Ken Burns brings American history to life
Updated 10:24 am, Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Yet it was his eloquent and vivid insights about the lessons of history that held them in rapt attention.
Dressed in a jacket and open-neck dress shirt, and with his trademark shag haircut, Burns, 59, was the centerpiece of a month-long series of activities hosted by New Milford Library to celebrate the town's anniversary.
The series is called "Our New Milford, an American Town."
Each film, Burns said, looks at "who are these strange and complicated people who call themselves American."
"Baseball" represents the story of America, the mirror of the country, he said, which he wanted to use to share heroic and unusual voices.
He wanted to tell the stories that were part of the United States' memory, he said, and that included racism in baseball until Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues in the late 1940s.
"There was this glorious moment on the diamond of our national pastime, for the proud grandson of a slave, who had turned his cheek for two years from slights and insults," Burns said. "It was when baseball became the national pastime that it had always claimed to be."
Racism is not gone yet, he said, looking out at the audience.
Abraham Lincoln, the central figure in "The Civil War," served as a recurring, powerful influence in his talk.
"He never lost sight of what was worth fighting for," Burns said about Lincoln.
Burns said he was told after "The Civil War" aired in 1990 there seemed for a short time to be less excitement by citizens to go into war, perhaps because they had seen the cost of war in the film.
Early believes in 2,000 years what the United States will be remembered for is the Constitution, baseball and jazz, Burns said. "What each shows is that the genius of America is improvisation."
The Constitution was an improvisation on how to adjudicate the thorniest problems of society, while jazz' creativity showed the redemptive future of possibility against the background of racism, Burns said.
"I want to do exactly what he is doing. I've never seen him speak before, but I've seen all his films," she said.
The talk was her birthday present and she came with her boyfriend, Evan Roxburgh, 25, of Stamford.
She asked one of a dozen questions posed to Burns, asking him for advice about pursuing her dream.
Burns said he had no formula, but she should know it is a tough road to follow and she would have to be persistent and know herself.
One questioner asked Burns how big an influence greed had on history.
Burns said his film "Prohibition" showed it is a key.
"Human nature remains the same," he said. "Greed is gigantic, just as generosity is. Greed is a high propellent. It's part of human nature that never changes, just as there will always be war and tragedies and also beautiful things."
One person asked him to do a film demonstrating how he finds the truth and context for his films.
"I think the films are the greatest ambassador" of that, Burns said, and said that was a good time for him to end his presentation. "I'd rather let the films do the talking."
For that he received his second standing ovation.
For more photos, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.