Monday, April 15, 2013

"An Evening With Ken Burns"

For as long as I can remember, I've been interested in the American Civil War.  I'm not exactly sure why.  Even though I grew up in the South and was mesmerized by Scarlett and Rhett as I watched the re-release of "Gone With the Wind," I somehow knew that my romanticism about the "glory" of those bygone plantation days was misplaced.  I now know that it was misinformed. Stories of slaves were never told in history class. Slavery was not the cause of the war.  It was the North trying to impose its way of life on the South, and "we" would have none of it.

It is through my own curiosity about American history and desire to learn the "whole" story that I've continued to search for understanding.  I stand on silent battlefields at Antietam, Manassas, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, imagine piles of bodies and smoking cannon.  This was a war of our own making, not waged in defense of a foreign threat. It was a war often fought between neighbors, among family, in tree-shaded front yards and across neatly planted cornfields.  What fueled such hatred, such tenacity to hang on for 4 years of death and destruction?  And how has that hatred, prejudice, "me against you" rippled through the years to today?

When I read that Ken Burns would be speaking at the American Jewish Historical Society last night, I bought a ticket.  His series on the Civil War, the highest rated in the history of American Public Television, kept me and 40 million other viewers glued to our television screens for four nights in September 1990.

His topic for the evening was, "Revisiting the Civil War Documentary 20 Years On," and the auditorium was overflowing.

               Ken Burns and Jacob Wisse, Executive Director, Yeshiva University Museum

Before Ken Burns took his seat, the room grew quiet and dark.  A large screen lightened, as if dawn were slowly making its way into the room.  A cannon appeared on a hill, a hint of music sounded in the distance and the voice of the narrator began.

We watched a 15-minute segment of the film, and I was once again engulfed in a history lesson that I didn't want to end.  Using what has been coined, the "Ken Burns effect," still photographs seemed to move, while a chorus of voices told their stories and a background of horses, train whistles, rifle fire, tricked my senses into believing I was there.

As I listened to Burns speak for over an hour, I tried to write furiously, but could never keep up, so I stopped.  He is an extremely articulate, intelligent "storyteller," as he calls himself, who speaks from years of research and passion about the Civil War and the United States.  However, there was one quote - written by him, his brother, Ric, or both, appearing during the film's introduction - which captures at least a piece of why I continue to be drawn to this war.

"Between1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers - if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible."

When I was visiting Gettysburg a few months ago, I took a picture that symbolizes that paradox for me.

                                           A fence. . . a simple, wooden fence.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Web Analytics