Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ken Burns Effect

A recent posting on Facebook of A Trip Down Market Street, this mesmerizing film of a cable car ride down San Francisco's main drag, brought to mind a couple of things:

If this looks familiar, you've probably seen bits of it used as a device in documentary films that deal with a particular time and place: America at the turn of the last century. Coincidentally, this week PBS has been broadcasting the latest Ken Burns film based upon the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure enough, in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, one of the thousands of clips from hundreds of films Burns uses is a clip from this movie which was actually shot during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. In fact if you look carefully, you can see the clip over and over again as it is used in a promo for the show and one of its sponsors. I'm quite certain that I've seen portions of this film over the years, used in other works of Burns and his contemporaries.

I suspect most people don't immediately recognize the city depicted in the film. As such it could represent virtually any big American city at the turn of the twentieth century, which is why using clips from it is so attractive to contemporary filmmakers. But there is a story behind this particular film that makes it in its own right much more interesting than the documentary films who exploit it simply to establish a time and place.

The film  was produced by four brothers, Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe, collectively known as the Miles Brothers. It was shot entirely in one take, not a small accomplishment given that the cameraman, Harry Miles, had to hand crank the film traveling through his camera at a consistent rate for the entire thirteen minute cable car ride. Another not so small feat is the fact that the cable car does not come to a complete stop in the entire film. The film is beautifully choreographed as obstacles including folks standing on the tracks playing "chicken", not moving away until the last possible second, and daredevil motorists darting in between oncoming cars can't stop our cable car as it moves inexorably toward its destination, the San Francisco Ferry Building at the intersection of Market and the Embarcadero, the heart of the city.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way it shows the traffic pattern of a major artery in an American city before the time when vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine reigned supreme. The cable car, itself powered by a mechanism gripping onto an underground cable moving at a constant rate of speed, had to compete with electric powered street cars, horse drawn vehicles of all types, pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles. When I first saw the movie in its entirety this week, I was surprised by the amount of cars, given that the number of automobiles in the entire United States in the first decade of the twentieth century was less than ten thousand. Turns out I was not off base, according to the 60 Minutes piece you'll find below, the Miles brothers employed local motorists to appear in the film, (in some cases more than once), so the depiction of Market Street traffic c.1906 is a little deceptive.

As you may notice, there are no traffic lights, they wouldn't come around until a decade later. I guess it's debatable whether they could have used them in 1906 as vehicles with different capabilities of speed and maneuverability are forced to compete for right of way while only tacitly adhering to accepted rules of the road. Yet here everybody seems to get along just fine as the top practical speed of the "horseless carriages" on the road at the time was probably not much more than that of a carriage-less horse.

The most remarkable thing about this film is not apparent from a casual viewing. It was originally assumed that A Trip Down Market Street was filmed in October of 1905. Film historian David Kiehn would become obsessed with the movie shot in his home town and by taking note of many visual clues and doing some historical research which is documented in the 60 Minutes piece, determined conclusively that the film was shot in late March or early April of 1906, only a week or two before the catastrophic earthquake that took place on April 18th of that year. In all around 3,000 lives were lost in that earthquake and the ensuing fire, roughly the same number who perished in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shankesville, PA as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

It's very likely that in a week or two, some of the people who appeared in the film would be dead and half of them would lose their homes. Most of the buildings would be gone. One exception is the Terminal Building visible throughout the entire movie, the ultimate destination of the cable car. The building survived the earthquake and today is still the focal point of Market Street. To all who care about such things, that building not only lives as a memorial to the 1906 tragedy, but also to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which took the lives of dozens motorists who were crushed when the double deck highway they were driving upon collapsed. A similar freeway which once stood immediately in front of the Terminal Building was significantly damaged during that earthquake and shortly thereafter was demolished.

But the building also survived that earthquake intact; it and the film stand today as testaments to a great city and the indefatigable human spirit.

If there is such a thing as an American documentary filmmaker with a household name, it would be Ken Burns. So popular is his work, many people consider his movies to be the final word on the topics he covers. His films which air on PBS, are devoted to American subjects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, the Civil War, and now of course, the Roosevelts. No matter what subject, Burns's formulaic style does not vary from film to film. In each work, an authoritative voice-over narration moves along the story line supplemented by readings of quotes from correspondence, speeches or text supplied by notable actors, and comments from experts in the field. To set the mood, a soundtrack of period music plays incessantly in the background from beginning to end.

The bulk of Burns's imagery consists of archive film footage and still photographs. Setting a tone, they serve the same purpose as the soundtrack. What little original footage he supplies are images of un-populated historical sites usually shot romantically at dusk, and the "talking heads" of the experts, speaking reverently about the subject at hand. Never content to allow his visual material to speak for itself, Burns cuts up films (such as A Trip Down Market Street), to suit his needs. In a similar fashion, he seldom shows us a still photograph in its entirety, rather  he selectively crops images then animates them by panning or zooming in and out, usually for dramatic effect.  Burns in no way invented the idea of panning across still images, but he has used and abused the technique so often that Apple Corporation has included what they call the "Ken Burns Effect"  in their video editing software.  The Burns Effect is so successful that it has become the default setting when users choose to include still photographs into their videos. In other words, if you want to show a still image in your video without any pans or zooms in Apple software, you have to turn off the Ken Burns effect. Given his reputation as "the people's historian", I can't think of a more suitable metaphor.

Despite being widely admired, Ken Burns has his detractors. His work has a well deserved reputation for being less than rigorous with the facts. Never content to leave any loose ends, many feel his films package their subjects in neat and tidy bundles, avoiding the inevitable lingering doubts and messy questions that real historians deal with on a daily basis. And then there's that inescapable, plug-in style of his which treats every subject exactly the same.

But my biggest gripe with Ken Burns is the way he appropriates the work of others, without giving the authors due credit. You won't have a hard time finding the names of the "talent" who provide the voiceover narration and readings, nor will you have a problem learning who wrote and produced the films. You certainly won't have a problem spotting Ken Burns's name all over his product. But if you're interested in who provided Burns with the visual theme (or as the fancy people call it, the mise en scène) of his films, that is to say the photographers and filmmakers who are responsible for about 90 percent of what you actually see in a Ken Burns film, not to mention the musicians who provided the soundtrack, forget about it. Burns only pays lip service, and that's a generous term, to the archives where the work was found, but never to the creators of the work itself.

Which in my opinion is inexcusable.

To rectify that if only a bit, as promised, here from a 60 Minutes piece broadcast in 2010, is the story of a work of art that Ken Burns has used and abused time and again. A work that in my opinion, far from being merely a brief clip used to establish a particular time and place, is more ground breaking, powerful, and enlightening than any of the films that the so called "most respected historian in America" has given us to date:

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