Ken Burns, an anthropological portrait of an artist and the edge

[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]

In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.

In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.

But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.

The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.

The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.

Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.

This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.

The Ken Burns Effect

The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.

The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.

The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).

But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).

The voice-over says,

Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.

The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).

That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.

As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.

“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”

The camera moves in, and we think,

“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”

And finally,

“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”

Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)

This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.

This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.

I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.

This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.

All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.

Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.

post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.

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