Ken Burns Is Still Telling American Stories, Even with Leonardo da Vinci

It’s hard to believe that Ken Burns has had a rule for what subject matter he takes on, given that the diversity of his work ranges from “The Civil War” and “Vietnam” to “Baseball” and “Jazz.”  But he is finally breaking through that limitation — sort of.

Burns’s latest two-part documentary on Leonard da Vinci, a collaboration with his daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon, is his first non-American subject and has to be by default; the United States wouldn’t be founded for more than 250 years after da Vinci’s death in 1519. But Burns is claiming the Italian polymath for America, anyway, or at least he did so with tongue in cheek at his talk, “In Their Shoes with Ken Burns,” given at the Nantucket Film Festival, which concludes June 24.

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“The thing that was my balm throughout the whole [filmmaking] period is that a contemporary of Leonardo’s in Florence was Amerigo Vespucci,” Burns said. “From the North Pole to the South Pole, we call the Western hemisphere America after him. So, maybe Leonardo’s really the first American. He’s thinking so far outside the box — that’s what comforts me.”

The Burnses and McMahon are also thinking far outside the box in terms of their usual filmmaking language to capture da Vinci’s life and impact on the Western world. Burns has always adapted his visual style to suit each subject he picks, of course. But the ways he found to add movement to archive imagery has had a profound impact on documentary films and for a very long time — the 2008 edition of iMovie that came pre-installed on this author’s very first laptop had a “Ken Burns effect” among the available options to manipulate imagery. There weren’t a ton of Ken Burns effects on Leonardo’s painting in the clips shown to the Nantucket audience, however.

Instead, the Burnses and McMahon lean on fleet, almost rapid-eye-movement edits across the enormous span of Leonardo’s paintings, split screens of his drawing against imagery from nature or sharply captured modern imagery of people in similar poses to the paintings. Many of the interview subjects who contribute to the da Vinci documentary, ranging from international art historians to Guillermo Del Toro, are lit in a way Leonardo would likely approve of, too, with expressive light on the faces and only a glimmering hint of a background behind them. “This is totally different grammar for us,” Burns said.

But Burns told the Nantucket Film Festival audience that one of the most significant stylistic departures for “Leonardo da Vinci” was in the music. “For the first time, [we had] a scored soundtrack by this amazing young composer, Caroline Shaw, who the head of Juilliard told me [is] the best composer right now — whenever he wants to go to a place that’s true, he listens to Caroline Shaw. She works with these percussive groups and also these vocal groups, including one I love called A Room Full of Teeth,” Burns said. “We had lots of other pieces of music, and by the time we were finished editing, we had jettisoned everything except for Caroline Shaw.”

Burns said that utilizing many new filmmaking tools and approaches was the right stylistic way — maybe the only stylistic way — to respond to his subject. Da Vinci was a man who, in order to paint something, had to understand how it worked and saw no distinction between art and science. Burns’ documentary is engaged not just in telling his story but in trying to use all of the many different art forms that go into filmmaking in order to capture something of his radically holistic perspective on how connected all of life and our observed experiences actually are.

Like da Vinci refusing to impose a distinction between art and science, the Burnses and McMahon refuse to divide filmmaking into periods of research, writing, shooting, and editing. Instead, they never stopped researching and writing all the way through. Burns told the Nantucket Film Festival audience that’s the reason he’s the narrator of all his documentaries until they’re about 98 percent of the way finished. The filmmakers tried to be as relentlessly curious as their subject — and in some ways, they had to be, because da Vinci provides few answers in the work he left behind.

“[Da Vinci] gives very little away. You don’t really know how he feels about his father or his mother or this or that. But then, that, in a way, is its own liberation. That forces you back onto the much tougher thing of, ‘How do you represent this relentless question: None of us are getting out of here alive. What is my purpose here? What am I supposed to do? What is my relationship to other people?’” Burns said. “These are all the essential questions. And art, like heroin, is a really fast way to get at some of the answers. And art’s a lot healthier.

“Leonardo da Vinci” will premiere on PBS in November.

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