March 30, 2011

"A New Birth of Freedom"

Ken Burns is an amazing and highly skilled documentarian/filmmaker. He and his Florentine Films crew have focused their camera on such diverse topics as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hart Benton, and Jack Johnson, the Brooklyn Bridge and baseball, all the while maintaining a distinct, recognizable, and oft-imitated style. In my humble onion, there's a level of genius at play in his work, and he has definitely produced works of art.

By far my favorite of his work is The Civil War. I find that one to be especially powerful and moving. Sure, no doubt it's because of the topic, but it is also due to segments ("A New Birth of Freedom") such as the one at the end of the fifth episode, "The Universe of Battle."

The segment is about the day in November 1863 when Abraham Lincoln attended the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, only months after the Battle of Gettysburg, and delivered his Gettysburg Address. There are other examples of this, but when Sam Waterston begins reading (as Lincoln) the speech, and "Ashokan Farewell" kicks in....words just can't truly do it justice. "Transcendent" might be a good place to start trying to describe the overall effect. I refer to what begins around 3:32 in the following:

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Now unfortunately (and ironically, since it's from PBS) the most stirring moment of this for me (and an example of Ken Burns' potently effective style), is cut from the video above. It comes during the last few seconds, just before the final credits of the episode begin. As Waterston finishes reading those sacred words, and the final chord of "Ashokan Farewell" fades away, there is silence, the camera lingers for three or four seconds on that great portrait of Lincoln (taken by Mathew Brady, I believe), and the screen fades to black. I blubber like a baby almost every time (dammit!), for the man, looking thoroughly spent and depleted, his sacrifice, and due to the beauty of the filmmaker's accomplishment. Please experience that at around 1:30:43, at the end of this complete version of the episode. It's subtle, but nuance is what life is so often about!

No comments: