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Ken Burns Waxes Lengthily About 'National Parks'

The only thing longer than a Ken Burns docu-series is a Ken Burns answer to a question about a Ken Burns docu-series.

Appearing at Summer TV Press Tour 2009 to talk heftily about "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," Burns joked that at his Florentine Films, they consider "brief question" to be oxymoronic, and bragged he would turn any question into "a nine-part answer."


Ken Burns (Cable Risdon, 2002)

And then he did.

Repeatedly.

One naïve critic he had a "two part question": 1) what impression his childhood visit to Shenandoah Park have on him and 2) what about that visit made him "more interested" in national parks.

Saying "two-part question" to Ken Burns is like throwing raw meat to piranha.

"Well, for me, this is where the nerves are so close to the surface," Burns began, settling in for the long haul.

As a public service, we provide here the Ken Burns Answers the Question Mash-Up -- you are welcome, and let this be a reminder that interviewing anyone related to the TV industry is best left to professionals:

"The first major shoot we did for 'National Parks' in the spring of 2003 was at Yosemite.....I had sort of advertised to my colleagues that I hadn't been to a national park before - a full-fledged natural national park....been to Civil War battle sites, but not that nucleus of national park....The last night...lay awake....realized I had forgotten...moment in 1959 when I was six years old....mother dying of cancer....household an unbelievably demoralized place....father was absent in every sense of that word...no catches in the backyard, no attendance at ball games...one day....after school my father had taken me from our home in Delaware to his home in Baltimore and put me to bed in his old bedroom....woke me up in the middle of the night....took me to front Royal, Virginia and the top of the Skyline Drive that runs down the spine of Shenandoah National Park...Yosemite had...performed a kind of open-heart surgery that permitted me to remember something that had been lost in all of the other stuff.....I can remember the hikes we took...the songs my dad sang... what his hand felt in mine...Yosemite...may be the most beautiful place on earth...it awakened me and was able to permit me to reclaim something...The story moves from the spiritual to the kind of patriotic, conservation, economic, now environmental issues that have compelled our discussion of parks...but all the way along, the line has been this personal thing. It's not so much that you are standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and looking down and seeing the patient Colorado River, exposing rock that's 1.7 billion years old - Precambrian Vishnu Schist that is almost half the age of our planet; it also matters very much who is holding your hand, who you've made that trip with at the edge of that canyon or in the Shenandoah National Park."

Several light years later, critics were just starting to think they might actually recover when one reckless critic asked Burns, "If someone had 12 hours, would you suggest they go to the Grand Canyon or watch your film?"

"This is great - this is a hugely important question!" Burns said. And critics knew they were in for it. They resigned themselves to their fate; some sent text messages to loved ones.

Again, Ken Burns Answers the Question Mash-Up:


"Because the parks, from the very beginning, as we've documented, have benefited from art..... the Rocky Mountain School came in Bierstadt... Ansel Adams' photographs of a later generation...we know there is, in that platonic sense of the shadow of the cave, the power of the removed art that might be the galvanic thing that makes action happen....our lives have a kind of compelling momentum to them that is increasingly harder to distract... I was walking across the lawn of the visitors' center at Gettysburg with the superintendent and he scooped down and picked up a popsicle wrapper and waved it in my face and said 'It's all your fault'...if you need an amanuensis to get you to the decision to make that leap into real experience...we're looking forward to, just as at Gettysburg -- their attendance spiked 200, 300 percent and stayed there for years and years and years....we hope so too that that's the kind of response we'll get here."


By Lisa de Moraes  |  August 2, 2009; 2:23 PM ET
Categories:  Summer TV Press Tour 2009  
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Comments

What would be really interesting would be to see a journalist write a story that would be able to match the richness of Burns's speech--instead of just more fragmentation of anything that is not twitterable.

Posted by: zzhermes11 | August 2, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Lisa; a "light year" is a unit of distance, not time. A light year is no longer timewise than your regular year. You have many correct choices to describe a seemingly interminable length of time, some of them appropriately geological - "eon" or "epoch", for example. I'm sure Ken Burns could have told you this, just not as succinctly as I have done.

Posted by: filmlab | August 2, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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