Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Few Notes on "Jazz" and the Documentaries of Ken Burns

I have only begun watching Ken Burns' documentary series Jazz, so I can't comment extensively on it yet, but having recently watched several other Burns documentaries -- The Shakers, The Brooklyn Bridge, and Huey Long -- I want to make a comment about what I consider to be his signal contribution: The way in which he mines and animates our national trove of photographs.
The Civil War first brought Burns to my attention. While I didn't watch most of that series, I recall that it was famous in part for its rounding up of a vaast collection of early photographs that illustrated the narrative. What Burns with still photographs is quite interesting: He pans and zooms over them in time to music, so that these static images become animated, spring to life in a compelling way.
While it is interesting in some of his other documentaries, the quality of the music and its direct relationship to the narrative in Jazz make the first episode of that series particularly striking to me. He also uses early moving film, I found myself most struck by the movement over the fixed images.


Burns' documentaries rely more on overlaid narration than many other respected recent non-fiction films. These are not stories told "in the words" of those who lived them, for the most part. Burns' films have distinct narrators. Like the camera's movements over the still pictures, the narration is applied to the historical record. It's the layering of image, music and narrative that supplies the power.