Chronically Overrated: The Ken Burns Effect

Laurels are larded on filmmaker but his documentaries are unwatchable and his critics are NEH mansplained

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during the PBS Press tour 'Ken Burns's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History' panel on July 22, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during the PBS Press tour ‘Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History’ panel on July 22, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.

Ken Burns has always rubbed me the wrong way. But after listening to his 2016 Stanford University Commencement speech; a pious, faux Jesus, offering a Sermon on the Mount takedown of that fallen angel who threatens to defile the House of Lincoln, I began to muse: Is Ken channeling a higher power?

“Make Babies…” he exhorted the students at the close of his speech (not well reported); tapping into the Genesis-inspired command to “be fruitful and multiply”

Huh? I thought; perhaps a bit politically incorrect to be giving newly-minted graduates a fertility pep talk, but it does fit in well with Ken Burns’ narrative ,which relies heavily on biblical allusions.

Ken Burns, like the Blues Brothers before him, is on a mission from God.

He’s the “Archangel” in a pantheon that includes a posse of “Better Angels” and If you don’t believe it check out The Better Angels Society, a 501 (c)3 non-profit devoted exclusively to raising money for Ken Burns and his vision for a Better America; after all, according to a quote on the site by the late historian Stephen Burns, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

I’d summarize the Ken Burns effect this way: A strong desire to believe that you should like – even love – his films, even though you’d rather be doing something else.

There’s a group photo of Ken and his Angels on the website; lily-white, mostly male assortment of foundation execs, financial consultants and private equity types. Smack in the middle is a dressed-down (to the max) unimposing Ken Burns sporting his signature mop-top doo (one that’s caused speculation whether the inspiration was Prince Valiant, Moe Howard, Captain Kangaroo, or, now, Boris Johnson).

Burns has an image problem; physically speaking.

He says weighty things – good things that sound good – but despite the whiskers he’s lately taken to sprouting, he still looks like Boy Scout frozen in time; albeit sounding like a version of Leave it To Beaver’s insincere sycophant, Eddie Haskell. If Jon Heder were to do a Napoleon Dynamite sequel, I could see a role for Ken.

“Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” according to Proverbs, so best to keep Ken from appearing too flashy, too immodest; just nurture the public perception that Ken – a wise old soul — has brought forth a documentary genre that uplifts the American soul and encourages viewers to be “curious, not cool” (a further bit of wisdom he offered at the end of his Stanford speech).

I’m not sure how curious these Stanford grads wanted to be; they applauded politely but I wonder whether they’d sacrifice Game of Thrones for a binge-watch of twelve hours of National Parks.

I’d summarize the Ken Burns effect this way: A strong desire to believe that you should like – even love – his films, even though you’d rather be doing something else.

The bio on Ken’s twitter page proclaims his holiness as one of the “most influential documentary makers of all time” – along with Robert Flaherty – and references a Baltimore Sun reviewer: “Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”

Knowing something about the history of the documentary I’ll buy Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) but when it comes to contributing to the art of the genre I’d say Ken plays in the minor leagues compared to contemporary filmmakers like Alex Gibney or Errol Morris and with a nod to the past, pales before the contributions of innovators like the Russian Dziga Vertov, the Scotsman John Grierson and Americans Robert Drew and the brothers Maysles.

Stringing together hours and hours of talking heads, stitched together with a maudlin banjo track and monotonish narration does not make a documentary great. Even in the realm of length-driven documentaries it’s hard to see Ken competing in the same stadium as Frenchman, Marcel Ophuls, still one of the world’s greatest masters of the genre at 88.

Frankly, I’ve done my due diligence and stayed with a Burns episode for a few minutes before getting too squirmy at which point I remote it over to Bravo or HGTV for a more entertaining, less taxing experience (I find Flipping Out’s Jeff Lewis the perfect antidote to an overdose of Ken Burns).

Even the so-called “Ken Burns effect,” known to all who use Apple video software as the gimmick that allows you to zoom in on the High School bully in the class photo or the college girl in the prom snapshot you once had the hots for, seems to have roots in a digitally based Burns mythology.

The Ken Burns effect
The Ken Burns effect

According to legend, it was Steve Jobs himself — impressed by the use of historical stills in The Civil War –who approached Burns with an offer to license his name. But true to his non-profit inclinations the documentarian couldn’t be seen taking filthy lucre for purely mercenary commercial reasons, so the deal was done on the basis of a donation of Apple computer gear to Burns’ non-profit film company.

Not to rain on Ken’s parade but before Ken Burns, we called this “benching stills.” That was pre-digital; a filmmaking world that was all industrial age gears, sprockets, belts and 16mm reversal celluloid. Under the tutelage of Marty Scorsese, circa 1970 NYU Film School, all us students learned to tack up photos on an easel, get a heavy fluid head tripod (for stability) become one with the camera and try to execute these same moves, smoothly, by hand.

I reached out to Mr. Burns for comment but he declined. Meanwhile, his representative endeavored to kill this piece by suggesting that the Observer had commissioned it as revenge for Mr. Burns’ remarks condemning Donald Trump. In fact, my opinion of Burns took shape years before Donald Trump began running for president; I first discussed this piece with his representative on March 27, 2013.

While Ken didn’t invent the Ken Burns effect, he’s more than happy to accept the credit.

As a documentarian with forty five years in, I’ve witnessed the Ken Burns’ effect close-up at work in places like PBS; which clears the decks whenever there’s a new series bearing his name, usual time-constraints be damned. He’s afforded unbridled access to the airwaves in what’s called “common carriage,” where all public TV stations, across different time zones, all broadcast his epics, same day, same time.

So powerful is the Ken Burns effect that when asking for attributable comments from colleagues, all but one demurred. These are folks who normally roll their eyes whenever the Burns name is mentioned but the reaction to going public is something akin to the mob’s “Omerta” admonition: keep your mouth shut or else.

Or else? Go public with a bad-mouth Burns campaign and you might find your next proposal for documentary funding at a place like the National Endowment for the Humanities dead on arrival.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) established by Lyndon Johnson was designed to promote scholarship and research in a form palatable to a citizenry often labeled by critics like HL Mencken as “Boobus Americanus.” As it rolled out its media program in the 1970s, it became the go-to source for documentary funding and by the time Ronald Reagan became president some of the films funded had caused a political hiccup or two. For NEH operatives it became imperative to find a filmmaker they could believe in; one who could weather the political storms no matter who was doing the blowing.

In Ken Burns, they found their man.

According to an NEH spokesperson the institution has given Ken fifteen separate grants totaling more than $9.1 million since 1979. When asked if Ken has ever been turned down for a grant, the spokesperson cited confidentiality as the reason she couldn’t provide an answer.

Nowhere was the NEH’s deification of Ken Burns more in evidence than last May, when he was invited by the institution to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, the NEH’s “highest” honor, given for intellectual achievement (which also carries with it a cool ten grand honorarium).

It was all pomp and circumstance at the Kennedy Center: a military color guard trooped in, backstopped by a huge American flag waving on a rear screen. Current NEH Chairman William Adams provided an introduction so fawning that if Burns’ own inspiration, Honest Abe, were to suddenly appear, he’d think it was his own.

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during the press conference for 'Jackie Robinson', a film by Ken Burns.
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during the press conference for ‘Jackie Robinson’, a film by Ken Burns.

The speechifying was typical Burns; an earnestness that never quite rises to the level of fiery oratory, but it doesn’t have to. With head cocked slightly upward, as if channeling the departed energies of those Better Angels, the effect is to infuse an audience with the notion that just listening to him speak – or watching his films – will make them Better Americans. And just to be sure you know how important a personage he is, he’ll pepper his speeches with references to all those important folks he knows personally (“when I asked poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren…”)

During the Adams introduction a document suddenly appeared on the screen. It was Ken’s first NEH application, circa 1979. It was all very Dead Sea Scrolls like, which I presume was the intended effect.

1979 was also the same year we got our first NEH grant (by “we” I mean myself and Pacific Street Films co-founder, Steven Fischler) The funding was for a documentary, Anarchism in America; an exploration of different anti-authoritarian strands – on the left and on the right – that have intertwined themselves throughout the fabric of this country’s history. We took to the road documenting the last immigrant anarchists – Jewish, Spanish, Italian — who were colleagues of Emma Goldman, but our cameras also traveled to West Virginia to interview libertarian icon, Karl Hess (famously, Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter turned radical) and his startling appearance, together with left anarcho-syndicalist anarchist, Murray Bookchin, at the 1979 Libertarian Party conference; both discussing the ways in which far left and far right ideologies converge (Ed Clark and David Koch, ran on the ticket that year). The 19th century individualist philosophy of newspaper editor Benjamin Tucker (“anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats”) and influential labor reformer, Lysander Spooner, both of whom couched their libertarianism as a return to lost American values, were also important threads that ran through the finished film.

All this perceived radicalism gave a grave case of agita to incoming NEH chairman, Bill Bennett (appointed by Ronald Reagan), who had staff ask us to remove the institution’s name (we refused).

Subsequently, a pilot program for a series on the law, titled The Law and Sexual Freedom — probably, the first to deal with Gay Rights — was put to bed by Bennett’s successor and future SLOTUS, Lynne Cheney. The opening scene, filmed in 1981, probably sealed our fate. An NYPD Sergeant, Charles Cochrane, in uniform, introduces himself to camera as just having exited the closet and “proud to be gay.” Cochrane, who founded the NYPD’s Gay Officers Action League, succumbed to cancer in 2008, but today is considered a hero (he’s had a street named after him).

Ken Burns has staked out Public Television as his turf and PBS offers no resistance. His don’t-rock-the-boat films are great for promoting those insufferable tin-cup rattling pledge drives.

Despite having been academically credentialed with Guggenheim Fellowships (at the time, 1978, the youngest filmmakers to be so honored) we were never again offered any sort of full production funding despite the submission of numerous encyclopedic applications with the requisite equally credentialed academic advisors. (NEH makes you pursue a paper chase second only to Harvard Law School).

Ken Burns has staked out Public Television as his turf and PBS offers no resistance. His don’t-rock-the-boat films are great for promoting those insufferable tin-cup rattling pledge drives. His vision is also in synch with PBS’s corporate friendly image, one that caused a kerfuffle back in 2011 when it offered Goldman Sachs an opportunity to buy 15-30 second “sponsorship message” on strands like Frontline and Masterpiece, causing viewers to complain when “Upstairs, Downstairs” was interrupted with an advertisement for Goldman .

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during the 'Ken Burns's The Address' panel discussion at the PBS portion of the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour at Langham Hotel on January 20, 2014 in Pasadena, California.
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks onstage during a panel discussion at the PBS portion of the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour at Langham Hotel on January 20, 2014 in Pasadena, California.

Ken’s Better Angels have, thus far, avoided any major criticism surrounding their corporate “partners,” which include US Trust (Bank of America’s personal wealth management division). Regulatory challenged/ sub-prime ravaged Bank of America eagerly tied its star to Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts and established a web page singing the praises of Ken and company.

Unfortunately what’s left for us old-time doc-makers still trying to eke out an opinion or two via public television are crumbs and even those are difficult to find. If you can persuade one of the few PBS strands like POV or Independent Lens to agree to take on your left or right of center documentary film then, unlike Ken, you may find it programmed in a time slot catering to serious insomniacs (individual stations, not PBS, make broadcast decisions for these series).

Gordon Quinn – fifty years in the business; founder & artistic director of Kartemquin Films, and brave enough to buck the Burns machine — put it best:

“I think the point is about diversity. By putting so much money into Burns and favoring him on broadcast they are giving less support and attention to the diversity of voices that are part of America and should be supported by NEH and featured on PBS. In an era when the mainstream media is focusing on targeted demographics and political viewpoints PBS should be the alternative.”

Much of the diversity that Quinn alludes to is missing from Ken Burns’ epics.

Google Ken Burns/Documentaries/Problems and a host of shortcomings emerge, including the omission of Latin Jazz from nineteen hours of Jazz. There were serious questions raised by Native American and Latino advocacy groups that Ken had skipped over the role that their veterans played in seven episodes of The War. It got so bad that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus brought up the omission with PBS, which backed Burns, causing Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to remark that “the way PBS has handled this since the issue was raised has left a lot to be desired.”

Another historian, Martin Blatt, who worked at the National Service hosted a roundtable of colleagues to analyze problems with National Parks: American’s Best Idea and among many conclusions were observations that Native Americans might not have shared the sentiment in the title, given they were evicted from their tribal lands to make way for this bestest of ideas. Not much about this in twelve hours of running time.

Such is the Ken Burns effect that even when a historian dares challenge the veracity of Burns’ scholarship they feel it necessary to couch criticisms in an apologetic cloak of lavish praise for his general body of work.

Reviewing the Roosevelts, for instance, historian Harvey Kaye, an expert on FDR, does a bit of “I’m Not Worthy” bowing and scraping before launching into a serious critique.

“Burns and Ward have not produced the history that we so need. They ignore ways in which working people and the labor movement shaped their ‘heroes’ thinking and propelled their action. They note TR’s presidential intervention in the 1902 coal strike, but fail to speak of labor’s role in the Socialist and Progressive parties’ prewar battles against Gilded Age capital (labor unionist and Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs is never named).”

But damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead for Ken’s Angels who continue to supplement NEH’s financial contributions with a full court funding press of their own.

In 2014, per their IRS form 990, Better Angels hoovered in over $12 million and there’s quite a lot on his current plate, including: Country Music (perhaps fiddles/banjos playing a different tune); Hemingway (will Ken run with the bulls next Pamplona?) and, my personal favorite: Defying the Nazi’s: The Sharpes’ War, about a nice white couple dispatched to Europe at the start of the conflict to help save my kinfolk (A disclosure: both my parents were Auschwitz survivors. I was born in post-war Germany). These are all labeled “in production.”

Co-director/executive producer Ken Burns speaks onstage during the 'Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War' panel July 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
Co-director/executive producer Ken Burns speaks onstage during the ‘Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War’ panel July 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.

But there’s lots more Ken wants to do in the future and, according to the website, “funding opportunities are available” so consider investing in: Winston Churchill (hasn’t he been done to death?); The Cold War (hasn’t this been done to death?) and The Mormons (I know that this has been done to death, via a multi-part PBS series several years back).

Is anything off-limits for Ken?

Not really… There’s even a Stand-Up Comedy series in his future.

Joel Sucher is a founder of Pacific Street Films, which has produced I Promise To Remember: The Story Of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and From Swastika To Jim Crow.

Chronically Overrated: The Ken Burns Effect