Ric Burns was our guest at the Faculty Resource Network seminar on Wednesday. We screened the seventh episode of New York: A Documentary Film (“The City and the World [1945 - Present]) in the morning and then engaged in a conversation with Ric about the making of the film and about the craft of documentary in the afternoon.
Early in the afternoon session, Ric told us a story about one of his first nights as a resident of the city: lying in bed with the window open, he suddenly became aware of the “roar” of the city — that omnipresent background noise — and he burst into tears. Not out of sadness, he said, but because he felt overwhelmed by the city. New York: A Documentary Film was his attempt to understand the history, meaning, and emotional power of that roar.
Ric cited the work of Joseph Schumpeter and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan as two of the influences that led him to explore what he called the dynamics of “persistence and change, desire and aspiration” that shaped New York over time. When asked whether any of his beliefs about the city had changed as a result of his making the film, Ric answered that he no longer believed that the city was “unintelligible.” He suggested that much of its history arose from a few big ideas, especially the “experiment” of having all the peoples of the world living together in a single place, united not by ideology or religion but by the desire to pursue commerce. Ric spoke at length about the need for “provisional master narratives” that can help us to make sense of history.
Perhaps Ric’s belief in the importance of provisional master narratives arises from the discipline in which he works. Part of the conversation treated the difference between the documentary film and other forms of documentary representation, and Ric argued that film requires you to think in “a severe and aesthetic way”: every film is a story, even the most postmodern of films. And that story has to resonate with the film’s viewers, sometimes necessitating hard choices.
Ric presented an example of one of those choices by showing us a scene that was cut from the seventh episode (but preserved in rough cut among the extras on the DVD for episode seven). The scene recounts the crashing of a B-52 bomber into the Empire Building in 1945. It’s riveting footage and, seen by itself, makes a powerful statement. But when it was part of the seventh episode, Ric told us, it stopped the narrative flow and felt repetitive — because it was ultimately — in narrative terms — the same scene as the one that opens the episode: Fiorello LaGuardia typing alone on his last night in office and ruing the power that he had allowed Robert Moses to accumulate. Ultimately, according to Ric, the two scenes are both about large-scale forces that have been unleashed by modernity and have come to seem uncontrollable and dangerous.
And putting the footage into the eighth episode didn’t work either. That episode, “New York: The Center of the World,” was made after 9/11 and depicted the story of rise and fall of the World Trade Center as an encapsulation of the forces at work in New York’s history of commerce and globalization. There was no way, Ric said, to use the scene about the Empire State Building crash, without seeming “hideously self-congratulatory.”
Before 9/11, the World Trade Center played only a bit part in the provisional master narrative that the New York series constructed. The building of the towers is referred to only briefly as part of the seventh episode’s treatment of Robert Moses’s attempts to reshape Manhattan. The World Trade Center, Ric said, “came late in a process of anti-urbanism and urban renewal” that was already well-documented in the film. Treating it at length would seem repetitive.
But, “within hours after 9/11,” Ric told us, he realized that he had to make another film. He and his colleagues had fallen prey, he said, to a certain kind of parochial cosmopolitanism that New Yorkers often have: they give cosmopolitanism a lot of lip service, but don’t really pay enough attention to the rest of the world — and what it thinks of them. Noting that people often remember the “clear blue sky” of that day and suggest that the attacks literally happened “out of the blue,” Ric said that the eighth episode was designed to show that 9/11 didn’t come out of the blue at all. “When were those planes really launched,” he mused. “Probably 1945.” But that wasn’t an insight that many viewers weren’t ready to hear, even in 2003 when the film was finally broadcast, and it did receive criticism for its suggestion that New York and the U.S. should bear some responsibility for the attacks. For that reason, using the Empire State Building footage to frame the film would have made the filmmakers seem “insufferable.” (Click here to read an article about the episode in the New York Times.)
We ended the session with a scene from Ric’s latest documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, which explores some of the themes that have interested him before: commerce, industry, and globalization (as in the New York series) and cannibalism (which Ric explored in his film about the Donner Party). The DVD and Blu-Ray of Into the Deep are available now at shop.pbs.org.