WASHINGTON - His critics have suspected as much all along, yet it comes as something of a surprise when Ken Burns assesses his career with the observation, "I'm making the same film over and over again."
Yet Burns, whose nine-part 1990 masterpiece, The Civil War, begins its five-night run on PBS tomorrow, is neither downplaying the significance or quality of his work as America's most accomplished documentary filmmaker, nor copping to some sort of creative rut. Rather, he's acknowledging that his body of work is a unified quest, the pursuit of a goal wherein the attempt is everything, the end result unattainable.
"I'm just trying to figure out who we are," says Burns, stopping for a quick interview between addressing members of the National Press Club in Washington and meeting with some political leaders on Capitol Hill. "What we're looking for is something below the surface, some luminosity that's coming out. And that's what I'm looking for. It doesn't matter whether it's Jazz or Baseball or The Civil War - they're all [aimed] toward trying to deepen the question, 'Who are we?'"
Burns has been obsessed with that question for 20 years now, beginning with his 1981 Oscar-nominated documentary, Brooklyn Bridge, and stretching through to his most recent, the two-part Mark Twain that aired on PBS in January. In between, he's tried to capture the essence of what it means to be an American by looking at a populist Louisiana kingmaker (Huey Long), an austere, nearly extinct religious sect (The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God), an unseemly tug-of-war over who should profit from the invention of radio (Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio) and two women with the odd 19th-century notion that they should have the same rights as men (Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony).
There's also the paradox of a man who could coin the phrase "all men are created equal," while at the same time own dozens of slaves (Thomas Jefferson) and an oddball architect who delighted in flouting convention (Frank Lloyd Wright).
Then there's his triptych of extended works, one dealing with a uniquely American art form (the 10-part Jazz), one a uniquely American sport (the nine-part Baseball), one an event unique in American history, in which we waged war with ourselves over the question of how strong our bonds are to each other (the nine-part The Civil War).
The result of all that searching has been a body of work unrivaled in terms of both quality (The Civil War is to documentaries what Citizen Kane is to feature films) and popularity (Baseball reached an audience of 45 million when it premiered in 1994, the largest ever for PBS). Viewers who have forgotten how passionately Burns' works are crafted, and how seamlessly they are presented, can be reminded beginning tomorrow, when PBS begins broadcasting the entire Burns canon under the umbrella title, Ken Burns' American Stories. Beginning at the top, the encore presentations kick off at 8 p.m. with episode one of The Civil War, "The Cause," tracking the events leading to war and chronicling the first year of the conflict, 1861.
The Civil War airs nightly through Thursday, two parts each evening beginning at 8. American Stories picks up again Monday, Sept. 30, with The Statue of Liberty, then will continue Mondays through the end of the year. Additional Burns documentaries will air in winter 2003.
To watch a Burns documentary is to be not only educated, but moved as well - a trick history teachers have been struggling for eons to pull off on a mass scale. To not shed at least a figurative tear at Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife, written just days before he would be killed during the first Battle of Bull Run, is to betray a dangerous lack of emotion; to not be thrilled as Jackie Robinson integrates baseball by setting foot on Ebbets Field in April 1947 is to be unaffected by human drama at its fullest; to not marvel at the bravery and fortitude of a band of explorers setting out to explore unknown lands in Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery is to have no concept of what constitutes true adventure.
Each of Burns' films addresses key elements of the American experience, be it the divisions of race, the conflict of labor vs. management, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots or the struggle of immigrants desperate to begin anew. Taken together, they weave an American tapestry of almost limitless variation, one made as strong by its failures as by its successes.
But do they provide the answer to Ken Burns' central question, Who are we? "Just as in music, great stuff comes out between the notes," he says. "The answer comes not from answers, or apparent answers, or even good questions. It comes out between the surroundings of the thing, the problems that a filmmaker faces doing it, the problems in the subject - overcoming a war of secession, integrating baseball, creating an art form, whatever it is. There are some free electrons that are given off by the collision of things and ideas and forces. That's what we're looking for ... We're talking about something extra that's almost indefinable, we're unable to articulate it. But we know it's there."
Burns says he's anxious for audiences to be able to watch his films again. Some, he suspects, will be seen with new sets of eyes.
"I just want people to relive the past," he says. "Each thing takes on new resonance. The Brooklyn Bridge and The Statue of Liberty have unbelievably poignant shots of the World Trade Center. They weren't poignant to begin with, it was just the World Trade Center. Now it means something, and therefore, it has resonance."