Ken Burns on the Art of Storytelling: “It’s Lying Twenty-Four Times a Second”

If you’ve never watched a documentary by Ken Burns, maybe you just haven’t had the time. Ten hours for The Civil War, eighteen and a half for Baseball, nearly nineteen for Jazz; such blocks can be difficult to carve out, even when you’re carving them out for the master audiovisual storyteller of American history. Burns takes on such iconic subjects, and in so doing attracts so much acclaim — including the inimitable form of recognition that is a spoof on The Simpsons — that he seems like someone whose work you should know well, even if you’ve only glimpsed it or heard it referenced. Luckily, filmmakers Tom Mason and Sarah Klein have put together a documentary of their own, one on Ken Burns, that you can watch no matter how packed your schedule. In a mere five minutes, Ken Burns: On Story conveys just enough of importance about Burns’ personality, working principles, and worldview that it may leave you feeling like you have no choice but to dive into his filmography immediately.

Of course, this all depends on how you feel about storytelling. In explaining his own view on filmmaking, Burns rolls out that old quote from Jean Luc-Godard, “Cinema is truth at twenty-four frames a second.” But he has his own response to the famous proclamation: “Maybe. It’s lying twenty-four times a second, too. All the time. All story is manipulation.” With as much vehemence as Godard has aired his grievances about how the forces of story, plot, and narrative hopelessly and perversely distort artistic truth, Burns declares his acceptance and even admiration of that element of storytelling. To him, crafting a proper story requires manipulation, but he doesn’t consider all manipulative techniques equal. “Is there acceptable manipulation? You bet,” he declares. “People say, ‘Oh boy, I was so moved to tears by your film.’ That’s a good thing? I manipulated that!” And even if you feel you have no stake in matters of story, truth, and manipulation, keep watching; Mason and Klein eventually get Burns talking about something that would fascinate anyone: his desire to “wake the dead.”

(See also the Atlantic‘s interview with Mason and Klein about the making of Ken Burns: On Story.)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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