When Ken Burns’ epic documentary The Civil War premiered on September 23, 1990, I was hooked. Problem was, it took me about 20 years to figure out, “on what”.
I was 11, right at the beginning of the creative development that would shape my life and times on the Internet (still years away), but before I could really understand its impact on my life, I was transfixed by the stories of soldiers North and South, of triumph and tragedy, of epic success and horrific failure. I can look back on that time now and remember the feeling I had when we were watching the documentary. This, for the first time in my life was history living, through inviting interviews with individuals such as Shelby Foote (R.I.P.), Edwin Bearss and James Symington, countless voiceovers including Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman and Garrison Keillor who told the stories of those who left behind only memoirs and letters, and of course, by use of what has become known as the “Ken Burns’ effect“‘, the panning and zooming of photograph so as to make the subjects of those photos come alive.
And, now, I realized how the visualization of the story made it so much more captivating than textbooks or professors who didn’t share passion for the material ever could. It was one of the first experiences I’d had with history, documentaries and storytelling on a grand scale, and its shaped a whole lot of my life ever since. The sheer humanity of the tale was more compelling to me than comic books or action heroes ever were. Real people, really did these extraordinary things, and the medium told the story as if it had happened yesterday.
I remember the Christmas after the series aired, I got the entire set, on VHS, mind you, and it was an absolutely amazing gift (not to mention the set on VHS cost something like $149 at the time).
I watched it over and over again, to reclaim that magical feeling I had at 11 years old, to listen to those stories again and again, and relate them to the present day, and better understand the social and political impact the war had on the nation that fought it – which came more to the forefront as I got older. The visuals were still inspiring every time, and the stories even more so.
So, when the series became available on DVD a few years later, I was considering the buy, but around that time, I was captivated again by Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air (watch on NetFlix), Baseball, and later New York: A Documentary Film, as written by Ken’s brother, Ric Burns, a film, of which I think needs to be required viewing for someone who wants to really understand and love New York as the modern metropolis that it is today.
That first airing of The Civil War sparked a yearning for knowledge about the history of my city, country and people that has led me to read some amazing books about people like Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, and Daniel Burnham and set me into the notion that biography and nonfiction are more compelling for me to watch and read because “it really happened.”
It’s a thirst for knowledge that has helped me to understand and respect, and love, a wide array of amazing people, because, I feel to really understand someone, you really need to understand their motivations, passions and choices, and the circumstances they made them under. Life is funny like that I think, that decisions never seem to come a the right time, but can still offer so much insight about the people that make them, and have a much larger impact on life than anyone can possibly forecast.
So, imagine my thrill when I find out that yesterday, Netflix was offering the entire Civil War documentary available for instant streaming. It felt, yes, like an old friend was coming by for a visit. I still have those VHS tapes sitting on my bookshelf, but the wave of technology had made it impossible to watch (the only VCR I have anymore is attached to an all digital HDTV that doesn’t even have input that would allow me to watch it).
But now, I can sit on my couch, watch The Civil War on my iPad, and reflect on how much as changed in 20 years, and the same time how much things have remained the same.