Posts Tagged ‘PBS’

“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.


This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

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“The real genuine stories are one and one equalling three.”
Ken Burns

My entrance into the world of Ken Burns was his film The Civil War which first aired back in 1990. Though that was 22-years ago, and in a world before YouTube, Facebook, and smart phones, there were plenty of distractions in modern Amercia to be amazed that 40 million people would watch a PBS documentary consisting mostly of black and white photos and interviews—that ran 608 minutes.

As I watched his latest film The Dust Bowl on Monday and Tuesday, I thought I’d glance back at the educational foundation that prepared Burns to do his life’s work. One that would bring him two Oscar nominations (Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty) and several Primetime Emmys (Jazz, The National Parks, Baseball, Unforgivable Blackness, The Civil War).

“‘Ken was well steeped in film history,’ remembers Morgan Wesson, who was a year ahead of Burns at Hampshire [College in Amherst, Massachusettes] and later worked with him on Empire of the Air; ‘he could quote you chapter and verse about the French New Wave, various documentary movements, whatever style had impact,’ In characterizing Jerom Liebing’s influence on them all. Wesson adds, ‘Though he might respect the craftsmanship of Hollywood films, he wasn’t about to give an inch. He was trying to convert us all to a private vision, to get us thinking on our own track. Ken took the lead from Jerry and started making documentaries.’

Burns worked part-time at the college bookstore during his four years at Hampshire (1971-1975) to help finance his education and subsidize several student film projects while earning a degree in film studies and design. Liebling, moreover encouraged his students to establish their own nonprofit company called Hampshire Films so that they would be in a position to hire themselves out at no wage to area companies and public institutions who would utilize their maturing talents while underwriting the entire cost of these commissioned productions. Clients were thus able to secure competently made informational films which they could not afford in any other way; and the students, more importantly, obtained a significant amount of much needed real-world experience. As Burns recalls, ‘it made it possible to leave Hampshire and have the confidence to start my own company and not spend years mired in someone else’s vision of things.”
Gary R. Edgerton
Ken Burns’s America
pages 31-32

There you have it—entrepreneurial filmmaking from an unlikely place. These days Burns and the Florentine Films team are based in Haydenville, Massachusetts (just north of Northampton). Impacting the world from a town with a population of just over 1,000.

P.S. It’s worth noting that Burns’s student film subjects included documentaries on decaying mill towns, a study on child abuse, and working in rural New England. Follow your own vision.

P.P.S. How many films over the years equate to 1+1=0?

Scott W. Smith

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“It still boggles my mind that people went to movie theaters to go see a movie about corn.”
Aaron Woolf (on his film King Corn)

On Saturday, while on a flight from Des Moines to Detroit, I met documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf. He was in Iowa to show one of his films at The Fleur Cinema & Cafe. (The Fleur is a funky little theater that is supportive of the arts and helping develop local talent. Over the years I’ve had several short films shown there.)

This wasn’t Woolf’s first trip to Iowa. Before he moved to New York, he received an MFA in Film from the University of Iowa. He also produced & directed the 2007 Peabody Award-winning documentary King Corn which was shot in Greene, Iowa. King Corn played in theaters and on PBS. Woolf gave me a DVD of Big River which he produced as companion to King Corn. Big River also features Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who were the two young men in King Corn who set out to see what happens when one tries to farm one arce of corn.

King Corn is still off many people’s radar but  it did receive a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was,  “A breezy diary from a pair of first-time farmers, as well as a wry rebuke to a nation devoted to eating cheaply but not necessarily well.” After seeing the film, you may never hear or read about high-fructose corn syrup without thinking about Iowa.

Woolf’s narrow focus on making a film about corn is part of a strategy that Woolf thinks is good advice for documentary filmmakers:

“Find the smallest focus possible for your film…In our case, it turned out that even the story of one acre of corn was a colossal topic, and we were still left with dozens of storylines that died a lonely death on the cutting room floor.”
Aaron Woolf
Independent Lens

Woolf’s latest documentary is Beyond Motor City, a 90-minute look at the rise, fall & future of Detroit. The film will air on PBS February 8, 2010.

Scott W. Smith

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