The TV Column: Lisa de Moraes on Ken Burns and the TV Critics' Awards

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By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, August 3, 2009

PASADENA, Calif.

The only thing longer than a Ken Burns docu-series is a Ken Burns answer to a question about a Ken Burns docu-series.

Appearing Saturday at Summer TV Press Tour 2009 to talk heftily about his majestic, 12-hour docu-series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," Burns joked that at his Florentine Films, they consider "brief question" to be oxymoronic, and bragged he would turn any question into "a nine-part answer."

And then he did.

Repeatedly.

One naïve critic innocently said he had a "two part question": 1) What impression did his childhood visit to Shenandoah Park have on him, and 2) what about that visit made him "more interested" in national parks?

Saying "two-part question" to Ken Burns is like throwing hamburger in a piranha's general vicinity.

"Well, for me, this is where the nerves are so close to the surface," Burns began, packing provisions for the long haul.

As a public service, we provide here the Ken Burns Answers the Question Mash-Up -- you are welcome, and let this be a reminder that interviewing TV-industry somebodies is best left to professionals:

"The first major shoot we did for 'National Parks' in the spring of 2003 was at Yosemite. . . . I had sort of advertised to my colleagues that I hadn't been to a national park before -- a full-fledged natural national park . . . been to Civil War battle sites, but not that nucleus of national park. The last night I couldn't sleep . . . lay awake . . . realized I had forgotten . . . moment in 1959 when I was 6 years old . . . mother dying of cancer . . . household an unbelievably demoralized place . . . father was absent in every sense of that word . . . no catches in the back yard, no attendance at ball games one day. . . . After school my father had taken me from our home in Delaware to his home in Baltimore and put me to bed in his old bedroom . . . woke me up in the middle of the night . . . took me to Front Royal, Virginia, and the top of the Skyline Drive that runs down the spine of Shenandoah National Park. . . . Yosemite had opened me up in that way. . . . It had performed a kind of open-heart surgery that permitted me to remember something that had been lost in all of the other stuff." -- GASP, WHEEZE! -- "I can remember the hikes we took . . . the songs my dad sang . . . what his hand felt in mine. . . . Yosemite . . . may be the most beautiful place on Earth. . . . It awakened me and was able to permit me to reclaim something. . . . The story moves from the spiritual to the kind of patriotic, conservation, economic, now environmental issues that have compelled our discussion of parks . . . but all the way along, the line has been this personal thing. It's not so much that you are standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and looking down and seeing the patient Colorado River, exposing rock that's 1.7 billion years old -- Precambrian Vishnu schist that is almost half the age of our planet; it also matters very much who is holding your hand, who you've made that trip with at the edge of that canyon or in the Shenandoah National Park."

Several eons later, critics were just starting to think they might actually recover when one reckless interlocutor asked Burns: "If someone had 12 hours, would you suggest they go to the Grand Canyon or watch your film?"

"This is great -- this is a hugely important question!" Burns said. And critics knew they were in for it. They resigned themselves to their fate; some sent text messages to loved ones.


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