What makes a great story? For legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, the answer is both complicated and personal. In this short documentary about the craft of storytelling, he explains his lifelong mission to wake the dead. Recently featured on The Atlantic. (theatlantic.com/video/archive/2012/05/ken-burns-on-story/257165/)
Directed by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein
Music by Ryan Sayward Whittier
Animation by Elliot Cowan
Check out the sequel to this piece, George Saunders: On Story: vimeo.com/143732791
Transcript for Closed Captioning
Ken Burns On Story Transcription
You know the common story is one plus one equals two, we get it. But all stories are really, the real genuine stories, are about one and one equaling three. That’s what I’m interested in.
We live in a rational world where absolutely we’re certain that one and one equals two, and it does. But the things that matter most to us, some people call it love, some people call it God, some people call it reason, is that other thing where the whole is greater than the some of its parts, and that’s the three.
Oh great story, they are everywhere. There are millions of them! Abraham Lincoln wins the Civil War and then he decides he’s got enough time to go to the theater. That’s a good story. When Thomas Jefferson said we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, he owned a hundred human beings and never saw the hypocrisy, never saw the contradiction, and more important, never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of them. That’s a good story. You know the stories that I like to tell are always interesting because the good guys have really serious flaws and the villains are very compelling. My interest is always in complicating things.
Jean Luc Goddard said cinema is truth 24 times a second. Maybe. It’s lying 24 times a second too, all the time, all story is manipulation. Is there acceptable manipulation? You bet. People say oh boy, I was so moved to tears in your film. That’s a good thing? That was, I manipulated that. That’s part of storytelling. I didn’t do it dis-genuinely, I did it sincerely, I am moved by that too, that’s manipulation. Truth is we hope a byproduct of the best of our stories and yet there are many, many different kinds of truths and an emotional truth is something that you have to build.
I made a film on baseball once and it seemed to me that there was a dilemma for the racist of what to do about Jackie Robinson. If you were a Brooklyn Dodger fan and you were a racist, what do you do when he arrives? You can quit baseball all together, you can change teams, or you can change. And I think that the kind of narrative that I subscribe trusts in the possibility that people could change. I hope it’s a positive version of manipulation, but I do think that we do coalesce around stories that seem transcendent.
I don’t know why I tell stories about history I mean there’s kind of classic dime-store Ken Burns wolf-at-the door things, my mother had cancer all of my life, she died when I was 11, there wasn’t a moment from when I was aware, two-and-a-half, three, that there was something dreadfully wrong in my life. It might be that what I’m engaged in, in a historical pursuit is a thin layer perhaps thickly disguised waking of the dead, that I try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive and it maybe very obvious and very close to home who I’m actually trying to wake up. We have to keep the wolf from the door, you know, we tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case and we’re going to live forever, and being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be, story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.