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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.