Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt introduced noted filmmaker Ken Burns with glowing terms Thursday, but Burns downplayed the praise by comparing himself to a character in an old New Yorker cartoon.
The picture showed a man in Hell and had the following caption: “Apparently, my over 200 screen credits didn’t mean a damn thing.”
But Burns was not in Hell yesterday, he was at a Pierson Master’s Tea speaking to an audience of more than 100 people.
“[He] tells real American stories, taking us back so that we can establish a bond with the past, showing us what America has been, and in the process, showing us what it can be,” Goldblatt said.
Burns is most famous for three large documentaries he did for PBS: “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and the recently-released “Jazz.” At the tea, however, he focused on an earlier documentary he did on Mark Twain.
In a conversation interspersed with many lighter moments, Burns sought to illustrate the complexity of Samuel Clemens, who was torn between his pen name of Mark Twain and his real name, success and failure, fame and family. Burns said the goal of his documentary was to “parse those difference and embrace the poetry in his words.”
Despite his contradictions, Twain endures as a giant figure of the 19th century, Burns said.
“[He] almost single-handedly invented American literature,” Burns said. “He wrote spectacularly well with a joyous, careening of words.”
Burns said that Clemens’ greatest gift was his uncanny ability to tell good stories.
“He knew that God was the greatest dramatist and knew when to step out of the way and let a good story unfold,” he said.
Terrence Heller ’02 said he was impressed by the breadth of knowledge Burns demonstrated, as well as his personal charisma.
“He’s so warm you wish you could take him home and show him to your parents,” Heller said.
Burns also discussed Twain’s social advocacy and the author’s ties to Yale.
He said Twain’s storytelling was not just restricted to the fictional world. Twain criticized police brutality, “the safe bourgeois life” and racial inequality in America.
Burns described how Twain visited Yale in 1885 and befriended Warner T. McGuinn, one of the first African-American law students to be admitted to Yale.
He was so impressed with McGuinn that he funded his education, writing in a letter that “we have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.” McGuinn later went on to become a successful lawyer and mentor to Thurgood Marshall.
Burns said that humor helped Twain deal with the loss of his son and two daughters and that Twain’s unique sense of humor could help America after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It was less about pleasing the audience than about easing their pain, giving them the antidote,” Burns said of Twain’s humor.
After his discussion on Twain, Burns fielded questions from the audience. Asked about his style as a filmmaker, he responded by saying that he had been trained in still life photography and frequently used still images in his documentaries as a tabula rasa.
Burns is working on documentaries about boxing legend Jack Johnson and the first cross-country automobile trip, and Heller said he believed Burns will continue to make excellent films.
“If he had time, he could make 200 documentaries on anything,” Heller said.
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