Doc Talk | Peter keough

Driving old Dixie down again

25 years ago, Burns’s ‘Civil War’ series made history must-see TV

Civil War Cannon as seen in the Ken Burn's nine-part 1990 PBS documentary film.
Courtesy of Florentine Films
Civil War Cannon as seen in the Ken Burn's nine-part 1990 PBS documentary film.

It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Ken Burns’s epic, five-part, 700-minute “The Civil War” series on PBS riveted the nation and inspired a generation of history buffs. It also stirred renewed excitement about documentaries, introducing a dynamic method of integrating the insights of historians with primary sources such as letters, photos, and newspaper stories, a technique that has since become a cinematic convention.

On the other hand, the fact that so many people seem confused about the issues that led to the war (slavery versus states’ rights and/or clashing economies) and the nature of the Confederacy (an idyllic, genteel society versus an inhuman system of exploitation) suggests that it has indeed been a long time since Burns’s film clearly demonstrated the truth about the conflict. So the DVD release of a newly restored commemorative edition could hardly be timelier.

“The Civil War 25th Commemorative Edition” will be released by PBS Distribution on Blu-Ray ($139.99) and DVD ($99.99) on Tuesday.

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Behind the music


This year has seen some wrenching documentaries about the tragic lives of great musicians such as Nina Simone and Kurt Cobain, but none seem as heartbreaking as Asif Kapadia’s “Amy.” Like Simone, Amy Winehouse was an inspired jazz original, and like Cobain employed her music to transform her inner torment into compelling songs until her untimely death in 2011 at the age of 27.

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A discussion with assistant professor Tim Riley and associate professor Kristin Lieb will follow this free screening in Emerson’s Bright Lights film series. It takes place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Bright Family Screening Room in the Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston.

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One of the most acute and inventive commentators on American cinema and culture, Thom Andersen makes documentaries that consist of collages of fragments from the films themselves shaped into an essay by a voiceover commentator. Perhaps his best-known film, the much praised “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (2003), opens the Harvard Film Archive Series “Thom Andersen, Film Essayist” (Oct. 11-Nov. 8). In it, he intercuts images from some 200 films set in Los Angeles — some of them famous Hollywood features such as Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974), others more obscure, such as Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) — to demonstrate how the Dream Factory has transformed its hometown into a city of dreams, in many cases reflecting the conflict between the privileged and the impoverished classes.

“Los Angeles Plays Itself” screens Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive in the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge.

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Peter Keough can be reached at