Fall Issue | 2015
The Ken Burns Effect
by Elizabeth Romary | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ole Miss campus stirred with excitement when the Honors College announced that Ken Burns would speak at the Fall Convocation in October. The world-renowned filmmaker behind such works as The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and of course The Civil War, is well known for revolutionizing the use of still images in documentary filmmaking. By panning to certain focal points in photographs, Burns draws viewers into the stories of real people and places—a technique dubbed by Steve Jobs, “The Ken Burns Effect”. Aspiring filmmakers weren’t the only students excited about his visit, though. As his arrival date coincided with a significant moment in the University’s history—the removal of the state flag from campus—Ken Burns’ vast knowledge of American history proved invaluable to our communal reflection on the past.
Bruce Levingston, the Honors College Chancellor’s Artist in Residence and famed concert pianist who invited Burns to visit, started off the Tuesday afternoon by interviewing his old friend at William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. Joined by editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsay, the group toured the Ole Miss campus and viewed the many different symbols that decorate it. This tour mirrored one that Levingston recently gave his Honors class, “Art in the Republic,” which involves in-depth discussions about art’s function in society. Recently in the class, we talked at length about the use of symbols as representations of the past and present. A few hours before the convocation, we were honored with the unique opportunity to discuss this topic among other compelling subjects with Burns. One concept that repeated in the conversation and throughout the evening was what Burns calls, “historical amnesia”—the tendency of societies to selectively remember the good parts of their history and forget the less comfortable truths. For instance, while many agree with the removal of the state flag from our campus, some are less inclined to remove other symbols like the confederate statue that serves as a memorial for Ole Miss students who died in the war. They feel it would serve more to erase our history than to condemn it. The conversation with Burns that took place in Levingston’s class—like many before it—allowed for the complexities of seemingly simple issues to surface in a civil and engaging way.
Later that evening, Levingston moderated a similarly captivating conversation with a much larger audience in the Gertrude Ford Center. The convocation veered from the traditional lecture style in a refreshing way. Burns did not simply stand behind a podium and lecture about history, filmmaking, and symbols; instead, he and Levingston sat on stage together, conversing back and forth while engaging the entire auditorium. The convocation began with a series of clips taken from Burns vast filmography. As a student of cinema who grew up watching Burns’ PBS specials, I was already familiar with his work, but seeing it in this context gave me a new sense of excitement, as though I was seeing the clips for the very first time.
One powerful clip from The War particularly moved the audience. A breathtaking rendition of “American Anthem” by Norah Jones accompanied visceral footage and images of American soldiers in the Second World War. The masterful combination of music and visuals allowed the audience to reflect on that period of our history. A few sniffles around me indicated that many were struck with the pure emotion of this scene, which offered a different take than the usual swell of national pride that accompanies war films. Another scene from The Civil War contained the narration of a letter from a Union soldier to his beloved wife back home, and was accompanied by the somber melody, “Ashokan Farewell”. The soldier’s heartbreaking story flowed perfectly with the music, and the audience became lost in the beautiful images on screen. Levingston would later point out that Burns really listens to photographs in order to draw audiences into his films. “I think of what I can hear in the photograph,” Burns responded. “Can I hear cannon fire, the reloading of weapons, men shouting at each other? I then add these sounds so that it feels more alive.” Burns uses music in a very unique way. Instead of the traditional technique of composing music after the completion of the film, he sets his scenes to pre-recorded compositions. In other words, he allows the music to direct the scenes, sometimes shortening or lengthening a scene to make it fit the tone and length of the song playing. Furthermore, the music he chooses is rarely dramatic. There are no booming symphonies or overly dramatic pieces to fit the mood of the images on the screen. Rather, the accompaniments are mostly soft and melodic, inducing a sense of reflection and repose.
The conversation then shifted from Ken Burns’ filmmaking style and techniques to the topic we all anticipated: the challenging confederate symbols that have survived centuries in the United States and at our University. Burns agreed with the recent removal of the state flag, saying the incorporation of the Confederate battle emblem within the flag shows “resistance to the evolution of the pursuit of happiness” that was first introduced in the Declaration of Independence. He said that the action of bringing the flag down, while still met with resistance, played to the “better angels of our nature,” noting that the University is still creating its history, borrowing a phrase from Faulkner, “history is not ‘was’ but ‘is.’” He also spoke to the importance of compromise in situations like this, quoting Shelby Foote from an interview in The Civil War: “It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise.” He urged us to focus on the issue of people and how they are being affected now by historic symbols and sentiments. “We live in a country of division,” Burns said. “We are always looking for something to delineate ourselves from the other but we also yearn for a sense of community.” Levingston then raised the point that some feel altering monuments and symbols could be construed as suppressing history. Burns responded with his favorite quote from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” His point being that history isn’t cyclical, but it does have patterns and that we need to acknowledge those patterns in order to progress as a society.
A remarkable opportunity for the Ole Miss community, Ken Burns’ visit seems to formally mark the beginning of greater change on our campus. In his discussion with Levingston’s class, he mentioned that taking down the flag was easy and that the hard part of progression is to change the way we think and interact as a community; that is our task now. Those who attended the convocation left with a new way to look at our history and a new understanding of how to translate that history into a future that honors the past, but also takes into consideration the people in the present.
November 11, 2015