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Ken Burns' America Collection
Ken Burns first rose to prominence in 1990 with his phenomenal 11-hour documentary series The Civil War. This series was able to breath new life into the documentary, and similarly styled shows were soon turning up on cable stations. But The Civil War wasn't the first documentary that Ken Burns made. He honed his skills on a series of shorter works that have now been complied in the Ken Burns America Collection. While these are earlier works, they show the care and quality that Burns brought to his longer series.
Like The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, these earlier works tell their story through contemporary sources. Burns and his associates sift through thousands of documents and photos in archives across the nation to come up with the images and words for his films. He eschews using an "all seeing" narrator and instead has people who were there and historians relate the story as they see it. He often uses professional actors to read letters and journals written by the people who experience the events his films cover.
While Burns' reliance on primary sources and lack of a single narrator were novel approaches to the field of documentary film making, his major accomplishment is the content of his programs. Through his work, Ken Burns shows that history isn't just boring dates and dry facts; it can be engrossing and dramatic. It is about people, and the stories of their lives.
The seven films in this set; Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers, Huey Long, The Statue Of Liberty, Thomas Hart Benton, The Congress, and Empire of the Air, all have a common theme running through them. These shows are about America and the forces that have shaped our country and its people. They are about what makes Americans who they are. These programs look at how America's great experiment is Democracy, where it has failed, and how it has succeeded. They examine how Americans worship, work and relax. Taken together, these are an interesting and indispensable comment on American life.
The Brooklyn Bridge:
Ken Burns' first production looks at the world-famous Brooklyn Bridge. It was the largest bridge in the world at the time it was constructed, and also the tallest structure in North America. It is astounding to think about it today, but this engineering feat was built in the horse and buggy days, and the work was all done by hand.
The show is broken into two parts. The first describes how John Roebling, an immigrant and engineer, designed the great bridge and managed to get the project started. After John died in an accident his son, Washington Roebling, became the chief engineer and oversaw the rest of the creation of the bridge. Washington suffering a sever case of the bends working in the caissons. This illness left him an invalid for the rest of his life, unable to leave his home, but he still managed to oversee the last eleven years of the construction from his bedroom window. The program goes into great detail on how the foundations for the towers were laid, and covers the rest of the construction process. I found several parts of the construction amazing, but none more than the fact that the workers never reached bedrock when digging the foundation of the New York tower. To this day the tower rests on sand.
Part two of the film deals with the impact of the bridge, from the time it was completed until today. This second section isn't as interesting and engrossing as the first, and it tends to drag a bit. You can tell that Burns is still cutting his teeth, and hasn't quite figured out how to present the information that he wants to disseminate in a form that is equally entertaining throughout. But taken as a whole, this show is still very good. Who would have thought that an hour long program about something as mundane and ordinary as a bridge would be captivating.
In 1840 there were 6000 Shakers in 19 villages across the northeastern US. At the time this documentary was made, there were only a handful of these devout religious believers still living in a couple of villages.
This film examines the whole history of this unique religious experiment, from its origins before the Revolutionary War to interviews with living Shakers. Most famous for the furniture style that bares its name, the sect believed that by doing everything to perfection members would become closer to God. Though they were celibate and lived in communal villages, the Shakers did not forgo technology. They were invertors who are credited with several innovation including the circular saw. They wove and wore silk, distilled whiskey for sale, and marketed many of their products.
But there were some inherent problems with the society which led to the decline of the Shaker movement. The biggest one was the fact that they didn't marry or bear children, so there were no new members to replace those that died. With the coming of the industrial revolution the Shakers couldn't compete economically, and there were more opportunities for workers in the city which lead to members leaving and fewer recruits.
Burns did a good job with this show. His style has evolved and became more refined with this production, intercutting historians talking about the legacy of the Shakers with the story of their ascendancy, instead of leaving that aspect until the end of the film as he did with The Brooklyn Bridge. This is a great historical document too. It is very interesting to hear actual Shakers talk about their culture and the fact that they still have faith that their order will continue and thrive.
For his third documentary Ken Burns turned his camera's onto Huey Long, the controversial governor of Louisiana and senator who was assassinated at the height of his power. He was a populist who fought for the disenfranchised and powerless, and in the process became the most powerful person in the state.
When Huey Long rose to power, Louisiana had less than 300 miles of paved roads in the whole state. They had only three large bridges, and the state was populated with poor farmers who could barely scrape out an existence. After Huey's meteoric rise to governor, he took steps to pave the state's roads and ford its rivers. He provided free textbooks for all of the state's schools so that even the poorest children could get an education, and fought the big oil companies that were filling their coffers with the state's oil.
But along with the good he was also constantly tainted by scandal. He amassed a fortune by appointing himself as council when he sued big business. He deducted 10% from every state employee's paycheck and used the money for campaigning. When two reporters threatened to print a story about Long's philandering days before an election, he had them kidnaped until the danger passed.
While he was still governor, Long ran and won a seat in the US senate. At the height of the depression, his fiery speeches against big business and message of redistribution of wealth started to reverberate with the American people. But the more power Huey had, the more he wanted. Back in Louisiana, though he was no longer governor, he ran the state with an iron fist and became the closest thing to a dictator that the United States has ever seen.
Burns' documentary does an excellent job in this production showing the various facets of this controversial character. Told using people who knew him, Long is described both as Louisiana's savior and a demon. The only shortcoming the program has is that it is hard to get to know Huey Long the man, a figure filled with contradictions. He probably wasn't as good as his supporters say, nor as bad as his detractors claim, but Burns found few people who would take that middle ground. Even with this flaw, it is an engrossing documentary that covers a very interesting chapter in American politics.
The Statue of Liberty:
This program examines the Statue of Liberty as an excuse to start a discussion on the nature of liberty and what it means to Americans. The statue, a present from the people of France to the people of the United States, was started in 1875 and built and erected outside of France. The entire structure was then disassembled, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and then reassembled. The problems with the construction and erection in New York Harbor are detailed, but the show also talks about what the statue means to people.
Many immigrants are interviewed, and one of the most powerful moments is when Mario Cuomo imagines the entry interview that his mother must have went through when coming to the US. The interviewer asks her if she has any money, education or a job. She didn't, but says that her husband has a job as a ditch digger in New York. The official looks at her and asks, with no money, talents, friends and only the income of a ditch digger, what she expects to get from America. She says not a lot, but would like to see one of her sons to become the Governor of New York before she dies. (Which, for those reading in other countries and might not know, Mario Cuomo served as the Governor of New York for 12 years, the longest tenure in modern history.)
A good documentary, although it does get a little preachy at the end, this film doesn't only look at America's good side. It does touch on the inequality that our country suffers from and mentions slavery. But this aspect of the show doesn't drag it down, rather it keeps the show from being a one-dimensional excuse to wave the flag.
Thomas Hart Benton:
Thomas Benton was an artist who tried, with a great deal of success, to bring art to the common man. To accomplish that end, he painted workers and everyday people; saloon scenes, farmers in the field, and factory scenes.
Named after his uncle who wounded Andrew Jackson in a duel, this program traces Benton's life through his work and interviews with friends, students and art critics. Benton led an interesting life and was often a source of controversy. He thumbed his nose at conventional art circles and critics, finding them too pompous and stuffy. This assured that they would dislike his paintings, but it also got him a lot of free publicity.
Burns' film gives both his fans and critics time to air their views as they examine this body of work that depicts contemporary America. Benton was a very appropriate subject for Burns to examine, since he tried to paint the social and cultural America that he knew. In that way his approach was very similar to Burns' fascination with Americana. The interesting imagery of Benton's paintings and the style that Ken Burns uses makes this film easily assessable to people who are not students of art, and entertaining for those that are too.
Writer David McCullough called it "the engine of democracy." It is the place that all of our laws are made, one of the most exclusive clubs in the country.
The show looks at the entire history of congress, from its first session in New York, to the problem of slavery and the party bosses that were controlled by big business after the civil war. The progressives who eventually changed the way business was run, and the way that becoming a world power effected Congress are all covered.
This is a powerful documentary which should be required viewing for all high school students. It managed to capture the grandeur of our law-making branch of government, while still relating the less savory aspects of our history. When all is said and done though, you come away from the show proud of what our lawmakers have accomplished.
While only running 90 minutes in length, the program manages to hit many of the important topics that Congress has had to deal with. I was very happy that the great statesman Henry Clay was prominently featured in the beginning of the show. Clay was instrumental in keeping the union together while he was alive, and isn't as remembered as he should be.
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio:
It is odd to think about it now in the days of cable and satellite TV, but radio dominated American life for nearly 50 years, being the main source for news and entertainment for many Americans. In his first project after his hugely successful Civil War series, Ken Burns looks that the invention, ascendancy, and marketing of this first form of mass communication.
As many people know, Marconni invented the radio, but turning a laboratory experiment into a household item was a difficult task. The story of radio in America is really the intertwined stories of three men: Lee de Forest, a frustrated inventor who happened to stumble onto the audion tube, a device that could convert radio frequencies to the audible spectrum so that people could hear them. Edwin Howard Armstrong, the engineering genius who perfected Forest's device and created AM radio, and eventually FM as well. The final person is David Sarnoff, a driven Russian immigrant who started selling newspapers in the streets and ended up as head of RCA, one of the most powerful, and ruthless people in the broadcast industry. It is a story of friendship and betrayal, of true genius, and people who just think that they are. It's all the more compelling because it all really happened.
This was my favorite show from this boxed set. It is easily the most enthralling, entertaining, and informative. The only complaint that I have is that Tesla, the eccentric inventor who first experimented with power transmition through the air is slighted. Aside from this small flaw, Ken Burns does a remarkable job of revealing the convoluted and sometimes confusing history of radio. This program is filled with an astonishing amount of detail for a two hour show. Told through letters and interviews, Burns skillfully untangles this complex story and presents it in an easily assessable manner without making the program condescending.
What is more astonishing is that Burns was really able to fully capture the personalities and characters of the people involved, something that he only had limited success with in his earlier documentaries. At the end of the show, all three of the main subjects are fully revealed. The viewer can understand their strengths and weaknesses and see what drives them. A masterful piece of work.
These seven shows are each presented on their own DVD in a full sized Amaray case. The seven cases come packaged in an attractive slipcase.
All of these programs come with two channel audio but there are no subtitles. The audio is very good, with no dropouts or distortion, and the dialog is easy to hear. The background music is clear, as are the sparse sound effects. An appropriately sounding audio track.
The video quality on all of these discs fit the subject matter very well. Of course some of the archival photos and films clips are showing their age, but that is to be expected. The newly filmed segments look very good, with appropriate colors and contrast. There were no digital defects worth mentioning.
Each of these DVDs have the same two extras included on them:
Ken Burns: Making History: This is 7 minute documentary about the film maker. He talks about the process he goes through to create his documentaries, and the way he writes and films his movies. A very interesting look at Burns' creative process.
A Conversation with Ken Burns: A wonderful 12 minute interview where the film maker talks about America, and how he is able to bring the past to life.
A great documentary can inform and entertain at the same time. These seven works by America's foremost maker of documentaries certainly pass that test. The programs are at times touching, engrossing, astonishing and beautiful. An amazing set of films that will enhance any DVD collection. Highly Recommended.