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Ken Burns Finds New Audience with “Past Is Present” App

“There is no such thing as history,” Ken Burns says at the top of this short promotional clip for his new iPad app, Past Is Present. It’s more like a series of recurrences: “not cycles, but patterns.” To help the average eye better examine such connections, Don MacKinnon conceived, directed and produced this interactive exploration of common threads in Burns’ work. Clips from the likes of The Civil War and Baseball are grouped by both theme and time period, allowing its user to make scenes “20 years apart, suddenly interrelate in a new way.” Burns offers up interviews and his own clip assemblies, determined by major historical tropes like Race, War, Art, Hard Times, Politics and Innovation. The app is free to download, though its more exclusive content carries a $9.99 surcharge.

Yet another fascinating aspect worth exploring in Past Is Present is not its content, but the reason for its creation. Burns, long regarded as PBS’s long-winded golden boy, is manufacturing, or at least re-imagining, his work for a millennial audience. Devotees alike may find new means of conceiving Burns’ catalogue, but this app is also introducing the documentarian to an entirely new viewer who’s perhaps not as bewitched by PBS series as his or her parents. Again, we witness an instance of a stalwart filmmaker allowing new technology’s modes of consumption to influence outreach for the better.


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