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WAKING THE DEAD

The Baltimore Sun

At first glance, there is nothing particularly striking about the picture -- a static, studio-style portrait in black and white of an unidentified, boyishly young Army lieutenant smiling into the camera.

But it appears under the opening title at the start of Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary, The War, and again as the final image of an elegiac montage on which the 14 1/2 -hour documentary ends.

The bookend placement in the seven-part film suggests special importance, and that is indeed the case: The young officer is Robert Kyle Burns Jr., the filmmaker's father, shortly after he graduated from Baltimore's City College, and just before he headed off to Europe near the end of World War II.

Looking for similarities between father and son, one first notices the elder's eyes and their wide-open sense of youthful promise captured on the eve of heading off to war. At the start of the film, they are just the eyes of the filmmaker's father. But by the end, they serve as a heartrending reminder of all the innocence lost during the four years of America's involvement in World War II.

The memory of his late father, a cultural anthropologist and photography buff who grew up in Mount Washington and earned his undergraduate degree at the Johns Hopkins University, suffuses the

film and, in many ways, Burns' entire career behind the camera, the filmmaker says.

That patriarchal link makes this his most personal film ever. Instead of trying to summon the ghosts of Gettysburg or Antietam back to life on screen in a historical epic, this time, one of the men he's trying to wake from the dead is his father.

"When people asked about my favorite film, I used to say that I was a father, and that I didn't have a favorite -- I loved all my children equally," the 54-year-old filmmaker and father of two says. "But this is something else altogether."

Burns describes The Civil War, his 1990 landmark film about the war between North and South, as "the epitome of the emotional archaeology that we had been attempting in all our films -- excavating not just the dry dates, events and facts of the past, but something more durable, more serviceable, something with a higher emotional import."

But The Civil War, Burns explains, was a film about great-great- and, in some cases, great-great-great-grandfathers: "This is our fathers, and that makes it very, very personal."

Baltimore roots

The picture of his father that appears in the documentary holds permanent residence on a wall in the filmmaker's bedroom at his home in New Hampshire alongside a college graduation photograph of his mother, Lyla, who died of cancer when Burns was 11 years old.

"This picture of my dad, heading off innocently into the service, was one of two that my grandmother kept on her desk all through her life -- long after her boys returned home safely from the war," says Burns, explaining the special place it holds in family memory. "So, I decided to slip it in at the start of the film as a kind of a nod to my dad."

The Mount Washington house in which Burns' grandparents lived from 1940 until their deaths is on Kelly Avenue, near what is now Cross Country Boulevard.

"My father's roots are totally, completely in Baltimore -- to the point where that still feels like the ancestral home, the place we all gathered for all the special events until it was sold in 1991 after my grandmother's death," Burns says.

"A lot of cousins are still there in the Baltimore area."

A pre-war version of a power couple, Burns' grandfather, Robert Kyle Burns, was an eminent biologist at the Johns Hopkins University, while his grandmother, Emily Lucile Burns, led the Maryland branch of the International League for Peace and Freedom.

Both grandparents earned Ph.D.s from Yale University, and indicative of the degree to which Burns' life is steeped in academe, his mother met his father while she was a graduate student -- in the department in which Burns' grandfather taught.

Burns' father, after serving in France during the last year of the war, had returned to Baltimore to earn his bachelor's degree at Hopkins. The newlyweds then moved to Brooklyn -- where Ken was born in 1953 -- when his father started graduate study at Columbia University. (Ken's younger brother, Ric, who is also a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker today, was born 18 months later in Baltimore.)

A sense of Robert Burns' early promise as a scholar is found in the archives of The Sun where a 1955 Sunday magazine story chronicles his research among residents of the highest village in the French Alps, Saint Veran -- a secluded area not yet transformed for the worse by modernity. In addition to acclaim for the young anthropologist's work is a picture of Lyla Burns trying to bathe her infant son, Ken, in a village fountain.

While Burns' father eventually won tenure at the University of Michigan after joining the faculty in 1963, he never finished his dissertation or earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, Burns says with noticeable sadness in his voice.

"A number of family crises -- not the least of which at all was my mother's cancer and subsequent death -- sort of ended his possibility of a kind of career arc and finishing the dissertation," Burns says.

"It was enough just to handle a dying wife and two young sons. ... He really floundered after that, which is really unfortunate. My dad was one of the most brilliant men I have ever met."

Father's imprint

But while the anthropologist's ability to see life through the eyes of others is readily apparent in all of Ken Burns' films, his father's imprint on Burns' professional life is even more fundamental.

Robert Burns' avocation was photography -- the photos accompanying The Sun story are his -- and Ken Burns says his earliest memories are of time spent as a small boy in his father's basement darkroom.

"I can remember the feel of the studs of the unfinished walls in his darkroom," Burns says. "That's where I first witnessed the alchemy of light and photography. That's where it all started for me -- in my father's darkroom."

Burns says it was editor Tricia Reidy, not him, who chose the photograph of Burns' father as the film's very last shot. It comes at the end of a stunning montage of soldiers, sailors, Marines and couples seen throughout the film -- triggering an almost unbearable sense of loss.

"The first time we saw that final montage together, everybody in the room was sobbing, no one more than me," Burns says. "And, so, it sort of stuck, intimately tying this labor of love -- certainly the best film we've ever done -- with this nice homage to my dad, without being too formal about it."

As is the case in most of Burns' work, one of the elements of the final montage that makes it so moving is the music -- a soul-stirring composition titled "American Anthem" sung by Norah Jones. It serves as a musical motif in episodes 1, 4 and 7 of the documentary just as Jay Ungar's haunting waltz, "Ashokan Farewell," did in The Civil War.

The music, too, is linked to his father, Burns says, recounting a car trip in 2001 when he was returning to his New Hampshire home from his father's funeral in Ann Arbor.

"I was driving along the New York Thruway, carrying his ashes back from Michigan, when I heard on the radio this beautiful piece, 'American Anthem,' sung in this case by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves," Burns remembers.

"I just pulled off to the side of the road and cried like a baby -- I'm sure as much for the painful cargo I was carrying as the beauty of the song. ... But I knew that was the piece I wanted for this film."

Seeing into their eyes

Like The Civil War, Burns' latest film is steeped in an existential awareness of death. Just as he somehow made the eyes of soldiers in still photographs from the Civil War seem to be staring straight into our TV-age souls, so does he forge that same eye-to-eye, Americans-across-generations connection with still and moving images from World War II.

Allen Moore, director of photography on several of Burns' film including The Civil War, describes the effect as the "gaze through history."

The techniques used to achieve that impact extend even to the interviews conducted for the films, says Moore, who worked on The War and teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art. One element involves framing: "The positioning of the camera is such that the subject is almost looking into the lens -- but not quite."

It is the same look that Burns' father has in the photo in The War -- as if he is looking beyond the moment.

But there is more than technique behind all the energy and emotion in a Burns' film. At its core, his filmmaking is driven by what one colleague of Burns' described as an effort "to wake the dead."

"That has to do with my mom," Burns says without hesitation when asked about the way such films as Jazz and Baseball not only make historical figures come alive, but allow viewers to feel as if they are somehow getting a glimpse of their souls.

"My mom died on April 28, 1965, in Ann Arbor, Mich., and every year -- from the time of her death when I was 11 until I was 40 years old -- I never was present at the anniversary of her death. I'd be aware that the date was coming up, and then I'd be aware that it was receding, and I was never physically there. ... I never went back."

Aware of the pattern, a longtime friend told Burns that it seemed as if he was avoiding the anniversary as a way of not acknowledging her death.

Calling it the "magical thinking of a little kid," the friend said that Burns was unconsciously "trying to keep his mother alive."

A short time later, Burns says he mentioned the insight to another friend, a psychologist, and was shocked by the answer.

"Well, what do you think you do for a living?" his friend asked rhetorically. "You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who do you think you're really trying to wake up?"

With The War, one answer is obvious: It's the jaunty, young officer fresh out of City College and Officer Candidate School, smiling at us across some six decades at the conclusion of his son's film.

"In the end, The War is more stirring than The Civil War, because it is so informed by the urgency of death," Burns says. "It is not only the passing of some of the people in the film, but the sense that these are our fathers."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.

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