There Are No Easy Answers When Ken Burns Is Talking, and Talking

By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, August 3, 2009


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.


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.

Again, a Ken Burns Answers the Question Mash-Up:

"Because the parks, from the very beginning, as we've documented, have benefited from art. . . . The Rocky Mountain School came in Bierstadt . . . Ansel Adams's photographs of a later generation. . . . We know there is, in that platonic sense of the shadow of the cave, the power of the removed art that might be the galvanic thing that makes action happen. . . . Our lives have a kind of compelling momentum to them that is increasingly harder to distract. . . . I was walking across the lawn of the visitors' center at Gettysburg with the superintendent and he scooped down and picked up a popsicle wrapper and waved it in my face and said, 'It's all your fault.' . . . If you need an amanuensis to get you to the decision to make that leap into real experience . . . we're looking forward to, just as at Gettysburg -- their attendance spiked 200, 300 percent and stayed there for years and years and years. . . . We hope so too that that's the kind of response we'll get here."

TV Critics Smile Upon CBS

TV critics dared name CBS's geeky "Big Bang Theory" best comedy series of the year, and its star Jim Parsons the best thespian in a comedy, at the critics' annual trophy-dispensing ceremony.

This is big news because CBS usually gets shafted at trophy shows -- Golden Globes, Primetime Emmys, etc. Viewers like CBS shows; industry pundits and navel gazers -- not so much.

Accepting the best-comedy trophy, "Big Bang" creator and exec producer Chuck Lorre noted his contentious relationship with the members of the TV Critics Association and said he wanted to speak from his heart. Except that his heart was ripped from his body and stomped on 20 years ago when he worked on "Roseanne," the ABC comedy series from which he was famously shown the door.

AMC period piece "Mad Men" was named the year's best drama for a second year in a row, and Bryan Cranston of AMC's "Breaking Bad" was named best thespian in a drama series. The TV Critics Association does not have separate categories for best actor and best actress. This usually translates to no actresses being recognized by the TCA at awards time. Anyway, SyFy (formerly Sci Fi) drama "Battlestar Galactica" was named program of the year, whatever that means -- apparently not best drama of the year, or best comedy for that matter.

And the HBO vampire drama "True Blood" was named the year's best new program.

HBO's film "Grey Gardens," which starred Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the raccoon-and-kitty cat-indulging aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, scored the win for best movie/miniseries/special. And keeping things gray, the critics thought HBO's "The Alzheimer's Project" was the year's best news and information program.

"HBO Leads With Three Awards," the critics association said in the lead of its news release announcing the winners, missing its own point. HBO bagging the most wins at a trophy show is not news. HBO not having the leading tally at a trophy show -- that would be news. And perennial trophy-show wallflower CBS finishing just one win behind chronic trophy-show leader HBO is very big news. Particularly when it means TV critics gave both of its available comedy nods to a non-"30 Rock" series -- seriously big news.

TV critics think Nickelodeon's "Yo Gabba Gabba" is the year's best kids show. NBC's "ER" received the group's so-called Heritage Award, which recognizes "a long-standing program that has had a lasting cultural or social impact," while the group gave Betty White its still-kickin' award.

Omarosa Sounds Off

Omarosa, having plowed through about every reality series that will have her, is now heading to TV One to explain it all in a new series called "Life After."

The show will explore "major turning points" in the lives of some of the country's "most intriguing personalities," TV One senior veep Toni Judkins told a roomful of television critics attending the press tour.

Omarosa will be among the first intriguing personalities to get the "Life After" treatment. Each story will be told from the celebrity's perspective. Omarosa reports -- Omarosa decides.

Judkins notes Omarosa is so well known "we don't even use her last name." Actually, that originally may have had more to do with the fact her last name was Manigault-Stallworth, which few could pronounce and no one could remember. But yes, these days, if you say "Omarosa," we all know you're talking about the Wicked Witch of Reality TV.

"I enjoy doing it and clearly I'm good at it," Omarosa said coolly of her career in reality TV. Then she went into full "it's important to have programming that actually shows me as I am" mode, in re her TV One episode:

The show "gives you an opportunity to see me outside of the boardroom as a real person with emotions, as opposed to the ice queen that you saw in the boardroom. And yes, I am an ice queen in the boardroom, but when I walk out of the boardroom, I'm an auntie, I'm a daughter, I -- oh no you didn't!" she snapped as someone's cellphone started to ring.

" -- and I'm sassy," Auntie Omarosa continued when the phone stopped.

Inexplicably, critics seemed interested in her take on a reality series in which people undergo major life events on-camera.

"I got divorced after 'The Apprentice' and I really didn't like him before 'The Apprentice' -- let's blame it on reality TV," she said slyly.

"Why do people do it?" one critic asked her about reality TV in general.

"I was working in the White House, $56,000 a year, 18-hour days, didn't see my family," she said. "I come out to L.A. and do a reality show for $100,000 and we shoot for 12 days. . . . If you do the math, then you probably wouldn't ask the question."

Playing the I'm a Celebrity and You're Not card to a roomful of underpaid TV critics is typically a turning point in press tour interview sessions.

The critics snapped to attention. One of them questioned her dollar figure for participating in a reality show. She covered, with a nasty "it depends on the show. I could go down the salaries -- I think it's a bit tacky, but we can." But then she said she got paid $75,000 to do "Surreal Life."

"So when you ask 'why?' -- I'll work for six weeks, and then I'll let you all write about it for the rest of the year," she snickered.

Omarosa was having a very good time.

Warming up to her subject, she said that participating in reality TV shows is liberating.

"When I'm shooting a show, like the scene between me and Piers Morgan on 'Celebrity Apprentice,' or me and psycho Janice Dickinson [on 'Surreal Life'] . . . at that moment, whatever I'm feeling is authentic," she explained.

On the other hand, when a critic asked if she'd like to apologize "for anything in particular," Omarosa replied:

"I would like first to apologize for calling Janice Dickinson a crackhead.

"And saying that she was cuckoo.

"And saying she was the oldest supermodel.

"I might want to apologize for talking about her jowls and her bad plastic surgery.

"I would also like to apologize for saying that she had a bad weave and that she was a terrible mother.

"I might also want to apologize to Piers Morgan for saying that he was a British idiot.

"And maybe to Wendy Williams for calling her a man.

"I can go on and on; I just felt like having a holistic moment," Omarosa told her audience.

"You can keep apologizing if you want," one critic snarked.

"I meant that -- I meant it from my heart," she responded. "I'm evolving."

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