Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Ken Burns, a noisy vacuum cleaner and the Roosevelts -- Sept. 18, 2014 column

By MARSHA MERCER

When filmmaker Ken Burns’s second daughter, Lily, was a little girl, she was terrified of the vacuum cleaner.

“Whenever it was roaring, she had to be out of the room or asleep or out of the house,” he said. But then one day, when Lily was 1-and-a-half or 2 years old, she “walked into the room where the monster was roaring and walked over and sat down on it.

“And in our family, sitting on the vacuum cleaner is our idea of what you do in life. You move forward, and you face the thing that worries you the most,” Burns said.

The anecdote is lovely and evocative on its own, but Burns, the master story-teller, wove it into a speech to illustrate Eleanor Roosevelt’s steely resolve.

“Eleanor Roosevelt sat on a vacuum cleaner every single day of her life,” Burns told a National Press Club audience Monday. 

In learning to translate her own fears into action, she became “the most consequential first lady in American history,” tackling the problems of women, poverty, children and immigrants that we still struggle with today. Her uncle Theodore and husband Franklin also had to face their fears to become great leaders.

It was classic Ken Burns. Since he burst on the scene in 1982 with a documentary on PBS about the Brooklyn Bridge, which was nominated for an Academy Award, Burns has been surprising, educating and inspiring television viewers to explore what they want for their country and their own lives.

His two dozen-plus documentaries have explored such diverse topics as baseball, painter Thomas Hart Benton, the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, the National Parks and the Central Park Five. 

His latest, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” is a seven-part, 14-hour series that PBS is streaming on its website free through Sept. 28. 

On the media circuit to promote “The Roosevelts,” Burns was an amiable scold about our superficial media culture.

"We have lots of information and almost no understanding,” he said at the press club, where he’s an honorary member.

The Roosevelts were the most prominent and influential family in American politics, Burns believes. We benefit from their legacy in LaGuardia Airport, the Lincoln Tunnel, Skyline Drive, electric lights in the Tennessee Valley, thousands of bridges and miles of roads, the GI bill, minimum wage, work hours and child labor protections, among other things.

The documentary naturally prompted a myriad of laments that we don’t have heroes anymore, but,  Burns insists, that is the fault of our media culture.

“We are expecting in the superficiality of our media culture today…perfection in our leaders, and when we find they aren’t perfect we turn away,” he said.

The Greeks, who gave us the word for hero, did not envision perfection. They saw heroism as a complex negotiation, even a war, between a person’s very obvious strengths and weaknesses, he said.  Today, we see one flaw in a politician and become disillusioned.

Even the Roosevelts couldn’t get elected in our time, Burns maintains. Theodore was too hot for the cool medium of TV and would have flamed out in Iowa with “10 Howard Dean moments a day.” The Vermont governor’s emotional rallying cry to supporters after losing the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2004 became known as “the scream” and doomed his presidential chances.

Franklin’s paralysis from polio would have raised too many questions about his strength to handle the crises of the Depression, Second World War, and Eleanor wasn’t sufficiently photogenic.

Listening to Burns, 61, one can’t help but marvel at his energy and productivity. He currently has five films in development and several others in his head.  

“The Emperor of Maladies,” a three-part, six-hour series about the history of cancer, is scheduled to be released next spring.

A 10-part, 18-hour history of the Vietnam War is coming out in 2017. A two-part biography of Jackie Robinson is in the works. Shooting has just begun on a “massive” history of country music and on a biography of Ernest Hemingway. 

“If we were given a thousand years to live, we would not run out of topics in American history,” Burns said.

What’s most appealing about his work is that Burns shows us how our country has struggled to become what it is and reminds us that we’ve always had vacuum cleaners to confront. 

(c)2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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