Even streamlined history of New York won’t fit in a week

By Steve Behrens

The  producers use archival and aerial shots to make a lyrical case for the city as a brutal but nourishing machine that feeds democracy and social mobility as well as industry. (Photo: WNET.)

Not every American will buy what Ric Burns and Lisa Ades are selling, but in the 10 hours airing this week on many public TV stations they make the strongest possible case for the greatness of New York City.

Diehard New York-haters will quickly overdose on the soaring rhetoric and the flyovers of the fantastical Chrysler Building, but that’s no surprise to Burns. “The ambivalence toward New York is very powerful and a central component of the story,” he says. “It has only gotten stronger as power has accumulated there.”

The story was so big that the producers gave up squeezing it into 10 hours and will deliver two more hours early next year — a sixth episode covering 1931-99. Burns hopes public TV will replay the first five parts at that time.

New York: A Documentary Film, jointly presented by WGBH’s American Experience and by WNET, flies through the basic case for greatness in Episode 1. City-lovers, at least, may consider the episode the most exhilarating two hours they’ve ever seen on public TV. It argues a national case for New York’s greatness the way brother Ken Burns sold the broader historic significance of The Civil War and then Baseball. On-camera historians add their own hyperbole. “Think of New York as a metaphor for effort,” says David McCullough at one point.

Faced with an abundance of visual riches to assemble, Burns and Ades switched midstream from flatbed film editing to an Avid video setup. (Photo copyright by Don Perdue.)

The producers contend that this city is where capitalism and democracy (nothing less!) made their peace — permitting unprecedented diversity and fostering phenomenal innovation. From the start, they say, New York was a business proposition, too intent on ruthless commerce to indulge persistently in discrimination, backwardness or counterproductivity. As America’s best port and biggest city, it was first to face many of the nation’s great problems and try many of its greatest experiments, historian Kenneth T. Jackson tells us.

Of all the series’ accomplishments, Burns says he’s proudest that the team found and crafted a coherent story from the city’s chaotic past. It is nothing like those disappointing compilations that dash from one familiar Fox Movietone clip to another.

“There were another hundred ideas we could have talked about,” says James Sanders, who co-wrote the series with Burns. Some academic advisors pressed them to focus on immigrant New York’s central role in creating America’s popular culture, says co-producer Lisa Ades. And they do give that theme some airtime in Episode 5. The producers might also have spent more time on middle-class New York instead of the rich and the poor, Sanders says. “But you have only so much time. You have the incredible mandate to stick to the story. A book can be discursive. Film allows no such luxury.”

With this monumental story to tell, director Burns and editor Li-Shin Yu immediately establish a pace and tone of awestruck contemplation, starting with an eloquent extended remark by E.L. Doctorow. As Yu assembles shots of scores of New Yorkers on their way somewhere, the novelist muses about the city:

Doctorow: If you imagine an ordinary moment at an intersection in New York City, a street light — some people are stopped and others are in motion, some cars are stopped and others are in motion — if you were to put that in film terms, in a freeze frame, and hold everything for a second, you would realize that there’s a universe there of totally disparate intentions. Everybody going about his or her business in the silence of their own minds with everybody else, and the street, and the time of day, and the architecture, and the quality of light, and the nature of the weather as a kind of background or field for the individual consciousness. When you think about that, that’s what happens in the city, in that somehow the city can embrace and accept and accommodate all that disparate intention at one and the same time. Not only in that corner, but in thousands of corners. It’s really an astonishing thing.

As a sales piece for the city’s greatness (and for the rest of the series), Episode 1 allows only a quick foreshadowing of the profound tragedies and “heart-breaking extremes” ahead, but Ric Burns demonstrates in later episodes his interest in the dark side. After all, Burns and Ades produced “The Donner Party” for The American Experience, and he’s drawn to anguished playwright Eugene O’Neill as his next topic.

“I’ve been very interested by temperament in the catastrophes that can happen,” says Burns. “Left to my own devices, I’m drawn naturally to the Donner Party, not to people who go west and find paradise.”

The darkest events will come as news to many viewers. On the advice of their historical advisors, the producers revised plans so that they could end Episode 2 with the draft riots of 1863, which pitted the dispossessed Irish against the dispossessed blacks and left more than 100 dead.

The great city brought forth great, inventive leaders who “understood where the future was going,” as Burns says, and steered the juggernaut in the right direction: Alexander Hamilton, Mayor DeWitt Clinton, reformer Al Smith and, in Episode 6, public works titan Robert Moses.

Back in 1990, Burns talked with Sanders about doing a film about Robert Moses, but after a few martinis, “Somehow, it became the whole history of New York.” Burns and Ades were then making “Coney Island,” Burns’ first major project since making The Civil War with brother Ken.

Burns got a scripting grant from NEH in 1993 and began work in earnest two years later, after The Way West. With the help of researchers, Sanders and associate producer Steve Rivo dived into archives of text and Ades into visual archives. WNET, free of a discontinued David Wolper project about the city, joined the series to help complete fundraising. At peak, 20 or more were working on the series, centered on two offices near 72nd and Broadway. Through Episode 5, they spent $9.8 million.

Ades and her team found and reanimated paper prints of the earliest movies of New York — prints that had survived because they were on paper rather than volatile nitrate film. She got to know private collectors of rare photos such as stereopticon images. In the process, Ades assembled the stills that fill the handsome 480-page companion book from Knopf. In the series, the camera frames tiny details from early photos of daily life — intimate, unposed moments. Later, she loved using a long tracking shot, apparently taken from a trolley as it moved through crowded streets.

But as the team moved toward the motion picture age, they approached a burgeoning visual inventory.

“We became terrified by knowing how much material we were going to compile,” says Ades. “We knew half-way through the film was ending up being a slow and laborious process.”

The team shot the series on 16mm film and edited the first half of the series on a traditional flatbed film-editing table. But Burns said he agreed “with extreme reluctance” to use Avid digital workstations for the rest. “It’s inconceivable that we could have moved through that archive without the computer,” he says. “Now, I can tell you, I’ll never look back.” (What he still misses are the otherwise idle moments in the editing room — while the editor struggles with reels — when he could just think.)

The producers credit Ira Spiegel, their sound editor, for adding a vital dimension — the unobtrusive noises of the street and machinery that demonstrated, as Burns says, “how powerfully present New York felt when you could hear it.”

Despite what they could do to make characters of graft lord Boss Tweed and Al Smith, the real human stars of the series are the historians, whose voices soon become recognizable in the seconds before their faces appear — the sharp New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, the passionately angry historian Mike Wallace, the soft-spoken but riveting Kenneth T. Jackson. The viewer can regret, as Sanders does, that urban scholar Jane Jacobs did not agree to join them. But it’s a rich cast, bursting with enthusiasms. Ades recalls that Burns himself interviewed the experts — keeping them spontaneous by not pre-interviewing or revealing his questions ahead of time.

Among them are sons and daughters of the city itself, marked by their various New York accents — not only biographer Robert Caro, novelist Peter Quinn and journalist Pete Hamill, but also upscale writer George Plimpton, who reads from the diaries of patrician lawyer and tireless observer of the streets George Templeton Strong.

An extraordinary diarist, Strong comes back again and again with observations until 1875, and then passes away without note. Burns explains that he had to be ruthlessly economical, bringing people on stage and letting them fall away.

Though the experts deliver their own heartfelt views, which Burns remarkably knits into a coherent tale, almost every one also contributes emotion. As Burns says, they give weight with their feelings to what they’re saying. After all, they’re a cast of New Yorkers, he says, who want to permanently convert the listener without delay.

But throughout the film, even through the interviews to a surprising degree, a current of music propels the story. The themes are often melancholy, even during upbeat events, with a background of vaguely worrying percussion. Something dark is always around the next corner. In one early climax, Burns and Yu combine the elements — maps of DeWitt Clinton’s grid plan for Manhattan’s eventual uptown expansion, amazing nighttime aerial footage of today’s pulsing automotive arteries, underlined with music evoking an awe at Clinton’s ambition and prescience.

Composer/arranger Brian Keane creates recurring but unobtrusive musical themes — a pennywhistle for the Irish, for instance, according to Burns, and another theme for Alexander Hamilton and his ideals.

“Music is the art that film is aspiring toward,” Burns admits. “Movies want to be these rivers of pleasurable aesthetic experience that flow with a beauty and drama beyond words.” He doesn’t hesitate to borrow that power.

New York lingers occasionally on an event to let its effect accumulate, as with the horrifying tragedy of 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — right at Washington Square in Greenwich Village! — and the resulting strikes that led to workplace reforms. As the sweatshop fire rages, the producers show us a close-up of a cop in wild-eyed horror, watching flaming bodies of women leaping from upper floors. The camera pulls out to reveal corpses heaped at his feet.

“Among the remains,” the narrator notes starkly, “investigators find 11 engagement rings.” As we contemplate the tragedy, the sound editor has inserted for our peripheral hearing the sound of pigeons fluttering in the air.

Burns and Ades photos by Don Perdue, Sanders photo by Joe Sinnott.
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