Feb 22

‘A Broadside from Battleship Burns’

Monday, February 22, 2016 12:01 AM

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On occasion what we do at the U.S. Naval Institute, in this case, Naval History magazine, has caught the attention of the mainstream press. One such instance was in 1999, after we conducted an interview with award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns at his Florentine Films headquarters in Walpole, New Hampshire. Back in the Institute’s Beach Hall, Public Relations Director Kevin Clarke asked whether Burns had said anything controversial during the course of our conversation. Well, apparently he had, because we heard from Ann Gerhart, writer at the time for the Washington Post’s popular “Reliable Source” column. Her story went like this:

Salvos across the bow! Ken Burns’s sanctimony is such that even a few toss-off lines in Naval History magazine have other documentary filmmakers firing back. In the January-February issue, the man with the bowl haircut laments the short attention span of American TV viewers, saying, “The quality of the work on The History Channel and A&E is diminished. They’re more superficial. They’re hardly more than journalistic considerations.” Well! Retorts Lou Reda, whose company produces A&E and History Channel documentaries, in the magazine’s next issue: Burns’s “great contribution to our art [is the discovery that] if you shoot beautiful rivers and clouds at sunset through enough gauzy filters, and pour in enough teary music, and have James Earl Jones rumble it out over six minutes, and attribute the quote to Abraham Lincoln, the critics will be so busy fumbling for their handkerchiefs and word processors that they will forget that nothing happened. But it is certainly a lot prettier than Sominex.” And as for the attention span problem, documentarian Joel Marks suggests: “If he is serious about this, why didn’t he produce his Civil War series in real time?”

We guessed Ken Burns wasn’t very popular to begin with among the Style section writers at the Post. But sanctimonious or not, his work speaks for itself. Among Burns’ 27 films (currently with four in production) are the acclaimed miniseries The Civil War, Baseball, The West, Jazz, The National Parks, and Mark Twain. Following are excerpts of the interview as it appeared in the February 1999 issue of Naval History, for the most part, in context.

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Naval History: Most Naval History readers will know you for The Civil War. Many also will say that the series neglected the naval aspects of the war. Why were naval operations given such short shrift?

Burns: I agree that they were given short shrift, but certainly not through any intention on our part. A filmmaker is much like a sculptor who has a huge block of stone delivered to the studio and then works for many months, and in our case, many years, carving away. You make decisions in one day, and there’s no way to change most of them.

So essentially, as we moved and listened to our own hearts, what came out necessarily made many things fall by the wayside. I would have liked to do more on women in the Civil War. I would have liked to do more on Congress—the Radical Republican Congress that was so politically important. I would have liked to do more on the social ramifications, more on emancipation. And I would have loved to cover dozens of other battles and, with great attention, naval affairs.

It was not a question of lack of interest. As this thing began to evolve and speak to us, it began to shape itself. We could do only just so much. It’s not comprehensive; it was only 11-1/2 hours. You can’t even get through one volume of Bruce Catton’s great Civil War histories in that time.

Another reason that naval operations have been given short shrift is that the ghosts don’t come up to you in the same way they do, say, on Little Round Top, or in the cornfield at Antietam, or at the Bloody Angle, or in other places that have etched themselves in our minds. Yet the naval operations are no less important.

One can imagine the drama of the Battle of New Orleans, or Mobile Bay with Farragut, or even some of the smaller gunboat battles on the Mississippi and other big rivers. And of course, there was the Blockade and all that it did, or didn’t do, to contribute to the successful prosecution of the war for both sides.

Naval History: To many people, the word “documentary” equates with “dull.” How do you overcome that?

Burns: Yes. Say “documentary” to people, and their eyes glaze over. It’s like cauliflower or brussels sprouts. It’s something that they know is good for them, but hardly good-tasting. I would suggest that the Hollywood model, the dramatic film model, is the one that’s narrow and formulaic, that plays within very strict sets of rules. Documentary film has, particularly over the last 15 years, come to mean a whole variety of things, ranging from dramatic docudramas, to cinema verite, in which there’s no narrator, and nothing but the actual moment is happening. I think that what we’re used to as an audience is documentaries as expressions of already arrived-upon ends. They are very neat, tied packages. And they are, of course, boring.

We approach our films as a process of discovery. We want to find out about our subject, and we place all the enthusiasm and the expectation of discovery into our process. I think that’s what we share along with the facts of our film, and that’s why the films have been so popular. They are the antithesis of this vaccination that comes in the form of a documentary.

Naval History: What do you think of cable television and the advent of The History Channel, and The Military Channel, and Discovery, and Arts and Entertainment?

Burns: I’m disappointed. The only thing that we have in our modern life that’s really our own is our attention. I would wager that the things and relationships you are proudest of are those that occur in duration, those that have benefited—the people, the things, the work you’ve done—by your focused attention.

And yet, for more than three generations of television, we have convinced people that they don’t need to have an attention span longer than eight to ten minutes, at which point we’ll sell you six to eight things, then go back to telling the story. So it’s no wonder that we have a lack of attention. On public television, my film can go out and not be interrupted for an hour and a half or two hours, if that’s what it takes to tell the story.

The quality of the work on The History Channel and A&E is diminished. They’re more superficial. They’re hardly more than journalistic considerations, because they don’t have the time, and they don’t have the resources, because there are so many of them. How can you develop complexity, if every eight to ten minutes you’re interrupted to sell six to eight different things? It may seem obvious, but it’s not trivial in any way. It is the single most important reason for the dumbing-down of the country: our refusal to develop our own attention.

And that’s why I’ve tried to stay, though often to my financial detriment, in a place that rewards me so much better with the freedom and the control necessary to develop attention.

Naval History
: What would you suggest that we do to get people more interested in naval history?

Burns: Since The Civil War and Baseball, I’m confronted constantly with people telling me what I should do next. I’m basically a freelancer at heart, so I have what I’m going to do set for the next several years. But it’s very interesting what people talk about.

The main suggestion is do something on railroads. The next main suggestion is immigration. And the third thing is do something about naval history, to do something about ships.

What I need to do is to find a story, not a series of disconnected events but a complicated story with all of the stuff of drama. Then we’ll have people beating a path to our door. Certainly, the success of Titanic reinvigorates any consideration of the drama at sea. Titanic is a drama in which everyone knows what’s going to happen, and they are even more riveted because they know. That’s the essence of good history-telling.

I think one of the undertold stories in American history is our growth to a major sea power. It is central to our position as a world power. And I think if you polled most citizens, they would have no idea that our present world standing came essentially from our bursting out as a navy, able at first to rival Britain and then others.

Naval History
: If ever you have a notion to do a naval history project, we hope you call the Naval Institute.

Burns: You would be the first people we talk to. One great thing about these projects is that we get to associate with historical agencies and groups that have the subjects closest to their hearts. They’ve spent their whole lives in it, and we come in for a few years and try to represent their enthusiasm as faithfully as we can.

The subjects choose me. So there will come a time, to be sure, when I’ll be knocking on your door and begging you to lend me your beautiful photographs—and your expertise and kindness.