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Q&A: Ken Burns

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In 1994 Delaware native Ken Burns unveiled “Baseball,” his nine-part historical documentary of the national pastime, which aired on PBS. September 28-29, PBS will air his “Extra Innings,” a four-hour documentary that picks up where “Baseball” left off.

“The Top of the Tenth” and “The Bottom of the Tenth” will examine the tumultuous 16 years in baseball between 1994 and 2010, one marked by a players’ strike, a steroid controversy, rising tickets prices and player salaries, and some of the best baseball ever played.

Burns recently spoke to Delaware Today about his upcoming documentary, his childhood in Newark, and his lasting legacy as a filmmaker.

DT: Your nine-part documentary “Baseball, was, to many critics and viewers, the cinematic and historical equivalent of a perfect game. What made you decide to try to extend perfection?
KB: The last two decades have been the most consequential in baseball history, and when you see the circumstances that have happened in that time, it almost demands that we examine it again, like a siren call. Baseball is the prism through which we see America, and it will continue to reveal what we know about ourselves. Yes, it has dealt with the steroid issue, but we all see great catches every week and some of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. We need the perspective away from steroids to reflect the great things in the game. The key word in baseball is “resiliency.”

DT: Abraham Lincoln was clearly the hero of your documentary, “The Civil War.” In “Baseball,” Jackie Robinson is portrayed almost with Lincolnesque reverence. Which individual profiled in the new documentary emerges as the hero, and why?
KB: Without a doubt, Cal Ripken. I can’t think of anyone in the after-effects of the 1994 baseball strike who didn’t feel that his performance in outlasting Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak was a great story. But more importantly, it was the way in which he comported himself. He saw the breach of faith between the fans and the players, one which the fans didn’t understand, and made the decision to pull hard at both ends and fuse them together again.

DT: You spent eight years of your childhood in Newark, from 1955 to 1963, when your father was a professor at the University of Delaware. What were your baseball memories from those years?
KB: I played Pony and Little League in Newark, and all of my most fond baseball memories were spent there. I also remember with such fondness the color of the lengthening light of summer that allows you to play the game a little longer. In the course of those emerging shadows, the light hangs on. It gives you more time. It gives you extra innings.

DT: By the time you were three and living in Newark, your mother had been diagnosed with cancer, an event that you once called the seminal moment of your life. What influence did your mother’s illness have on your career as a filmmaker?
KB: I can recall being three and four and looking out the window of my bedroom and waiting for my mother to come home from the hospital. There was something that was formed even then, a hyper attention to everything around me, that was born out of tragedy. My mother died soon after we left Newark for Michigan, and my father didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. It was around that time that he began to let me stay up late to watch movies with him. I distinctly remember two movies we saw together, “Odd Men Out” and “Never on a Sunday.” I watched him cry during them. He could not help but recall the memory of his wife, my mother. It was then that I realized the impact that film could have in reaching people.

DT: Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to your documentaries, said that in 2,000 years our country will be known for three things: the constitution, baseball and jazz. What would you like to be remembered for?
KB: On the first day of film school at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, the argument we had in class was whether films engage people to act. I want to be remembered as a filmmaker who got people to do things. I want my films to encourage people to explore America’s national parks. I want my films to get people to visit Gettysburg and learn about the Civil War, or travel to Cooperstown and know more about baseball. That’s a huge thing in a culture where media equals passivity. We don’t surf the Internet. It surfs us. We don’t watch television. It watches us. As we as a culture continue to abandon reading and writing, the fact is that you can still make a film and get people to do things. That’s what I want to be remembered for. —Richard L. Gaw

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