“Listen!” was the call that repeatedly rang through Parmer Hall on Tuesday evening. There was no need to call attention to the speaker—his reputation alone commanded a presence—rather, attention was called to the voices from the past, brought to life through his films.
A filmmaker with 14 Emmys and two Oscar nominations, Ken Burns was a highly anticipated guest for this year’s High Center season. He presented to an at-capacity audience in a presentation entitled “American Lives.”
“Through storytelling, Mr. Burns brings to life the stories of people who are often overlooked…it is through this storytelling that we are reminded of hopefulness for the future,” said College President Kim Phipps.
Burns highlighted five of his films throughout the presentation: Thomas Jefferson (1997), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), Not for Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999) and Mark Twain (2001), emphasizing the importance of the story of the individual as part of the “DNA of our civilization.”
He spoke of the complicated character of subjects such as Mark Twain, explaining his process of trying to understand the whole person, not just the parts that are idealized in public opinion. To Burns, it is the imperfect nature of the hero which makes him or her interesting.
“In many ways, I have made the same film over and over again, asking the same question, ‘Who are we?’,” said Burns.
Discussion was also centered around the unique challenges of telling these historical stories in engaging ways, something Burns pioneered with what is now known as the “Ken Burns” effect, the technique of panning and moving across still images to bring them to life.
Burns told a story from the production of Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, which presented a particularly difficult situation because of the lack of video and stills available to use. The innovative solution was to place the focal point on the land, not the explorers, and retrace their steps out West.
“We filmed at every time of the day and night and from every vantage point to try to see what they saw on their journey,” said Burns.
The audience had the opportunity to ask specific questions of Burns regarding his work, which presented a great learning opportunity for both Messiah students and the public. Sophomore film major Scott Bowlin asked Burns if there was anything he would change about his filmmaking, to which Burns gave the response of continuing to refine the way he addresses the public’s inattention and finding new ways to draw them in.
The filmmaker also revealed that he has no preference for a specific work he has done— “They are like children…you love them the same. I can remember two things: my daughter’s birthdays and the production dates of each of my films.”
Burns’ final challenge was to encourage the audience to embrace the fullness of the English language to express the stories of American history, however tumultuous and complicated it might be.
According to Burns, “Few things survive that remind us of where all our blessings flow…history holds the answer. We need active and heartfelt engagement with our shared past and the characters we find there.”