Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ken Burns at the MFA

Mrs. RG and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston last night to listen to a talk by filmmaker Ken Burns.

Burns is famous for his terrific documentaries that periodically appear on PBS. His work is largely focused on American history, and has covered such topics as the Civil War; Jazz; Baseball; World War II: and the National Parks.

The talk was great. This is the fourth such lecture that we have attended at the MFA this season, and this one was easily the best. At the end of his prepared remarks the audience erupted into a standing ovation, so our opinion seems to have been shared by most in attendance.

Most of his comments were focused on the documentary that Burns produced in 2009 that focused on our National Parks. Burns noted that unlike most other nations, American has preserved large tracts of wildlife and scenery not just for the enjoyment of the rich or privileged, but for all Americans.

The author Wallace Stegner apparently wrote that our national park system was "America's best idea". Upon reflection, I think that with the exception of the uniquely American idea that "all men are created equal", Stegner might be right.

What made Burns's comments so poignant, I think, was his obvious passion for the stories behind American history. As he said, his films "bring the dead back alive". We learn through Burns's films that people like Abraham Lincoln; Jack Johnson; Babe Ruth; and John Muir were not just historical curiosities but real human beings who lived in eras that were both different and yet the same as the world we inhabit today.

Burns also discussed his own personal story. His mother died when Ken was only 12 years old, and his father apparently suffered greatly in his years as a single parent. Ken said that once he entered high school he never doubted what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, even though he only took one history course in school.

Ken Burns wrote an editorial that appeared in the New York Times earlier this week discussing the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Here's an excerpt from that piece, with the full link below:

And in our dialectically preoccupied media culture, where everything is pigeonholed into categories — red state/blue state, black/white, North/South, young/old, gay/straight — we are confronted again with more nuanced realities and the complicated leadership of that hero of all American heroes, Abraham Lincoln. He was at once an infuriatingly pragmatic politician, tardy on the issue of slavery, and at the same time a transcendent figure — poetic, resonant, appealing to better angels we 21st-century Americans still find painfully hard to invoke.

The acoustic shadows of the Civil War remind us that the more it recedes, the more important it becomes. Its lessons are as fresh today as they were for those young men who were simply trying to survive its daily horrors.