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K. Douglass

English 1A Honors

Critical commentary excerpts from Gary Edgarton. “Ken Burns’s America: Style, Authorship, and Cultural Memory.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 21.2 (Summer 1993) 50-63.

These excerpts address Burns’s film style and methodology and may be useful for you to consider the film clips as artistic creations or an artistic argument rather than simply “the news” or “the truth” which is often how we think of documentaries. Remember that even though documentaries are based on real events, the telling of those events is still someone’s creation, someone’s argument with a thesis or agenda that underlies it.

“On March 31, 1990, Ken Burns returned to Hampshire [College where he went to school] to deliver a speech at a ceremony honoring [his mentor] Jerome Liebling’s retirement from the college. That evening he recounted how ‘Jerry . . . taught us to respect the power of the single image to communicate, whether in film or photography,” and “demanded that we adopt these principles . . . of . . . respect and concern for the subject, strong composition and formal appreciation, and dynamism within the image . . . the honorable practices of still photography.’”

“The curricular linkage of film and photography also led to one of his most unique and identifiable stylistic trademarks: Burns treats old photographs as if they were moving pictures, panning and zooming within the frame, shifting back and forth between long shots, medium shots, and close-ups while correspondingly handling live shots as if they were photographs. Whether his subject happens to be the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty, or a Civil War battlefield, his own live footage is characteristically formal and painterly, almost in an academic sense. This emphasis on static composition is particularly effective in evoking the mood and pre-filmic visual vocabulary of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thus corresponding to the historical eras and topics that he invariably chooses to explore.”

“Beginning with The Brooklyn Bridge and continuing through Empire of the Air, Burns has intricately blended narration with what he calls his ‘chorus of voices,’ meaning readings from personal papers, diaries, and letters; interpretive commentaries from on-screen experts, usually historians; his ‘rephotographing’ technique that closely examines old photographs, paintings, drawings, and other artifacts with his movie camera, all back up with a musical track that features period compositions and folk music. The effect of this collage of techniques is to create the illusion that the viewer is being transported back in time, literally finding an emotional connection with the people and events of America’s past. As Ken Burns describes:

I think I’m primarily a filmmaker. That’s my job. I’m an amateur historian at best, but more than anything if you wanted to find a hybridization of those two professions, then I find myself an emotional archaeologist. That is to say, there is something in the process of filmmaking that I do in the excavation of these events in the past that provoke a kind of emotion and a sympathy that remind us, for example, of why we agree against all odds as a people to cohere. You know as you look at the world unraveling, it’s interesting that we Americans who are not united by religion, or patriarchy, or even common language, or even a geography that’s relatively similar, we have agreed because we hold a few pieces of paper and a few sacred words together, we have agreed to cohere, and for more than 200 years it’s worked and that special alchemy is something I’m interested in. It doesn’t work in a Pollyannaish way. Boss Tweed has his hands in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. We corrupt as much as we construct, but nevertheless I

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