Ken Burns is one of our nation’s great documentarians, and now you can view his take on different aspects of the American experience on your iPad. His films are notable for their high production value, insightful narration and interviews, and use of archival images and video. The Ken Burns iPad app (free; $9.99 to unlock full app) combines his commentary, selected clips from his films, interviews, and images to illuminate different aspects of the American experience. The app’s sections are informative, engaging, and focused, and the app left me with a greater appreciation of the work of this master. Using the Ken Burns app made me eager to go back and re-watch the films of his that I’ve seen before, as well as see the ones that I’ve missed.
The Ken Burns app is split into six sections, each wrapped around a specific theme: Art, Hard Times, Innovation, Politics, Race, and War. When you install the app, only the Innovation section is accessible; to unlock the other five requires a $9.99 in-app purchase. But whether or not you take that plunge, you’ll want to check out Innovation.
Innovation takes you through various American explorations, introductions, creations, and achievements. These include the Lewis and Clark expedition; the National Parks (the first such system in the world); the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge; the introduction of the horse (by Spanish settlers in the Southwest) and its effect on Cheyenne culture; the Great Pacific Railroad and how opened up the West; the advent of cars, airplanes, and radio (and the development of broadcasting); the first car trip across America; and Louis Armstrong turning the musical world on end with his improvisational wizardry.
Each section (and many of the subsections) leads off with an introduction by Burns. The sections are replete with historical images, and most also include video clips. The commentary is focused on the theme in question and includes intriguing anecdotes and lesser-known facts. For example, from the Innovation section, we learn that broadcasting’s original meaning was the scattering of seed by a farmer walking along a furrow; it was adopted as a metaphor for radio stations scattering their programming to whomever wanted to listen to it. Another of my favorites, from the War section, describes how the Battle of Gettysburg—the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere—began as a clash over shoes, as foot-sore Rebel soldiers had heard there was a supply of shoes in the town, and they attempted to commandeer them.
Across the top of the screen the six themes are listed. Anyone can access Innovation by tapping on it, and you can access the rest if you’ve unlocked the app. Tapping on a theme lets you watch the entire section as a continuous playlist, or you can access topics of your choice, displayed in a row of circles. For instance, under Art, you have the Art Intro; Ken on Art; the Language of Music; [Frank Lloyd Wright's] Fallingwater; Ansel Adams and the Parks; the Jefferson City Mural; Woody Guthrie; Twain’s Masterpiece; Billie Holiday; and Steel Poetry. Clicking on a topic runs the film associated with it. At the bottom of the section screen, you can access the Timeline, which lets you view clips in chronological, rather than topical, order.
How to See the Full Films
The clips are taken from various Ken Burns documentary series, including, but not limited to, Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War, The National Parks, The Statue of Liberty, the West, and the War. When a video clip is playing, the screen’s upper-right corner displays the name of the film it came from, as well as a button labeled Watch the Film. Pressing it reveals three choices: PBS, Download on iTunes, and Netflix.
The only choice that lets you watch the videos for free is Netflix, and then only if you’re already a subscriber. (About half of the documentaries are available for streaming on Netflix. The others you can only get if you subscribe to a Netflix DVD plan.) Going to the PBS site lets you order the DVDs, which—depending on the series—can range in price from about $18 to more than $100. Buying them from iTunes lets you download them immediately. For some films, the prices were higher on the PBS site; for others, on iTunes. (PBS has multiple offerings for each film, some bundled with books and/or CDs.)
As all its content is streamed, using the Ken Burns app requires a good Internet connection. I discovered this the hard way, as I did part of my testing over a spotty connection. Frequently, the video and audio were out of sync, or the audio would play but only a black screen was visible.
The app is worth downloading for the Innovation section alone, and I found the in-app unlocking a worthy investment. In using this app, I couldn’t help but come away with a greater appreciation of American history, as well as the work of Ken Burns. The app has whetted my appetite: It’s made me anxious to go see the documentaries of his that I’ve missed. I will wait, though, until I become a Netflix subscriber, as buying them from PBS or iTunes would be quite expensive.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc