I love Ken Burns. Or, rather, I love his documentary films. I started watching them last summer, and they are just so good. I know the critiques: he is all nostalgia and no politics; he pretends to tell full histories, but he leaves out vital voices; he romanticizes the Confederacy, letting that reunionist Shelby Foote be the expert. The list goes on, but I am not really interested in that particular brand of cynicism when it comes to his films. He actually tells really complex stories, and he tells them slowly, so you have to be patient and listen. I’m on my third viewing of The Civil War, and I have to tell you, the thing is complicated. You’ve got Shelby claiming the Civil War was fought because America failed to do what it does best: compromise. Oh, really? We should “compromise” about slavery? But Foote’s analysis is right next to Barbara Fields’, who argues that the Civil War’s soldiers and armorys are interesting only insofar as they were present when a much greater question needed to be resolved, about humanity, and whether or not we were going to live in a country where some people could literally own other people. Thing is, it’s complex, and our representations of complexity are complex, and I love watching him lay that stuff out for me and his push to seek out other voices and other histories. When I heard he was going to be screening clips of his upcoming project, Prohibition, I was giddily excited. Tonight was the night, so I hopped on my bike and pedaled up to campus to grab a seat. I snapped this picture as he was introducing the film–“history is a table around which we can still have a conversation”–and I was simply trembling with excitement in that weird hero-worship kind of way. Afterward he took our questions, answering with the rhythms and melodies of the master rhetorician he is: “too often we hide behind the ramparts of rationalism, where 1+1 always equals 2. We forget that there is something higher, where 1+1 equals three.” Yes indeed, Ken, yes indeed. I gave him my thanks as I left, my thanks for helping me rediscover my sense of native curiosity, nearly beaten out of me by graduate school, got a high five in return, and got back on my bike, incredibly grateful for education, time, and other people’s projects.
I am so happy it was all that you hoped it would be. Your feelings are coming through loud and clear. j
Ken Burns is so amazing and always look forward to his new projects. Can’t believe he is that young with so much vision.
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