Filmmaker Ken Burns, who visits Seattle Monday to preview his upcoming PBS documentary series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," sits down for a Q&A with reporter Mark Rahner.
A 12-hour documentary about national parks. Sure. Sign me up for that right after the shuffleboard tournament.
Or after I eat my own words like a grizzly chomping a salmon subsequent to watching the stirring and sublime “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” I got award-amassing filmmaker Ken Burns on the phone before his Monday preview of the PBS series at Benaroya Hall.
Q: “America’s Best Idea.” Wasn’t that the TiVo?
A: (Laughs.) No, the best idea Thomas Jefferson had. You could make an argument that once we’d established the United States of America, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better idea than the setting aside of land for the first time in human history for everybody and for all time, and not just for the rich and powerful.
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Q: You say they embody an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: owning together the most magnificent places on the continent. That sounds a lot like socialism, buddy boy.
A: Yeah, and so be it. I think socialism has gotten a pretty bad name lately, and nobody even knows what it means. We basically said in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, that human beings were capable of governing themselves. People hadn’t actually said that before. If that’s socialism, I’m a socialist. What it basically set in motion is an American narrative that is filled with all of the acquisitive and extractive energies, and then some, that a country can have. But at least in a few choice and beautiful spots we have been able to check those energies and set aside land for everybody and for all time.
Q: On the surface, a multipart documentary on national parks doesn’t sound like something that would set Twitter feeds on fire. What drew you to the subject?
A: Well, I’m not sure that I want to set those Twitter folks on fire. I think what we’re looking for is to reach an essential American. You know, Thomas Jefferson didn’t think you could be an American without an authentic relationship to nature. And these parks are the last vestiges of a primitive, primeval America. Look, kids line up at midnight to buy a Harry Potter book that’s going to take them three times as long to read as it will to watch our series, which is not a travelogue, which is not a nature film, and which is not a recommendation or inn to stay at, but the story of about four dozen individuals, most of whom you’ve never heard of, that have tremendously dramatic, moving stories that just happen to be set against the backdrop of some of the most spectacular scenery on earth.
Every single one of the subjects that we focus on in this film, every single one of the people we interviewed to help us get to know those subjects, and all of us who worked on it, had some transformational moment in the park where we woke up and paradoxically felt our atomic insignificance in the face of these great works of nature but yet were made bigger by that feeling. Just as the egomaniac among us is diminished by his egotism, so too when we submit ourselves to our relative insignificance in the scheme of things as we stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon where the Colorado River has patiently exposed Precambrian Vishnu Schist that is nearly half the age of the planet itself, you still feel bigger about it.
Q: Precambrian Vishnu Schist? That sounds like the best rock band name of all time.
Isn’t that great? It’s a grunge band, right? It’s a grunge band! The Precambrian Vishnu Schist. You know what? I never have spent a day in the last five years of working on this film that I haven’t tried to trot that out and impress somebody. Because it just rolls off the tongue like some natural poetry. Precambrian Vishnu Schist.
Q: Suddenly I want a tattoo of it. You show that Teddy Roosevelt was a hero to conservationists, and yet he just loved blowing animals to Kingdom Come. It’s hard for me to reconcile that love of nature with the desire to pump nature full of lead and stuff it.
A: Well, it’s a complicated dynamic, and I think it will be hard for a lot of people to understand. But at the end of the 19th century, when this magnificent Garden of Eden that Thomas Jefferson thought we had inherited was in danger of being filled up, it was also a threat to the hunters who realized that all of a sudden there wouldn’t be any more bison, that this magnificent species of animal that is in some ways the symbol of the United States — had there not been a Yellowstone Park and had there not been laws that Theodore Roosevelt helped put through, that there would be no bison anymore. So what you find is, in the early days the conservation movement, is an interesting combination of people like John Muir who have fallen in love in an ecstatic, spiritual way, and those hunters and gamesmen who are worried that the rampant, thoughtless development of the United States is going deprive them of these special pleasures that they have enjoyed throughout their lives.
Q: OK, but Roosevelt killed a mouse with his bare hands and taxidermied it. That’s pretty “Silence of the Lambs.”
A: Well, yeah, I mean he got dissuaded by his very intelligent political allies not to kill a mountain lion, which had been his desire in the park. It would have been illegal anyway. But he did actually manage with his great boyish enthusiasm, to spot a mouse that he thought was new to science and to jump off a sleigh in the middle of the interior of Yellowstone, grab it with his hands, and then as he had been doing as a young boy, skin it and stuff it as John Burroughs the nature writer said, as good as any professed taxidermist would have done it.
Q: I’ll look the other way on that, but I just think that’s something he might have in common with Vlad the Impaler.
A: (Laughs.) But Vlad the Impaler never made sure that there was a national park or set aside a bird sanctuary, as far as I know, in his Carpathian kingdom.
Q: Well, if you’re going to get nit-picky about it, we’ll just move on to the next question: Since we appear to be approaching another depression, do you envision another CCC?
A: The first stimulus dollars of FDR’s New Deal went to the shovel-ready projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The National Park Service, due to the — I was going to say benign and will strike that — neglect of the past eight years, has lots of shovel-ready things and I think you will see part of the stimulus going to our national parks, which every American will welcome. It not only hands dollars to human beings that might otherwise be unemployed. It not only has work performed that helps every American, it not only brings the dignity of work, but it also helps bind us together. The strange anomaly of the Depression was that the national parks enjoyed a resurgence — not just in federal funding but in attendance. People felt more American, felt connected to each other. And I think that in hard times when we’re not going to be traveling as far afield, it will be possible to meet and enjoy what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. always complained that we didn’t have. He said we had too much pluribus and not enough unum.
Q: You’re going to get me kind of emotional here.
A: Well that’s what I do for a living, damn it. (Laughs.)
Q: You’ve got such a sizable body of work that we don’t have time to go through it all, so I’ll just ask: If Mark Twain and Huey Long were on baseball teams, playing on the Brooklyn Bridge, during the Civil War, what jazz musician would Jack Johnson knock out during the seventh inning stretch?
A: I can only answer this, grasshopper, with the inscrutable one-liner of Mark Twain, who will be funny in a thousand years when no other comic at the present time is funny. He said — and please listen to this carefully because it is, I believe, applying to everyone within the sound of my voice: It’s not that the world is filled with fools, it’s just that lightning isn’t distributed right.
Q: For some reason, you never struck me as an outdoorsy type. So: favorite outdoors activity. I’ll go first. Drive-in movies. Your turn.
A: Taking an 8-mile hike in Glacier National Park.
Q: To my knowledge, you’ve never appeared on the cover of OK! magazine. Has a career in documentaries afforded you the lifestyle of a sultan?
A: You know, I moved to the little village in New Hampshire that I lived in 30 years ago because I assumed that becoming a documentary filmmaker and, good gracious, focusing on American history, had condemned me to a life of anonymity and poverty. I’m very pleased to say that neither have happened. But the second best decision I ever made professionally — the first one being moving to this little village in New Hampshire — was staying there.
Q: You seem like a real thoughtful guy, but do you ever have a Christian Bale tantrum when you’re making one of these films?
A: (Cackles.) There are times when your patience is tried by the archivist who thinks it’s his job to keep his pristine collection out of the hands of people like me who want to share it. When you realize that park service ranger isn’t going to permit you to step over that line to make the shot a little bit better. But we have yet to throw a phone at a clerk or yell or scream at anyone.
Q: There’s a “Ken Burns” effect in movie-editing programs. Do you get a little piece of that?
A: No, I don’t, and consciously and deliberately so. But it is true to the fashion of our technological society, that technological tail is wagging this dog here. This is something that Steve Jobs and his geniuses have dreamed up and, for many years as a working title before they perfected it, they called it the Ken Burns effect. I wasn’t about to do any commercial endorsement, but when they very kindly provide computer equipment for nonprofits near and dear to my heart, I melted and permitted this to go.
But you must know that there’s this moment, it’s an existential moment, when people pour out of an Apple store coming to this Luddite to talk to me in all seriousness about the ways in which they have adapted or improved upon or used the Ken Burns effect, that I have to then effect a sort of inscrutable, sort of cross-eyed look as if I’m Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi and get the hell out of there as fast as possible before they realize what a fraud I am.
Q: It was reported last month that GM was ceasing its funding of your work — but National Parks appears to be funded by them. What’s going on?
A: It’s a funny sort of thing. I don’t even know where that story came from. General Motors has been an enlightened and wonderful and generous corporate funder, providing about 25 percent of our production budgets, the rest coming from PBS and private foundations. And they’ve been doing that since 1987. In 1999 we signed a 10-year deal, which we then knew would be the last thing. And so two or three years ago, I replaced them with other corporate funders, but their deal is just now ending, and it’s nothing to with their current economic woes or the country’s current economic woes whatsoever. We had just run out of deal space, and I had already found replacements. So now with the parks, we’re sort of in that place where we’re trading off.
Q: Is your conclusion, at the end of all that research, something along the lines of “Drill, baby, drill”?
A: (Laughs.) Save, baby, save, I think is the overwhelming thing. There just aren’t enough places. You know, Dayton Duncan, who is the co-producer and writer of the series with me, and I had many years ago made a film on Lewis and Clark and we retraced their steps. And it was so poignant because we brought back exquisite cinematography, but the second we turned off, this semi rumbled through the road we were disguising. We were passed by the ominous black vehicles of the men servicing the nuclear-missile sites that dotted the area that Lewis and Clark had once claimed for the United States. A hydroelectric dam, a power line, a fence, a homesteader’s attempt at pathetic manifest destiny, all interrupted our shots. So when you go to a national park, you actually get pristine, unfettered views, and that’s pretty exciting for a filmmaker, and I would assume for an American.
Q: What’s next for you? Might I suggest something on newspapers? People might want a chronicle of their existence.
A: Well, you know what, we believe in historical triangulation. That is to say, you need the distance of 15 or 20 or 25 years before you have the perspective on a particular subject that can be called historical, so you’re going to have to be dead 15 or 25 years before we’re going to do a story on you. Which may be soon. It may be something that we can put on our horizon, I’m very sorry to say. We will be a sadder and poorer country without something that you pick up in the morning under your doorstep soggy and wet and get the ink all over your hands before you finish with your breakfast.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com