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The Ken Burns Effect

December 15, 2009
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Emmy award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentarian Ken Burns was in Baltimore Dec. 8, at the B&O Railroad Museum. He’s been in town often this year, he says, giving speeches, doing promo appearances, visiting The Sun. This time it was to win yet another award: the 2009 Patriotism Award bestowed by the American Flag Foundation. The foundation, whose job it is “to encourage patriotism . . . through education and outreach focused on the flag” —pause, if you will, and let that last part sink in—has in the past given this honor to the likes of Willard Scott, Brooks Robinson, the Hon. William Donald Schaefer, as well as a handful of high-ranking military men that few civilians are likely to have heard of.

Before Burns accepted his award, he took a few moments to talk to City Paper (see video, below). Known by some jealous filmmakers as “he who sucks all the fun(ding) out of the room,” Burns comes across as highly likeable. No doubt he often has to in his line of grant- and sponsor-dependent work. But apparently someone forgot to tell Burns’ sponsors—Bank of America being the newest and highest profile—that the economy is in the toilet, because he’s presently juggling six productions at once. Titles and topics include: The Tenth Inning, an update on his Baseball series, The Dust Bowl, Prohibition, The Roosevelts, the Central Park Jogger case, and a wide-sweeping series on the Vietnam War.

General Motors, who sponsored his latest effort, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, is no longer to be counted among his sponsors. This, however, is not necessarily because of the present economic hard times. Burns says he signed a 10-year contract with GM back in 1999 that’s set to expire this year. So, he went looking for new backers and, apparently, found them.

After various colors were presented and fellow 2009 Patriotism Award winner, a young man named Spencer Harjung—who will certainly run for some office somewhere some day, judging by his oratory skills—Burns spoke about patriotism, American history, and his films. You can imagine what it sounded like: a live-action documentary titled Ken Burns: A Film by Ken Burns.

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