As I’ve done each winter for many years now, I re-watched Baseball and Jazz, two of the magnificent multi-episode documentaries of Ken Burns. When originally released in 1994, Baseball told the entire story of the national pastime in nine episodes, apropos the nine innings of a ballgame. Burns made a sequel updating the saga from 1994 to 2009 called, naturally, The Tenth Inning, which premiered in September 2010. Jazz, which aired in 2001, swings through the history of America’s signature music in ten truly lyrical episodes.
Depending on the time of year, I use the television in one of two ways: during baseball season I watch ballgames, during hibernation I watch films. And just as I’ve grown to vastly prefer non-fiction over fiction in my reading, I tend to watch a lot of documentaries. Enter Ken Burns, whose ongoing body of work from more than 35 years of filmmaking would provide ample entertainment even in a snowbound cabin over the course of an Alaskan winter.
For me, one of the pleasures of his films is that his subjects are among my favorites too. I was delighted to find that I wasn’t alone in this regard. In a resoundingly true quote, as well as one that turned out to be somewhat prophetic, essayist and scholar Gerald Early said in Baseball’s first episode, or rather, inning: “I think there are only three things that America will be known for two thousand years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, Jazz music, and baseball. They’re the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced.”
I remember the first time hearing Early say that and I exclaimed: you got that right! (And that, by the way, is the exact quote, not the 101 paraphrases you’ll find on the Web.) Burns seemingly took his cue from Early’s list to begin work on chronicling Jazz. Though Burns has never made a documentary on the Constitution per se, many of his films–The Congress (1989), Baseball, Thomas Jefferson (1997), Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Prohibition (2011), and most notably The Civil War (1990)–are intricately tied to America’s governmental template.
When Burns initially pitched potential backers on his idea for a Civil War film, many balked, wondering how a subject without motion-picture footage could be made into a documentary that would hold an audience’s attention. Roughly 40 million Americans not only watched the nine-part series but were riveted by it. His subsequent films, especially his other two great epics, Baseball and Jazz, would attract even larger audiences.
The documentaries of Ken Burns contain many hallmarks of technique and design. His greatest innovation now bears his name though he was actually not the first to use it. Beginning with his first film, Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981, Burns has made extensive use of a way to give motion to still photos by panning across an image or beginning close-up and zooming out. The technique has come to be called the “Ken Burns Effect” and is now a patented piece of Apple’s video production software.
His films are pleasingly organized. The captioned chapter titles, for example, are a word or phrase used at some point within the upcoming segment. In each “inning” of Baseball, he begins with a preliminary introduction and then cuts to a video footage montage accompanied by an era-appropriate rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (I clearly remember the night that Inning 8, the episode that covers 1960-1970, aired on PBS. I was tending bar at a now bygone Princeton institution, The Annex, when Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic version of the national anthem at Woodstock arrested many a Gibson and Tom Collins mid-sip.)
One of the delightful features of his films is the stunning array of guest speakers he marshals. In Baseball, for example, there are dozens of players, managers, executives, announcers, and sportswriters, but there are also politicians, poets, scientists, actors, writers, filmmakers, even athletes from other sports: George Plimpton, Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Donald Hall, Mario Cuomo, Thomas Boswell, Daniel Okrent, John Sayles, Arthur Ashe, Billy Crystal, Stephen Jay Gould, Studs Terkel, Shirley Povich, George Will, “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
He also fields an equally impressive squad of voices to read aloud passages from letters, telegrams, diaries, newspapers, and magazines: Ossie Davis, Derek Jacobi, Garrison Keilor (as Walt Whitman) Paul Newman, Gregory Peck (portraying two great managers, Kid Gleason and the legendary Connie Mack,) Jason Robards (animating with gravelly voice, among others, the cantankerous John McGraw), and Anthony Hopkins (as George Bernard Shaw hilariously asking “Who is this Baby Ruth? And what does she do?”)
And there are often pleasing overlaps. The late Civil War historian Shelby Foote charmed 40 million American viewers when The Civil War aired over the course of five consecutive nights on PBS in September 1990; he would reappear in Baseball, continuing to delight his audience with vignettes about the great game (including a story of how his father took him to meet Babe Ruth and he shook hands with Lou Gehrig as a bonus), all delivered in his urbane Southern accent.
And then there’s the wonderful John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, great soul and great Negro Leagues player and manager. In a documentary filled with memorable, often deeply moving commentary, O’Neil’s on-camera stories and insights concerning baseball absolutely steal the show. At several times while describing life in the Negro Leagues, O’Neil mentions the close rapport–the first-name basis–that he and his fellow players shared with the great Jazz artists of the era, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. O’Neil returns in Jazz to recount more of his favorite memories and stories about celebrated musicians and entertainers.
The educational power of a Ken Burns film is tremendous, not only in its ability to convey facts and figures but to renovate opinions. Here’s a relatively small but, to a baseball fan, telltale example. For many years I didn’t buy into the Babe Ruth legend. More than anything else, it was my deeply contrarian streak, an almost instinctive reaction that makes me highly suspicious of anyone for whom everyone else accords an almost dogmatic reverence. But two things made me change my mind . . . or, rather, see the light. The first was a kind of statistical epiphany: finding out Babe Ruth’s lifetime batting average. It’s .342–and that’s for 22 seasons! (Uh-huh, get your mind around that: it’s not .289 or .297, as most well-educated Baseball fans would otherwise guess, figuring that a big home run hitter probably struck out a lot.)
But the second way I changed from being a Ruth skeptic to regarding him as easily the greatest player ever was hearing Daniel Okrent’s elegant characterization of Ruth, which provides the title of one of Baseball’s chapters, as Beethoven and Cézanne in one person. Okrent makes the point that before Ruth became Baseball’s greatest slugger, he was already a Hall of Fame pitcher: 94 wins and 46 losses, a lifetime ERA of 2.28, a winning percentage of .671, and a World Series record of 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings pitched that was broken by Whitey Ford in 1961!
Perhaps the ultimate hallmark of a Ken Burns documentary is the feelings a viewer experiences during the film and immediately after. Burns makes his films, especially his monumental undertakings of the most American of subjects, with love. His movies are acts of love, an artist’s love for his subject and for the joy of sharing his art. It builds in the details and then spills over in certain moments. His commentators often elicit profound connection with the viewer through shared sentiments and experiences. Let me give you my two favorite examples.
In what might be the keynote address of the entire Baseball documentary, Buck O’Neil describes “that sound.” Mere transcription of O’Neil’s words doesn’t do his quote justice, doesn’t convey the feeling that he puts into them or the linguistic textures of his delivery, but it should still be sufficient to raise the gooseflesh and maybe, if you’re a fan like me, make you tear up a wee bit:
I don’t think . . . you can’t do too much ‘cause we’ve done a whole lot of things to hurt it, but it’s a type thing that you just–I don’t care how come–you can’t kill it. You just can’t kill Baseball because when you get ready to kill Baseball something gonna come up . . . somebody gonna come up to snatch you. [Crack! of a bat] After the Black Sox scandal here comes Ruth. I heard Ruth hit the ball. I never heard that sound before. And I was outside the fence but it was a sound of the bat that I had never heard before in my life: that was Ruth hittin’ the ball. And the next time I heard that sound I’m in Washington, D.C. I rushed out [crack! of a bat] and it was Josh Gibson hittin’ the ball. And I heard this sound again. Now I didn’t hear it any more. I’m in Kansas City and I heard this sound one more time that I hadn’t heard only twice in my life! Now, you know who this is? [Crack! of a bat] Bo Jackson swingin’ that bat. And now I heard this sound. It was a thrill for me! I say ‘here it is again! I heard it again!’ I’ve only heard it three times in my life, but now I’m living because I’m gonna hear it again one day, if I live long enough.
In Jazz, one of the personalities whose lively and insightful comments add extra relish to the dish is Wynton Marsalis, the great trumpet player and formidable historian of his art. In a segment on the man who is both the foundation and the pinnacle of Jazz, Louis Armstrong, Marsalis offers this observation:
Louis Armstrong’s overwhelming message is one of love. When you hear his music, it’s of joy. He was just not going to be defeated by the forces of life. And these forces visit all of us. My great great grandmother used to say that ‘life has a board for every behind’ and it’s a board just fit to yours, so maybe your board is not going to work on someone else’s behind. And when it’s your turn, that paddle is going to put on your booty and it’s going to hurt as bad as it can hurt. And Louis Armstrong is there to tell you after you get that paddling: ‘It’s all right son.’
One day last summer I was in Manhattan and saw Ken Burns walking toward me on West Broadway. Restraining an urge to pour out a paragraph of earnest thanks for all he’s done, I let him pass, honoring his right to a little privacy on a sunny, city morning. Well, Ken, if you read this article then you know how I feel. Your films are tremendous efforts of historic preservation, bundling rare footage, photos, and priceless interviews. They not only present America’s most essential stories, they actually add to the American landscape itself. Or to riff on Gerald Early’s astute melody, when people two thousand years from now study America’s culture, they will very likely do it by watching The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball.