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New Ken Burns Series Relives 'The War'

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has an upcoming PBS documentary series that tells the story of the World War II through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it.

Simply called The War, the 14-hour, seven-part series begins airing in September.

37:48

Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 15, 2007: Interview with Ken Burns; Review of the film "Amazing Grace"; Review of LCD Soundsystem's album "Sound of Silver."

Transcript

DATE March 15, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns discusses "The War"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The next Ken Burns documentary for PBS called "The War" is a 15-hour
examination of World War II from the perspective of the soldiers who fought
and their loved ones back home. It doesn't premiere until September 23rd, six
months from now, but because of the controversy surrounding the series and the
opportunity to have seen it early, we're talking to Ken Burns about it now.

One reason we're excited about "The War" is simply because of how good it is.
In my opinion, it's not only the best thing Ken Burns has done since "The
Civil War," it's the best thing he's done ever. Burns made his first
documentary film, "Brooklyn Bridge," in 1981. There were only a few segments
in it featuring what we now think of as the familiar Ken Burns technique,
using music, sound effects and slow deliberate panning and zooming to bring
still images to life, and those were built mainly around drawings, not
photographs. But the style and the way Burns told a story was singularly
impressive from the beginning. Six documentaries and nine years later, he
made the epic that turned him into a household name "The Civil War," the 1990
PBS series that remains his most acclaimed work.

Since then, Burns has made a dozen other documentaries, large and small. The
smaller scale ones include excellent programs about Mark Twain, Thomas
Jefferson and Jack Johnson. The behemoths include "Baseball" and "Jazz," both
of which generated as much discussion in some circles for what they left out
as what they included.

There already is controversy surrounding "The War," and we'll get to them in a
minute. But first, let's hear a sample from the first episode of the series.
It features veteran Glenn Frazier, who fought in the Pacific.

(Soundbite from "The War")

Unidentified Man #1: One day Glenn Frazier volunteered for burial detail.

Mr. GLENN FRAZIER: On some days we buried 250 men, so I didn't know but one
day it might happen to me. So my idea was I had two sets of dog tags, and I
said to myself, `Well, I think I'll just throw one of these sets of dog tags
in the mass grave.' So if I'm alive when the war ends, no problem. But if I'm
missing or dead, I didn't--I wanted my family to know and have some kind of
ending and so forth, so they would think that I was in this grave.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: "The War" is told from the perspective of soldiers from four
distinct American cities or towns. I talked to Ken Burns earlier this week
and asked him why he decided to organize the story that way.

Mr. KEN BURNS: Well, World War II is done to death. It was our sense that
it's often mediated and interrupted by the top-down view, the being inside
Roosevelt's and Churchill's minds, the celebrity generals, strategies,
tactics, weaponry, all things Nazi.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: And it's not what actually happened in this worst of all possible
wars. It's not the good war. So we thought we'd take a handful of towns and
get to know their warp and their woof, what the movie palaces were that they
were going to watch the news from afar, get to know the streets that people
lived on and then just send them off to hell and--their sons off to hell, and
do the war through their eyes. And paradoxically, we were able, I think, to
also have a kind of an overview of the war that came out of this intensely
bottom-up. These are all ordinary people. They're not experts. They're not
historians. They're regular folks that you might have had Thanksgiving with.
And that was our idea, to see the war in an experiential way through their
eyes.

And so we went to each of these towns and went into the archives, went to the
newspapers, told them what we were doing and just sort of began to take in, to
drink in who we found and the stories set against the backdrop of this
greatest of all human cataclysms, the Second World War.

BIANCULLI: Well, Ken, how did you and Lynn Novak, who, you know, directs and
produces this with you, decide upon which four towns? Was it geographical or
was it because you found people in them that were sort of like Forrest Gump
and were everywhere?

Mr. BURNS: Well, you know, there was a couple of places where it was that
backward thread, David, where, you know, we're undoing the sweater that way
because people had been somewhere. But mostly it was, you know, we wanted a
Northeast town and didn't want to do the more familiar places of Brooklyn or
Boston or whatever. And Waterbury was a perfect place. It was called "Brass
City," even in the 19th century. They made everything and turned all of their
efforts into the war effort once Pearl Harbor had taken place. We had read a
memoir by a man named Eugene Sledge about his experiences in the South Pacific
on Peleliu and Okinawa. We thought it was one of the best that had ever been
done, and he lived in Mobile. And when we arrived there, he had just passed
away, but his family introduced us to his best friend and his best friend's
sister, and we then sort of expanded our circle in Mobile. And then got an
actor to read portions of this memoir.

And we're looking for a West Coast town and picked Sacramento because it was
an intersection for so many different things and had a Japanese-American
community.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: And we felt the irony of fighting freedom abroad while it was
still curtailed for Japanese Americans and African Americans was an important
story to tell.

And then we knew we wanted a small town. Waterbury, Mobile and Sacramento are
all about a hundred thousand population at the time of Pearl Harbor, and we
wanted also that kind of the feel of the small town. And we picked LaVerne,
Minnesota, because we had come into contact with a fighter pilot whose first
day of work was June 6th, 1944, D-Day. And then for the next 10 months just
saw almost unspeakable things from the air and losing friends, and dealing out
death and merely escaping death a lot of times.

BIANCULLI: Unlike a lot of your previous massive documentaries, you were very
shy on other historians here.

Mr. BURNS: There are none. In fact, there are a couple of people who have
written about the war in our film, but we're not interested in their overview
of the war or their getting us from point A to point B or helping us
understand this important piece of strategy. We're interested in what they
felt like when they were 18 or 19 or 20 years old and facing death almost
daily, in the case of one of these two gentlemen. And so they sort of take
their place back in line with the rest of the so-called ordinary people. We
did not want this mediated by the people who have the arm-chair ability to
talk about it but were never in it. So if you weren't in this war, or you
weren't anxiously waiting for a loved one to come home, you're not in our
film.

BIANCULLI: I'm having you early because your new, big documentary series,
"The War," doesn't begin until September 23rd on PBS, but it's already got a
couple of controversies attached to it. And you'd think that "The War," which
is about World War II, would be kind of safe, but here we go again. And I
guess if we want to summarize them, one is that the experience of Latino
soldiers in World War II, some 500,000 soldiers, is said to be not properly
represented in the 15 hours. And I thought that we would just start by
talking about how that accusation or allegation fits into how you designed the
series and which stories you decided to tell in telling the story of "The
War."

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. Well, I think the way we constructed it sort of renders a
little bit of the protest mood. I mean, I can understand, particularly in the
Hispanic community, after 500 years of having so much of their history
marginalized on this continent, how important it is to be told. But we knew
going in we weren't going to be able to tell the whole story. And, in fact,
we limited the film to four geographically distributed towns and a handful of
people from those towns. And we're actually not--with the exception of
Japanese Americans and to a much lesser extent African Americans, who had an
amazingly different kind of American experience, i.e. they were interned and
in segregated regiments, looking for any type of people in the film. We were
looking for universal human experience of battle, of what was it like to be in
that war and not try to cover every group. We left out lots of people in
many, many different kinds of groups because we weren't looking at it in that
way.

BIANCULLI: All right. The other controversy that comes up with "The War,"
that's already here, and I as a TV critic am sort of stunned by this one, but
it's the Federal Communications Commission. And ever since Janet Jackson had
her wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl a few years ago, there has been a
real timidity about what can be shown or can't be shown, or will be fined or
won't be fined by the various networks. And the rules keep changing, and you
can't get rulings in advance because the FCC says that would be prior
censorship. And so context is everything, but context isn't necessarily
protection. So what you are looking for or looking to face in "The War" is in
15 hours, I think, there are three words in it that might be considered
obscene words, you know...

Mr. BURNS: There are three words that are objectionable, and one is spoken
by one of our on-camera folks who were describing what it was like to be shot
at as a ball-turret gunner in the belly of a B-17 airplane over Germany and
France in the early years of the air war, and blurts out in a kind of almost
stream of consciousness how he felt when some of the German fighter planes,
which were, of course, much faster and swifter and could stand off and lob
rockets at great distance, what it felt like to be shot at. And it's a
blurt-out.

And the other one is actually spoken by our narrator in trying to contain the
sense of frustration and I think what everybody feels when dealing with a
massive bureaucracy, like this man's army, and in a particularly negative
point in the war, when we thought it was over and it turned out it wasn't
over, and it--in fact, a lot more killing was going to take place than had
taken place before.

You know, the controversy is a little bit of, you know, it's hard to read what
it's really about. Obviously, the paradigms are shifting in our country.
We've had "Saving Private Ryan," which is an excellent film, but a work of
fiction, so that it's use of the F-word, for example, is done, one could say,
gratuitously dozens of times in that film, and it had an exemption and was
shown on broadcast news. My feeling--I mean, broadcast station...

BIANCULLI: Broadcast television more than once.

Mr. BURNS: More than once. My feeling is about this is we will give ample
warning. We will let, obviously, those stations that are most anxious about
it do what they have to do.

BIANCULLI: And the potential fines per station is like 325,000?

Mr. BURNS: You know, I'm not exactly sure what they are. There's a current
case that is in adjudication right now that had to do with Martin Scorsese's
"The Blues" series, in which one station in California was--there were
complaints from that local area, and we still don't know the outcome of that
case. But I think it's made everybody, not just in public television but
across the spectrum, pretty anxious and nervous.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's listen to the actually--one of the actual
controversial uses of words within "The War" and put it into context. It is,
as we said, from-the-ground-up kind of perspective, so this is the frustration
of soldiers in the war about things that aren't being done right by their
commanders or equipment that hasn't gotten there on time or some of the things
that happens in every war. And it's actually not even so isolated because it
is the name of the actual fifth episode, which is "Fubar." So let's play that.

(Soundbite from "The War")

Man #1: The men coined names for the chaos of which they often found
themselves and the ineptitude of some of the officers who sent them there,
employing language they would never have used in front of their mothers or
their wives back home: "snafu," "situation normal," "all (censored by
network) up," and "Fubar" (censored by network) beyond all recognition.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: A scene from the upcoming documentary series "The War."

More with filmmaker Ken Burns after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: My guest is filmmaker Ken Burns. We're talking about his upcoming
documentary series, "The War," about World War II. It premieres on PBS this
fall.

Of all the voices in "The War," you know, I was familiar with Ernie Pyle. I
was familiar with some of the other people, but not Al McIntosh. I have never
heard of this newspaper guy before. He wrote for the Rock County Star-Herald.
How did you find this guy and his work? And how excited were you when you
found it?

Mr. BURNS: I think that in some ways Al McIntosh might be the single
greatest archival discovery that we ever made. We went to the microfilm and
discovered that this man, who had the opportunity to work at other big city
newspaper and turned them down, Al McIntosh, native of North Dakota, found
himself in southwestern Minnesota in this tiny town of 3,000 folks, writing
for the Rock County Star, the Rock County Star-Herald. Just on a front page
column, just got it. And he passed away, I'm happy to say, of old age in the
'70s. And we were able to get Tom Hanks to read it. And it was very
interesting because we collected I'd say 15 or 20 quotes, which meant it would
just be incredible if we used 10 of them in the final film. And Tom came in
and read them just beautifully. I mean, we were just stunned at how he got
them. And he then wrote a letter to me about a month later saying, `I'm
dreaming of Al McIntosh. Is there any more?' And that sent us back to the
archives.

BIANCULLI: Wow!

Mr. BURNS: And we excavated even more of the column. And essentially
through Tom's urging, went and found more and brought it back. And now, as
you know, having seen it, Al McIntosh is in every episode. He is the one-man
Greek chorus that not only helps explain the unexplainable to the folks of
LaVerne, Minnesota, he explains it to us. And his concerns, I mean, he stands
on a street corner in the center of town and he watches Scotty Dewers, the
depot agent, walk across the street to deliver a telegram to the Lester
family. And the father says, `Which one?' He's got two sons overseas. And so
he's aware of the tiny minutia of the geography of loss.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's play a taste of one of Al McIntosh's columns for the
Rock County Star-Herald. You'll hear Tom Hanks' work. This is right after
D-Day, right at D-Day. So let's play that.

(Soundbite from "The War")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. ROBERT ST. JOHN: This is Robert St. John in the NBC News room in New
York. Ladies and gentlemen, all night long bulletins have been pouring in
from Berlin claiming that D-Day is here, claiming that the invasion of western
Europe has began.

Mr. TOM HANKS: (Reading) "When we stumbled sleepily down the hall to answer
the ringing telephone, we made a mental note that it was shortly before 3 AM."

Mr. ST. JOHN: ...says that heavy fighting is taking place between the
Germans and...

Mr. HANKS: (Reading) "We picked up the receiver, thinking it was Sheriff
Roberts calling to say there had been an accident. Instead, it was Mrs.
Lloyd Long, playing the feminine counterpart of Paul Revere, saying, `Get up,
Al, and listen to the radio. The invasion has started.'"

Mr. ST. JOHN: Says the British-American landing operations from the sea and
from the air are stretching over...

Mr. HANKS: (Reading) "We sat by the radio for over an hour, listening to the
breathtaking announcement."

Mr. ST. JOHN: Casualties may reach a dreadful toll.

Mr. HANKS: (Reading) "And then we went to bed, to lie there for a long time,
wide-eyed and in the darkness, thinking, `What Rock County boys are landing on
French soil tonight?'" Al McIntosh, Rock County Star-Herald.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: You've also done a documentary on Mark Twain, so I'm sure this
doesn't escape you how clear and clean this guy's writing style is. It's
amazing to think that he's 56 years old.

Mr. BURNS: It is. It is amazing. And it just goes right into your heart.
And that's a particularly dramatic moment. We're looking at the exterior of
his house, the house of Al McIntosh, with the lights turning on in the middle
of the night. It's the fullest extent of recreation we have in our film. And
you're looking at a radio and a dial and the interior of the house and an old
phone there. And he just brings that immediacy. You've just been in this
battle. You've just landed at Omaha Beach and now it's time to find out how
everybody else is going to do it. And throughout the film, he just has a turn
of phrase or an expression. He might be talking about the clink of the horse
shoes down by the highway, next to the baseball lot on the quiet Fourth of
July of 1944. As they're worrying not just about breaking out of the hedge
rows in Normandy but about what's going on in Saipan and the whispers they're
getting from there. He sort of holds your hand. And it's not damp and
clammy. It's warm and you just sort of feel, you know, you can get through
it. But he's having a hard time, too, and the writing is just gorgeous.

BIANCULLI: There's an outreach effort connected with this where anybody
listening who has a relative who served in World War II is being encouraged, I
suppose, to get their stories recorded while they're still alive. Can you
talk about that?

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. Well, I think we're taking a page out of Steven
Spielberg's remarkable effort in his Shoah Project that is documenting the
testimony of the survivors of the Holocaust. We have a thousand veterans a
day dying in the United States, and we're interested in finding out what life
was like for them and, indeed, what was like for the person who stayed the
home, the spouse who stayed, be home? And we have a bunch of kids who now the
basic information about the Second World War has become to atrophy. A lot of
kids think we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World
War, when the opposite is the truth. But nearly all of them have a DV camera
or have access to them. And we thought, wouldn't it be good that they could
stop, download some simple instructions from us on how to shoot and how to
light. Maybe some sample questions. And go and, for their family's benefit,
record this history. Find out what grandma or grandpa did, or great-grandpa
or great-grandma, whoever it is. And then if they are so disposed, to make a
copy and send it to the Library of Congress and all of this will be up and
running by the late spring. And it allows us a fuller, fuller picture of what
happened.

BIANCULLI: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. More on his new series "The War"
in the second half of the show.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

Ken Burns has made some of the most famous and well-received documentaries in
television history, "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz." This September he
adds to that list with the PBS series "The War," an outstanding 15-hour
examination of World War II. It finds a new way to tell a story that in
recent years has become more and more familiar.

Let me play a clip now from "The War" which I guess is your most direct
comparison with what we know of as the Hollywood version with Spielberg and
"Saving Private Ryan." It opened his film. It's in the middle of your
documentary. It's Omaha Beach and the start of D-day. And so this is the
beginning of how it is done by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak and everybody else
involved in the war. We'll listen to it first, and then we'll talk about the
elements within it.

(Soundbite from "The War")

Man #1: Far offshore, General Bradley considered abandoning Omaha rather than
sending in more men to die.

(Soundbite of music)

Man #1: Then the Americans began to improvise.

(Soundbite of bombs)

Man #1: Commanders defied orders and risked tearing the bottom from their
ships to bring them within a thousand yards of the beach and use their guns to
finally knock out the German pill boxes and gunning placements.

(Soundbite of bombs and guns)

(Soundbite of music)

Man #1: And on the beach itself, officers and enlisted men alike began taking
their survival into their own hands. `They're murdering us here,' one wounded
officer shouted to his men. `Let's move inland and get rid of them instead.'
Here and there individuals got to their feet and started forward. Then small
groups began to climb.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: OK. We're robbed, of course, by listening on radio to the
pictures and the images. But talk about what's involved in putting that all
together, all those layers of sound and pictures.

Mr. BURNS: Well, what it is visually that you are missing is a set of still
photographs taken by Robert Capa and others, some footage, newsreel footage
taken by the very, very brave cameramen who covered the war without the
benefit of sidearms or rifles to protect themselves. And then a music track,
in this case you heard "Entering In Halfway," through that clip, an Edgar
Meyer piece. But mostly what it is for us is taking the basic DNA of what we
do, which is a still photograph, and not just looking at it and going inside
and living within it visually but listening to it as sort of odd as that may
sound. We're interested in the old Civil War, that cannon firing, are those
bayonet sabres rattling, you know. In the jazz film is the ice on the bar
clinking in the glass. In the baseball film are the crowds roaring at the
cracks of a bat. We listen to these photographs. And in the case of this, it
represents our most sophisticated attempt to bring to life, in some ways, to
will to life, to beg out of these still photographs and silent newsreel
footage a reality that we can't touch but we can approximate.

And so we research for years and years what different guns sounded like. And
what you listened to just now might represent at any given time 50 or 60 or 70
or 100 different layers of sound. If not engaged at that moment, then they're
for possible use. So you could hear the spray of the sea against the metal
LST. You can hear what those big guns and the Navy ships sounded like. You
can hear the ping of a machine gun. In addition to the machine gun sound, you
hear the distant sound of men falling, struggling in surf and the splashes
that that might do. You hear bullets hitting sand. It's--not all of
it--we're not asking you to hear and identify and separate all of that. We're
asking you to suspend where you are and for a moment experience what it might
have been like for these teenagers, most of them, who--I don't know what you
were doing when you were 17 and 18 and 19 years old. A time when most of us
had the luxury of inattention and narcissistic self-involvement, these guys
were helping to save the world.

And we felt honor-bound to sort of--just as we were bearing witness to their
testimony and the couple of men that we follow at that particular moment that
morning on June 6, couples with all the other stories that we also had to sort
of bear witness to what it was like to be in that war. And in a way, that's
the one question, the overarching question was, `What was it like?'

BIANCULLI: My guest is documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: We're talking about the upcoming PBS documentary series, "The
War," with filmmaker Ken Burns. His other famous and well-received
documentaries included "Baseball," "Jazz" and "The Civil War," which premiered
17 years ago.

Probably your most classic documentary moment up to this point ended the first
episode of "The Civil War," and it was the letter from Sullivan Ballou, and
what made that leap out from among all the thousands of documents, that as the
killer moment that you knew was going to end that work?

Mr. BURNS: You know, I'm pulling out my wallet and I'm pulling out...

BIANCULLI: You're still carrying that?

Mr. BURNS: I was sent, in 1985 or '86, by one of, one of our two dozen
consultants in "The Civil War" who were all just the cream of the crop ranging
from Marxist historians on the left to sort of historians of the lost cause on
the right, if that's what it's called, and Robert Penn Warren and others. But
one Robert Johansen sent me this letter he came across in the Illinois State
Library, I think it was, and I read it out loud and broke down in tears and
realized that that was how the first episode was going to end. And we'd
already began playing with a piece of music that wasn't written in the Civil
War called "Ashokan Farewell," written by one of our session violinists. And
they had been playing a lot of Civil War tunes and we knew that it was going
to be filled all with authentic Civil War music. But this one tune was so
haunting and seemed to cross the gap between the present and the past. And I
just knew, even though the first Battle of Bull Run from which this letter was
from had taken place earlier in the episode, that this would be something that
would be the cork in the bottle, that would just say this is the emotional
archaeology that we are seeking to excavate here.

BIANCULLI: Well, here is the poetry of Sullivan Ballou from "The Civil War"
ending the first episode 1990, that's 17 years ago.

(Soundbite from "The Civil War")

(Soundbite of violin)

Unidentified Man #2: (Reading) "I have no misgivings about or lack of
confidence in the cause in which I am engaged. And my courage does not
falter. But I know how American civilization now leans upon the triumph of
the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us
through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing,
perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this
government and pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is debtless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables
that nothing but omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over
me like a strong wind and bares me irresistibly with all those chains to the
battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you
come crowding over me. And I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that
I've enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and
burn to ashes the hopes of future years when God willing we might still have
lived and loved together and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around
us. If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you nor
the way my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your
name."

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker. All right.

Now I'm going to ask you something a lot less serious, but something that sort
of baffles me and amuses me at the same time, and I want to know how you feel
about it. There's a function in an Apple program called the Ken Burns Effect.
What do you think about this? Do you know about this and did you pay for it
and what do you think about it?

Mr. BURNS: Well, it's a wonderful story. I was called up by Steve Jobs, a
man whose work I admire and who I'm proud to say has become a friend of mine,
and he invited me several years ago to California and ushered me into a room
where he and a couple of other engineers were excitedly going to demonstrate
something that they had spent some time mastering, which they had as a working
title, called the Ken Burns Effect that permitted people who had their
photographs on their iPhoto programs to move, pan and zoom through the
photographs. And I just looked up and I said, `This is wonderful. I don't do
commercial endorsements.' And their faces fell, and so we worked out a deal
where they provide us some computer equipment, most of which I give to a
nonprofit that my wife founded and runs, and we all feel very good about it.
But the funny thing is is I'm fairly much a computer Luddite, and so when I
pass an Apple store anywhere in the world, people will see me and pour out to
tell me the latest application that they used of it and some amazing thing.
And they ask me these incredibly important questions, and I have to affect a
kind of, you know, kind of wise inscrutability to just escape the abject
embarrassment of these moments when they do it.

What it is is essentially an acknowledgment that for too long we've held still
photographs at arm's length. And they represented, as I said, the DNA of our
visual historical experience.

BIANCULLI: But don't you feel a little cheat--I mean, you're not the person
to have invented zooms or pan.

Mr. BURNS: No, no, definitely not. But I think, you know, "The Civil War"
and earlier films starting with the "Brooklyn Bridge" was really taking them
out for a spin. They are certainly other films, but I think we began treating
those old photographs as reality and adding a sound effects track as
permitted. So it's both funny, embarrassing, and, you know, it brought me a
good friendship.

BIANCULLI: OK. Now were you always a history dweeb?

Mr. BURNS: No, not at all. In fact, I was surprised to learn at a high
school reunion or coming in contact with somebody who'd been in junior high
with me actually. He said he remembered me in history class, World History
class in ninth grade, that he just looked at me and said, `That's what he's
going to do.' At that time, I wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker. I wanted
to be Alfred Hitchcock. My dad and I had stayed up late one night and we'd
seen "Vertigo" and I just thought, `That's it. I'm going to be John Ford or
Alfred Hitchcock and do that.' And so I ended up, you know, on this track to
be a feature filmmaker and went to Hampshire College in Amherst,
Massachusetts, and all the teachers were social documentary still
photographers, Jerome Liebling, Elaine Mayes, and they reminded me quite
correctly that there's much more drama in what is and what was than in
anything the human imagination dreams of. And, all of a sudden, I found
myself interested in documentary, and what I had blatant and essentially
untrained. I've never taken a history course, except Russian history, in
college. With this just abiding love of and curiosity about what happened in
my country's history, and, boom, the last film I did in college was about old
Sturbridge Village. And the last shot of that, believe it or not, is a pan
across a painting, not a photograph, but a painting. And it was just such an
impression thing because the next thing I've done for the next 32 years has
been all in American history.

BIANCULLI: Well, good luck to you with "The War" and with the fight about
"The War" in terms of censorship. I like "The War" a lot and my guess, that's
all your fault. So thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you, David.

BIANCULLI: Filmmaker Ken Burns. His new documentary series about World War
II, "The War," premieres September 23rd on PBS.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic John Powers reviews new movie "Amazing
Grace"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in
Britain. The new movie, "Amazing Grace," is about the British abolitionist
movement and focuses on the man who led the fight in Parliament. Our critic
at large, John Powers, has seen the film and says the story made him think
about his own life.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: Hollywood loves making historical movies, but it finds the
history part tricky. Life, sad to say, just doesn't have the dramatic shape
of a good commercial screenplay. And so the movie streamlined things. Often
by fitting grand events into the stories of heroic individuals like Abe
Lincoln, Gandhi or Steve Biko.

That's what happens in "Amazing Grace." Michael Apted's devoutly old-fashioned
bio pick of the 18th century politician William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was
an evangelical Christian, who torn between serving God and serving his
fellowman, split the difference. He joined up with the movement to abolish
slavery and the slave trade in Britain, thereby honoring the God-given rights
and dignity of all men. His passioned eloquence got him dubbed the
"Nightingale of the House of Commons," and it made him the official leading
voice of the abolitionist movement.

Here, Wilberforce, played by TV's Horatio Hornblower, Ioan Gruffudd, gets a
bunch of MPs aboard a slave ship and then gives them a lesson.

(Soundbite from "Amazing Grace")

Mr. IOAN GRUFFUDD: (As William Wilberforce) Ladies and gentlemen, this is a
slave ship, the Madagascar. It has just returned from the Indies where it
delivered 200 men, women and children to Jamaica. When it left Africa, there
were 600 on board. The rest died of disease or despair. That smell is the
smell of death, slow, painful death. Breathe it in. Breathe it deeply. Take
those handkerchiefs away from your noses! There now. Remember that smell.
Remember the Madagascar. Remember that God made men equal.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. POWERS: As you can tell from this clip's lack of nuance, "Amazing Grace"
is giving us a lesson, too, a history lesson, one slightly skewed by focusing
on Wilberforce, who was, after all, only one actor in a grand moral crusade.
Not that the movie denied the existence of his allies, we meet the heroic
ex-slave Oloudaqh Equiano and the repentant slave ship captain John Newton,
who wrote the great hymn, "Amazing Grace."

Still, watching this film you might think that Wilberforce was the movement's
towering figure, when that honor should have went to Thomas Clarkson, here
played by Rufus Sewell wearing a thatched roof of unfortunate hair.

If for all simplifications and bouts of corniness, I'm pleased to see "Amazing
Grace" in our theaters. This is not because we still need to be told that
slavery is wrong, those frat boys in "Borat" not withstanding, but because its
story has an enduring importance. First of all because it marks a
breakthrough. Although it now seems natural that there would be social
movements championing the rights of women, gays and lesbians or immigrant
workers, such movements are actually a storical late bloomer.

In his superb book on abolitionists, "Bury the Chains," Adam Hochschild knows
that the anti-slavery movement was, and I'm quoting him here, "the first time
a large number of people became outraged and stayed outraged for many years
over someone else's rights."

In their organized empathy, the abolitionists newsletters, public meetings,
parliamentary maneuvers and boycotts of slave-owned sugar set a template for
what would follow. And it showed that such a movement could prevail, even
when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles like the millennial
prejudice, warnings of economic collapse and the enormous power of those
profiting directly from the slave trade.

Incidentally, these are the same obstacles faced by the likes of Sam
Brownback, the evangelical Kansas senator who's been called a Wilberforce
Republican, who's waging an admirable crusade against the sexual enslavement
of women.

George Orwell famously wrote "that to see what's in front of one's nose needs
a constant struggle." "Amazing Grace" makes this abundantly clear. We grasped
that the pro-slavery forces couldn't or wouldn't see their victims' humanity.
For most white Europeans at the time, the slaves' inferiority was inscribed in
nature and didn't bare any looking into.

As I watched "Amazing Grace" I found myself thinking not about their
historical blindness but about my own. You know, I like to think I'm a decent
fellow. I'm all for equal rights, fair wages and green initiatives. I give
money to human rights organizations and tsunami victims. But in the big
picture, this is the easy stuff. I keep wondering what I take for granted
that would shock posterity the way the belief in slavery now shocks us. Could
it be the idea that it's OK to raise animals purely for the purpose of
slaughtering and eating them? Could it be the idea that human beings are
divided up into nations? Could it be being born on different sides of an
artificially treated border like that between the US and Mexico? It means
having vastly different rights and possibilities. Or could it be something so
deeply embedded in my own way of seeing I can't even breathe up here. I wish
I had the "Amazing Grace" to know.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

(Soundbite of song "Amazing Grace")

Unidentified Singers: (Singing in unison) "Amazing grace, how sweet the
sound..."

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "That saves a wretch like me."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "...that saves a wretch like me."

Singer: (Singing) "I once was lost, but now I'm found."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "I once was lost, but now I'm found.

Singer: (Singing) "Was blind but now I see."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "Was blind but now I see."

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Ken Tucker on the new CD from LCD Soundsystem.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews new CD by LCD Soundsystem
titled "Sound of Silver"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

LCD Soundsystem is a band that exists primarily in the recording studio with
singer/writer/producer James Murphy playing most of the instruments. When LCD
Soundsystem performs live, he usually assembles a four-piece band that can
reproduce the kind of dance, punk electronica mixture that won the band's
previous album a Grammy nomination in 2005.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says LCD Soundsystem's new album called the "Sound of
Silver" broadens the project's sound to make Murphy's rhythms even more
accessible.

(Soundbite from LCD Soundsystem song)

Unidentified Singer #1: (Singing) "Read all these pamphlets."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "And watch these tapes."

Singer #1: (Singing) "Read all these pamphlets."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "And watch these tapes."

Singer #1: (Singing) "Read all these pamphlets."

Singers: (Singing in unison) "And watch these tapes."

Unidentified Singer #2: (Singing) "I get all confused when you mix up the
tapes. Whew!"

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: James Murphy once said that he conceives LCD Soundsystem as
quote "a laboratory for experiments on what a band should be," which is
probably one reason he makes most of the music himself in the studio. What
other supporting musicians would want to be treated like lab rats? Murphy's
concept of song tracks is to write long compositions that gradually build in
intensity, adding instruments and voices as the song goes on. When combined
with his hip-shaking, head-bobbing rhythms, the result is a swirling hypnotic
sound.

(Soundbite from "Us Versus Them")

Unidentified Singer #3: (Singing) "The time has come, the time has come, the
time has come today. The time has come, the time has come, the time has come
today. And so all the good people you know you rescue. All the small people
wanna talk to you. All the clever people wanna tell you. All the little
people wanna dance it's true. But the time has come, the time has come, the
time has come, the time has come, the time has come, the time has come, the
time has come, the time has come."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: On that song called "Us Versus Them" or "Us v Them" as Murphy
sings it, Murphy chants a chorus that goes "The time has come, the time has
come today." Combine that with the old-fashioned instruments that Murphy loves
to use to augment his electronica, the cow bell, you get a strong echo of the
1968 Chambers Brothers hit "Time Has Come Today." It's a reference few of
Murphy's too cool for school audience is likely to pick up on. Most reviews
of LCD Soundsystem mention the cool jerk sounds of Brian Eno and David Byrne's
Talking Heads. But I like the way Murphy's musical knowledge is all over the
map from '60s soul to the contemporary French duo Daft Punk.

(Soundbite from "North American Scum")

Unidentified Singer #4: (Singing) "Oh, I don't know, I don't know. Oh, where
to begin. We are North Americans, and for those of you who still think we're
from England, we're not. No. We build our planes and our trains till we
think we might die far from north of America where the buildings are old and
you might have lots of mines. A-ha, uh, uh, I hate the felling when you're
lookin' at me that way 'cause we're North Americans, but if we act all shy,
it'll make it OK, makes it go away. Oh, I don't know, I don't know, oh, where
to begin when we're North American, but in the end we make the same mistakes
all over again. Come on, North Americans."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: That's the first single off "Sound of Silver" "North American
Scum." The song, I'm glad to report, isn't some trendy self-flagellating
tirade. It starts off self-depracatingly with Murphy telling his listeners
that LCD Soundsystem isn't from England, as apparently many of his initial
fans thought, given the fact that his first 2002 breakthrough single, "Losing
My Edge," was a top 20 pop hit over there. It was an underground club hit in
Murphy's native America. He's from New Jersey, to be exact. Lyrics are
clearly secondary to Murphy's way of working. He likes to transform pseudo
profound observations into chants that he intones over and over again until
they become almost meaningless, and you're forced to simply appreciate the
music behind them as on the title track.

(Soundbite from "Sound of Silver")

Unidentified Singer #5: (Singing) "Sound of silver talk to me, makes you want
to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real live
emotional teenager, then you think again. Sound of silver talk to me, makes
you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real
live emotional teenager, then you think again. Sound of silver talk to me,
makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a
real live emotional teenager, then you think again. Sound of silver talk to
me, makes you want to feel like a teenager..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Pretty much the entire lyric of that song is "Sound of silver
talk to me, makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the
feelings of a real live emotional teenager, then you think again." It's kind
of funny, kind of poignant. But placed in the context of the verballing
electronic keyboard and drums background pulse, mostly just silly ironic.
There's not much depth or resonance to the music Murphy makes with LCD
Soundsystem, but sometimes, as in the case of this capacious inviting album,
surface pleasures are so satisfying they take on their own deeper meanings.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "Sound of Silver" by LCD Soundsystem.

If you want to catch up on FRESH AIRs that you've missed, you can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer #6: (Singing) "It's time to get away, it's time to get
away from you. It's time to get away, it's time to get away from you."

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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