A BRIGHT IDEA
Filmmaker Ken Burns gives Bozeman sneak preview of new documentary ‘National Parks: America's Best Idea'
Most Montanans figure they know all about Yellowstone Park, yet on Thursday night filmmaker Ken Burns showed he's still a master storyteller who can surprise even a Bozeman audience with the history of America's first national park.
By GAIL SCHONTZLER
• Chronicle Staff Writer
An audience of about 700 at Bozeman's Emerson Theatre stood to applaud and cheer after seeing a 50-minute sneak preview of the new 12-hour Burns documentary "The National Parks - America's Greatest Idea." It will air this fall over six nights.
In addition to stunning photography of geysers and bison, the series focuses on stories about people who were passionate about Yellowstone.
It tells the story, for example, of President Teddy Roosevelt's 1903 visit. Excited as a boy, Roosevelt hiked and rode on horseback all over Yellowstone, loved seeing the animals and was dying to shoot a mountain lion, but was persuaded that would be bad politics. The president settled for killing a mouse, which he promptly stuffed as a scientific specimen.
For 30 years Burns, 55, has been making award-winning documentaries for public television, from "The Civil War" to "Jazz," "Baseball" and "The War."
Burns told the audience his films are all part of a struggle "to figure out how our country works: Who are we? Who are the strange and complicated people who call themselves Americans?"
For 200 years America has grappled with race and space, Burns said, citing the "monumental hypocrisy" of Thomas Jefferson writing that "All men are created equal" while owning more than 100 slaves.
"Only in the last two days," Burns said, with the inauguration of the first African-American president, has America righted that. Burns attended President Obama's inauguration, which he called, along with the birth of his daughters, one of the "greatest events of my life."
Nearly 10 years ago his friend and collaborator, writer Dayton Duncan, suggested a series on national parks. Burns quickly said yes.
It was writer Wallace Stegner who called national parks America's greatest idea, said Duncan, 59. Asked if that wasn't ignoring America's democratic ideas, Duncan said the film has a historian who argues that America's greatest idea is Jefferson's idea of equality.
"I argue (national parks) are our greatest idea after we became a nation," Duncan said. "The national parks idea is actually an extension of the Declaration of Independence - applied to this glorious land.
"By virtue of being an American, no matter if you're rich or poor, no matter what color you are, you are an owner of the most spectacular places," Duncan said.
Paul Schullery of Bozeman, now retired after a long National Park Service career in Yellowstone, was an advisor and interviewee on the series.
"They're frankly brilliant," Schullery said of the filmmakers. "They remind us that national parks ... represent the heart and soul of America."
People in the National Park Service are excited about the series, Schullery said. Many studies have found that fewer kids are getting outside, hunting and fishing license sales have slipped. Schullery said he hopes the series might reverse those trends.
Thursday's screening was a fundraiser for the Montana Historical Society, which shared hundreds of photographs with the filmmakers.
"We think we have the best jobs in the country," Burns said in an interview before the screening. He recalled spending part of his honeymoon in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
There are two great paradoxes about the national parks, Burns said.
"They were meant to provide access to everybody, but also to preserve them for future," Burns said, adding that anyone who has ever been in a traffic jam in Yellowstone understands that contradiction.
The second paradox, he said, is "when we're in the presence of these magnificent places that we've been fortunate enough to save, we're reminded of our insignificance. At the same time, we feel bigger and feel a connection to everybody else."
He said his upcoming projects include the history of Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, profiles of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, a series on Vietnam, and an addition to "Baseball," called "The 10th Inning."
"When the Red Sox won (the World Series), I knew Ken would be doing that," Duncan said and laughed.
Asked what advice he'd offer to young filmmakers at Montana State University, Burns said there is no single career path or "rut" to becoming a documentary maker. "You have to forge your own way," he said. "Just persevere. In documentary work, nothing is handed to you."
A BRIGHT IDEA