a remark about the Texas School Book Depository. He wasn’t sure if the people on the boat were trying to rile political opponents. “I don’t know what they can provoke,” he said. “They have all the guns. We can’t do anything.”

Flying a "trump flag?

rcocean said...

As MLK - good it fell through. Didn't Burns already do Civil Rights? And does the USA really need a 12 hour series telling us what a great guy MLK was?

Jupiter said...

"Flying a "trump flag?"

You know the one. Seven red stripes on a white background, blue field of fifty white stars. Sometimes called "Old Glory". Must have given Burns the cold chills, to see it like that, here in his own country.

rcocean said...

LOL.

Jupiter: I'd like to think you're wrong, but....

Bill Peschel said...

His Civil War and Twain docs were pretty good. He has a unique style that lets the participants tell the story in their own words. It's so unique he's easy to parody.

The King family keeps a tight hold on the IP, and I'm certain he would have had to pass everything by them, so absolutely nothing about his personal faults, even if the FBI did use it against him. Plus anything that they thought would be objectionable, even if it wasn't, or it resulted in showing the incredible pressures he operated under.

There's a book out about biographers' struggles with family members that's best characterized by the title: "First Shoot the Widow."

rehajm said...

When “The Vietnam War” is broadcast...the attack that will get the most attention will come from the Flat Earth Society—people saying, ‘We woulda coulda shoulda won, and what happened is that Walter Cronkite turned against it.’

So that's the best the guy assigned to 'bulletproof' the series from backlash can think of? That's some straw man. My guess is the biggest backlash will be from glossing over the opponents of the war who targeted soldiers, robbed banks, killed cops, especially the names that still surface in today's leftie politics.

Sebastian said...

"I realized they weren’t going to let go.' He added, 'This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so desperately tried to control in death.'"

What Begley said. A bunch of mooching nobodies. That Burns didn't see it, or cannot say it, shows why his canon won't hold. When he makes an honest movie about the King family, or for that matter about the black family, he will have made a contribution. As long as that cannot be done, his "dramas of integration" remain pious liberal wish fulfillment.

Big Mike said...

He is friends with John Kerry and John McCain.

I stopped liking him right there.

people saying, ‘We woulda coulda shoulda won, and what happened is that Walter Cronkite turned against it.’

Cronkite didn't help, but the belated discovery that McNamara knew his strategy of a war of attrition had no hope of winning sort of confirms that the whole thing -- as fought -- was hopeless. That bastard, and Kennedy and Johnson with him, belong in a specially deep pit in Hell for every name on the Wall after November 1965.

I'm still angry about the missions to bomb "suspected truck parks." McNamara and his whiz kids (their nickname before McNamara became Secretary of Defense) wanted things they could quantify and measure, regardless of whether the the quantifiable items actually measured any sort of progress towards victory. Tonnage of bombs dropped was thought be useful metric, but if there's nothing to bomb that's worth bombing then you send expensive airplanes with even harder to replace crews over a country filled with antiaircraft guns and surface to air missiles to bomb empty jungle. Why? To get the bomb tonnage up, of course. And you justify it by calling the empty jungle a "suspected truck park."

There are lots more stories, for instance padding kill ratios, and even asking the grunts to count the dead Victor Charlie bodies. You're going to go out, count the bodies and risk getting shot by a guy that's only wounded? No you're not! You tell the colonel a brisk "yes sir," put the phone on hold, count off three or four minutes, and give him some bullshit figures.

Wars suck, but Viet Nam is hellish even by that standard.

rehajm said...

In Sunapee, Burns apologized for the size of his S.U.V., a Denali...

If would be virtuous of him to apologize for the size of his family.

wildswan said...

After the war was over millions fled the Communist governments of Vietnam and Cambodia or were killed by them. If you can't tell that story and link it to your vision of the war while the Americans were there then you haven't figured out the history. You're just rehashing the arguments made before the war ended (ended for Americans, that is.) And that's what Ken Burns would do.

Paddy O said...

He added, 'This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so they did not want me to control in death.'"

Lem said...

"...they could not control in life"

'Trump is like MLK' tag Althouse will not make because she's tagged out.

William said...

He hit a home run first time out with the Civil War documentary. I've seen some of his documentaries since. They were ok, but at nowhere near the same level......I'm not looking forward to the Vietnam one. I don't think it's possible for a certified leftist to present a balanced view of that war. It took the left one hundred years or more to figure out that Napoleon and Woodrow Wilson weren't such great benefactors of humanity. It will take another fifty years or more for them to arrive at the conclusion that Ho Chi Minh was a worse person than Richard Nixon.....If Burns were producing the Civil War documentary today, he'd leave Shelby Foote's good lines on the cutting room floor.

Saint Croix said...

I liked the Civil War doc a lot.

I bailed on the Baseball doc.

It's a huge frickin' commitment to watch one of these damn things.

I'll have to try the Mark Twain doc.

I've got The Central Park Five in my Netflix queue. That's got a high rating.

wild chicken said...

That whole era (circa 1960) was dark and "Bergmanesque" IMHO. At least it was among the pseudo intelligentsia. Because there was no god, the world was going to blow up, and life wasn't worth living.

That's why the counterculture was fun, at least at first.

Roughcoat said...

I made it through maybe six installments of the Civil War before losing interest. I got bored. I found it tedious and repetitive. Now whenever I hear "Ashokan Farewell" I want to stop my ears with concrete.

Plus, he's all about race.

Beloved Commenter AReasonableMan said...

Roughcoat said...
Plus, he's all about race.


I don't mean to seem critical, but it would be difficult to make a documentary about the Civil War and not have it be 'all about race'.

Sydney said...

I enjoyed Horatio's Drive..

Big Mike said...

Horatio's Drive was Burns? Nicely done by the man. Demonstrating that truth can be stranger than fiction, the car's chain drive train broke just as it was entering the garage after completing the trip.

Michael Fitzgerald said...

rcocean said...
So, he's selling his new Series "Vietnam". No doubt, it will be good, but I doubt I'll watch, too depressing - and long winded. And what the hell does this quote mean?

"A motorboat, flying a Trump flag, stopped not far offshore. “I don’t think they’re going to fish,” Burns said, and he made a remark about the Texas School Book Depository. He wasn’t sure if the people on the boat were trying to rile political opponents. “I don’t know what they can provoke,” he said. “They have all the guns. We can’t do anything.”

Flying a "trump flag?

9/3/17, 7:19 PM

He probably meant an American flag. If it's not on fire, it's a Trump flag.

And that crack about the guns- This must have been before the democrat party member tried to murder a bunch of republicans playing ball, right?

Burns is a jitbag.

dwick said...

AReasonableMan said...
I don't mean to seem critical, but it would be difficult to make a documentary about the Civil War and not have it be 'all about race'.


Burns by his own admission is ultra-sensitive about race and it always plays an outsize role in nearly every documentary he's done even beyond the Civil War. He's been working on a documentary about the history of country music that last I heard is due out sometime in 2019 - and you can bet there will be a tale of how the earliest forms of country music are rooted in the sounds of some small long-forgotten group of poor Appalachian black Americans along with a heapin' helpin' of Charley Pride 'Kissing An Angel Good Morning' and focus with a 1000000X power lens on why there are relatively few African American country music stars. (psssst... and you know why that is)

Of course, when his documentary on soul music comes out sometime in the next decade there will be nary a peep about the corresponding lack of front-line white soul music stars. No racism there, no suh!...

gadfly said...

“They [the King family] wrote me a letter saying, ‘We think you are the person to do the biography,’ and I said, ‘You are right.’ And I went to visit them in Atlanta, and I realized they weren’t going to let go.” He added, “This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so desperately tried to control in death.”

In the final chapter of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of King, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," David J. Garrow quotes the black educator Charles Willie, who was one of King's classmates at Morehouse College. "By idolizing those whom we honor," writes Willie, "we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity--his personal and public struggles--that are similar to yours and mine." If King is to be the patron saint of the New America, he deserves what all legitimate saints have had--a devil's advocate to point out those humanizing flaws that hagiographers either deny or ignore. As Eugene Genovese has noted, "Our immense debt to the man and our respect for his memory do not . . . provide the slightest excuse for a political agenda that credits him with virtues he did not have and successes he did not achieve."

tim maguire said...

The King family is a good case study in how intellectual property laws undermine their own ratioale.

Bay Area Guy said...

"Ken is determined to save himself from, and determined, in some sense, to save the world from, too.”

Saving yourself? Yes, go for it Burns, and good luck too. We each have our own unique demons to battle.

Saving the world? For fuck's sake - No, No, a thousand times No. The people with the audacity and total lack of perspective to even think they can "save the world" often make it worse.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

When Ric was in tenth grade, and Ken in eleventh, their father took a research trip to Morocco and the French Alps for several months. He left a checkbook; Ken paid the bills. This upbringing created unusual freedoms, Ric said, but was still a “Bergmanesque, dark thing, which Ken is determined to save himself from, and determined, in some sense, to save the world from, too.”

I'm not one to deny someone else's story but that seems a bit....overblown.

When my husband was 16 he was left home alone while his mother spent several months at the Betty Ford Clinic and his father worked in Germany. He was also provided with a checkbook, already had his own car and very occasionally had an older out of state sibling call to make sure he was still alive. Nothing 'Bergmanesque' or 'world-saving' about that. Just too many house parties and too much pot :)

rcocean said...

"Burns by his own admission is ultra-sensitive about race and it always plays an outsize role in nearly every documentary he's done even beyond the Civil War."

I always found Burns' love of black folks and obsession with "racism" weird. I'd bet every dollar that he doesn't know many "people of color", outside of work, and grew up - and lives - in an almost all-white world.

rcocean said...

"I don't mean to seem critical, but it would be difficult to make a documentary about the Civil War and not have it be 'all about race'."

Race was part of the Civil war, but not all of it or even most of it. The Union didn't make the war about Slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation - 1.5 years after the war started.

RBE said...

I haven't heard Ken Burns say anything about the Robert E. Lee statue controversy. I heard him talking to the morning joe crew before the election and he sounded a bit unhinged.

Joe said...

I loved the Civil War series, in spite of some big problems with the last episodes. I found his other documentaries between mediocre and unbearable. Upon re-watching the Civil War series two years ago, I realized three important things, in reverse order:

3) Burns wasn't given the free hand he had, for example, with the awful baseball series, which seemed endless. It is remarkable to me what effect [reasonably] constrained budgets and schedules have on quality in the artistic world.

2) David McCullough. His narration gave a gravitas that another narrator wouldn't have given.

1) Shelby Foote. Foote's knowledge and charisma not only anchored the show, but kept it disciplined and grounded.

(The only other series of Burns that I found compelling, though still too long and repetitive, was Prohibition. It's important to note that he had a co-director and the core of the series was Daniel Okrent's book on Prohibition. Right or wrong, it gave a sharp focus to the series that most of Burns other works lack.)

Joe said...

The Union didn't make the war about Slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation - 1.5 years after the war started.

Officially, but if you read the biographies of many Union soldiers and officers, they speak and write contemporaneously quite extensively about the evils of slavery.