The Best of Ken Burns

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For almost four decades, filmmaker Ken Burns has been making informative and entertaining documentary films that celebrate the different people, events, icons, and art forms that have made the United States of America a unique society in the world.

Burns’ films were a breakthrough for the genre. While history documentaries were seen by most people as dry and boring, Burns made the stories come to life with all the drama and emotion of a film—even if what was on screen was a grainy photograph. Through his signature use of pans, close-ups, emotional music (especially piano), and other filmmaking techniques, Burns brought character and life out of the past and made those old voices live again.

It’s also clear looking at his back catalog that Burns has a lot of respect for his audience. When he’s at his best, Burns simply lets the stories of the past play out with little bias or favor, giving all sides of an issue or event a fair shake. The audience is challenged to form their own opinions about the story, which makes the film so much more engaging and thought-provoking.

I credit Ken Burns with pouring some serious gasoline on the fire that was my passion for American history. I was a kid when I saw my first Ken Burns documentary series on PBS, and it captivated me from the start. The raw human emotion that came forth made me understand that history wasn’t just old photos and dates to memorize, but a collection of real human stories – good, bad, and in between.

Burns also heavily influenced the way I tell stories in my professional career in entertainment, and I always try to find ways of incorporating history into my projects.

Another aspect of Burns’ films that is well known is their length. Many of his works are highly detailed and consist of multiple episodes, running anywhere from four to nineteen hours. These massive lengths are often ridiculed, but I argue that they are entirely necessary to fully understand some of these complicated subjects. One comes out of these films with a new insight to history because of all the details.

My recent review of his latest film, Country Music, prompted me to think of other projects in his body of work that have impacted me and my outlook on history. With states and localities under various degrees of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be a good time to dust off some of these old stories to pass the time. These films are the types of stories we could all use right now.

So here are my ten favorite Ken Burns films, along with where you can stream them at home.

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COUNTRY MUSIC – Humanity in Song

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I have been a big fan of documentarian Ken Burns for most of my life, and I credit some of his seminal works like The Civil War for getting me deeply interested in history. When Burns recounts straight history, without any kind of personal slant or agenda, he’s the best in the genre. His documentaries are long endeavors to be sure, but one feels closer to history after viewing them.

I’m happy to report that Country Music, Burns’ latest multi-hour documentary film, was indeed Burns at his best and was, therefore, one of his best works in recent years – and became one of my favorite films of 2019.

Like the music that it celebrated, Country Music was a simple story told in the most sincere way possible – highlighting the origins, highs, and lows of the industry and its artists and impresarios. There was laughter, tears, and lots of great stories about how this truly American art form has evolved over the course of a century. But the film’s greatest strength was highlighting country music’s greatest asset: its humanity.

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DUNKIRK – God Save the Brits

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World War II is one of my favorite historic eras and film genres. Perhaps it has been idealized too much in the recent past, but I believe it was a time when we saw humanity at its best and worst simultaneously. The worst represented by the German war machine that gave birth to the Holocaust. And the best with the sight of the brave men landing at Normandy under heavy gunfire – on their way to freeing on continent.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk brought to light an event of the Second World War which few Americans know about (it took place in 1940, before Pearl Harbor and America’s involvement) and did so in Nolan’s atypical auteur style. It combined one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite genres – making for exceptional storytelling.

This was not your dad’s World War II movie; it was something different: an arthouse blockbuster in the purest sense of the phrase. But an art-house that wasn’t self-important or self-indulgent. It was easy to understand, which was great considering the subject matter.

Dunkirk was the harrowing story of what was essentially a miracle – almost 400,000 men evacuated from France as enemy forces closed in on all sides. It captured what the British call the “Dunkirk spirit” that the British people developed after the evacuation and maintained for the duration of the war. So many things came together perfectly that I have no doubt in my mind that this was one of the Lord’s divine interventions that have been chronicled throughout history.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

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The Vaughn Fallacy

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I enjoy internet memes. They elicit a momentary chuckle or eye-roll (depending on the subject and/or point-of-view). That’s usually where it ends; I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on silly things like that. But every once in awhile, there comes a meme that is so absurd that I can’t abide it.

The memes in question are connected to the current COVID-19 pandemic. It compares the words and actions, when it comes to COVID-19, of President Donald Trump and other (mostly conservative) politicians to those of Larry Vaughn, the feckless mayor of Amity Island (played by Murray Hamilton) from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece, Jaws.

As you may recall, Mayor Vaughn was adamant about opening the beaches of Amity, which were the economic lifeblood of the community, for the busy summer season – even though there was a very real threat of a great white shark attacking and killing beachgoers. The comparison to Trump et al comes from their supposed callousness and enthusiasm for reopening the economy “prematurely” at the expense of thousands of people succumbing to the virus.

While it may make for a momentary, emotional comparison without a lot of thought, as both a big movie fan and a big fan of common sense, this comparison doesn’t tread water (pun intended).

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The Saul Bass Centennial

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Last Thursday, May 8, would have been graphic designer Saul Bass’ 100th birthday. You may not know his name, but you have no doubt seen his iconic artwork. Bass has always been one of my favorite graphic artists, and it’s really great that he is appreciated for the aesthetic visionary he was.

Bass is best known for his work in film – specifically with directors like Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick. His minimalist design philosophy revolutionized how films were advertised. Using a few colors, lines, and shapes, Bass would boil down the ideas of a film into one striking image, rather than using a more classical style to focus on the movie’s stars, as so many posters did in the mid-20th century.

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Bass also created some of the most impressionistic, avant-garde title sequences for films, again reflecting the ideas and situations presented in the film itself. He used all kinds of interesting animation techniques to pull these off, which I have always been mesmerized by. My favorites among these inventive titles are all Hitchcock films: Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo.

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On top of all that, Saul Bass was also responsible for some amazing corporate logos that we have all grown up with. Some of these simple yet effective icons are still in use by their organizations to this day.

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Last year, the Royal Ocean Film Society, a YouTube channel run by the very talented Andrew Saladino, published an outstanding video essay on Saul Bass’ work with film posters – highlighting the designer’s philosophy and style. Take a look below. And be sure to subscribe to the channel for some more interesting film retrospectives!