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Monday, August 09, 2010

Burns To Visit Chautauqua

Acclaimed Historian To Return For Two Talks This Week

By Dave Emke,

CHAUTAUQUA - When Thomas Jefferson spoke of the pursuit of happiness, documentarian Ken Burns says, it was places such as Chautauqua Institution he had in mind.

Burns will return to Chautauqua, a place he said he fell in love with immediately upon entering its grounds, for a second consecutive year this week.

''When I drove through the gates last year for what turned out to be about a 20-hour visit, I think it was within about 50 feet that I 'got it,''' Burns said in a recent interview with The Post-Journal. ''A lot of Americans assume that the 'pursuit of happiness' means a pursuit of objects in a marketplace of things. In fact, what (Jefferson) meant was a lifelong learning and the things that made our spirits better, and our minds better, and our hearts better - that's what Chautauqua does.''


In a career that has spanned three decades, Burns has been nominated for two Academy Awards and won seven Emmy Awards. His epic PBS documentaries ''The Civil War,'' ''Baseball,'' ''Jazz'' and ''The National Parks'' are among the most well-known and critically acclaimed ever made.

Burns said that with the exception of baseball - a topic he quips he ''thought he knew something about'' before he began his documentary - the subjects he has featured have been new to him when he began. By tackling subjects that he hasn't already considered himself an expert in, he said, he attempts to keep the documentary from becoming a chore for viewers.

''Too often, history - and particularly documentaries - has been homework for people,'' Burns said. ''There's a big difference between saying, 'This is what I think you should know,' and 'Hey, let me share with you what I've just discovered.' The latter has been my objective for the last 30 years.''


To fully describe what goes into making one of his several-part mini-series documentaries, Burns said it would take years.

To put the process into a nutshell, though, he said it involves simply delving into as much of the history as is humanly possible and letting the documentary come together as organically as possible.

''Usually, when we are doing our filming, we never even know what our scripts will look like,'' Burns said. ''Conversely, when writing the scripts, we're not saying, 'Gee, I wonder if there are any pictures for this.' We write the story anyway, because it's a good story.''

An incredible amount of diverse raw material is gathered during the process, Burns said, and it is in the editing process where the film in truly made. And while the documentaries Burns has created have been up to 18 hours in length, that is still nowhere near enough time to share ever bit of information about any topic.

''No amount of good interviews, no amount of rare and never-before-seen archives, no amount of great writing can replace the kind of arduous and sometimes painful decision-making that takes place as we form the stories and share them with the audience when it's all done,'' he said.


Burns said he gives between 20 or 30 formal talks, such as those he will be giving at Chautauqua this week, each year.

He is currently on a national tour to promote an update of his ''Baseball'' series, called ''The 10th Inning.'' It picks up where the last documentary left off, at the end of the 1992 season.

In his two talks at Chautauqua this week, Burns said he will focus on the Week 7 theme of Sacred Spaces. He will speak about the spaces he has focused upon in his documentaries over the course of his three decades of sharing history with the American public.

While in Chautauqua for a longer period of time than he was here last year, he said, he will also relish the opportunity to enjoy more of what the Institution has to offer.

''I will be bringing part of my young family with me, and being able to spend more than just that abbreviated 20-or-so hours that I was there the last time,'' he said. ''I'm looking forward to having some time to just drink in the whole Chautauqua experience.''

Ken Burns will speak on the lecture platform in the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater at 10:45 a.m. today and again in a special ''Evening With ...'' session at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday. For information about tickets, visit, call 357-6250, or visit the Chautauqua Institution Box Office.

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