Ric Burns

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This week in Writing New York we’re still in the early twentieth century, with looks at two artistic enclaves: bohemian Greenwich Village (just before and after World War I) and the Harlem Renaissance, the subject of Cyrus’s lecture Wednesday morning.

Over the last few years we’ve pulled together some posts about the original Village bohemians that might be useful to our students or interesting to those of you who are following along at home (or arriving here via a Google image search for the Provincetown Playhouse, shown above). The main resource we’d recommend, though, is Melissa Bradshaw’s chapter on the Village in our Cambridge Companion, which our students are assigned to read this week. We can’t say enough good things about that essay and how well is anchors this unit for our course.

Previously on PWHNY, we’ve taken a look at nineteenth-century precursors to Village bohemia, including the scene at Pfaff’s, a bar at Bleecker and Broadway where Whitman hung out with the likes of the scandalous actress Adah Isaacs Mencken. The earliest description I know of a New York bohemian enclave comes slightly earlier, in Melville’s outrageous novel Pierre (1852).

Our trip through bohemian GV includes consideration of the Provincetown Players and especially Eugene O’Neill, whose play The Hairy Ape is on the syllabus. Locals will know how much buzz there’s been in the neighborhood over the demolition/reconstruction of the Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal. (See Curbed’s archive of related stories for details.) For images of the refurbished theater, click here. Earlier this semester our friend Joe Salvatore directed a trio of Provincetown originals, embedded in an original frame narrative, to launch the space’s reopening. I’d hoped to write more about that at the time, but it obviously didn’t happen. Students who attended with me or others who saw those shows are certainly welcome to comment here.

O’Neill has popped up on this blog from time to time, including yesterday, when I mentioned Ric Burns’s documentary about the playwright and included a clip from the film that showed James O’Neill in action in The Count of Monte Cristo, circa 1913. I should have included this clip from Burns’s film, which features Christopher Plummer first discussing then performing lines from the role of James Tyrone, from O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, written in 1940 but not staged until 1956. The role, of course, is based on O’Neill’s father. The really amazing stuff comes about five minutes into this clip:

A few years ago I wrote about a set of early O’Neill plays that were staged by the Metropolitan Playhouse. I’ve also tried to imagine how Emma Goldman, whose New York circles overlapped with O’Neill’s, would have reacted to his drama. She had her own bit to say in her lectures on modern drama’s significance.

Elsewhere: Don’t miss the Bowery Boys’ post about O’Neill’s favorite bohemian dive, The Golden Swan. (He just called it the “Hell Hole.”) That last link will take you to John Sloan’s visual rendering of the place; Sloan was also involved in something I mentioned briefly in lecture: the night in January 1917 when Marcel Duchamp and friends, including Sloan, climbed Washington Square Arch and declared Greenwich Village a free and independent republic. Sloan’s “Arch Conspirators” marks that occasion.

Inspired? Check out Teri Tynes’s list of 25 radical things to do in Greenwich Village, from her blog Walking Off the Big Apple.

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Today in my lecture to our Writing New York class I talked briefly about James O’Neill’s long run in The Count of Monte Cristo, a role he played over 5,000 times between 1875 and 1917. I promised to post some film clips of late O’Neill performances, which come from our friend Ric Burns’ doc on James’s famous son, Eugene:

Here’s Burns addressing the New-York Historical Society on the subject of Eugene O’Neill, with some comments on the father-son relationship:

For details on Burns’s film, click here.

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Bryan and I were pleased to host a visit by Ric Burns to NYU last night, for a special screening of his most recent documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Many of our readers no doubt are familiar with Burns’s monumental, eight-part New York: A Documentary Film, and those of you who are persuaded by our arguments that Herman Melville is a central figure in the literary history of New York (and that Moby-Dick is inspired, in part, by the energies of mid-nineteenth-century New York) will find the new film illuminating as a follow-up to the earlier film.

As Burns explained in his opening remarks, Into the Deep turns on three interlinked stories: the story of the American whaling industry from its origins in the seventeenth century through its heyday in the mid-nineteenth to its sudden demise by the start of the twentieth; the story of the catastrophic voyage of the whaleship Essex, which was wrecked by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean 1820; and the writing and publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). The film is a cautionary tale about what happens when you base an industry on a finite natural resource and suggests that the rise and fall of American whaling might be an allegory for our present-day infatuation with another natural resource — not whale oil but petroleum. At the same time, however, the film is also a case-study in globalization: for all its rapaciousness, the whaling industry also Americans to explore the wide world and come into contact with racial and cultural others — a daunting prospect for some but a source of wonder and opportunity for others, like Herman Melville.

Watching the film again, I was struck by the gorgeousness of its depictions of a whaleship under sail and the skill with which Burns staged “re-enactments.” And I realized that the film is in fact making a case for a re-evaluation of the story of American industrialization that we commonly tell ourselves, forcing us to remember the pivotal role played by whale oil and other whale products. As one of our students suggested during the question-and-answer period that followed the screening, that’s not a story that’s customarily told in high school history courses. In our historical memory, the significance of the story of American whaling has disappeared along with the industry, lost like the Essex and Melville’s Pequod.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 135).

We were fortunate enough to be able to record the question-and-answer session, so we’ll be posting material from it in the near future. In the meantime, if you were there at the screening last night, or if you’ve seen Burns’s film and found it provocative, please leave a comment below.

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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.

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Today’s topics: Warhol, the Factory, Warhol’s relation to the poetry world, Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, The Velvet Underground and Nico. I’ll be showing a sizable chunk of the second episode of Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, and we’ll be discussing the first Velvet Underground album — both in relation to Warhol’s scene and to the downtown minimalist music scene we began to dip into yesterday. (To get at the latter I’ve had the class read Alex Ross’s chapter on bebop and minimalism , which culminates in his reading of the Velvets as “Rock and Roll minimalists.”)

Watching portions of the Burns doc last night reminded me of the downtown party scene from Midnight Cowboy, which I hadn’t seen in quite a while. I YouTubed up the clip:

Warhol was apparently supposed to appear in this scene. (Several of his “superstars” do.) But Valerie Solanis, of course, had other plans.

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One of my favorite moments in Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film comes near the end of the episode on the fight over Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut a huge swath through the old Cast Iron District (now known as SoHo) in order to build an elevated, supposedly high-speed freeway that would have connected the bridges on the East side to the tunnels on the West.


The plan was opposed vigorously during a six-hour knock-down-drag-out fight at City Hall in early December 1962, during which Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio famously called Robert Moses a “cantankerous, stubborn old man” and said the time had come for him to release his grip on the city’s development. (The plan was on-again-off-again for almost another decade.) Burns follows the announcement of the proposal’s defeat with some news footage in which an older downtown resident, looking a bit of the gentleman bum with hat in hand, New York accent thick as lower Manhattan fog, says something like: “This’ll be the best Christmas present the people on Broome Street ever had!”

I think of that old fellow quite often when I walk through my neighborhood — most of which used to be part of a more sprawling Little Italy. The building I live in on Broome Street, along with the rest of the buildings on the north side of the street for several blocks, would have been razed to complete Moses’s moronic shrine to the automobile. I wonder if that old man lived to the end of the decade, when the completion of Southbridge Towers down by the seaport — built on 16 acres of demolished waterfront warehouses and tenements — led to a mass exodus from Little Italy. Or did he hang out up here? Are his kids still in the neighborhood, or did they move to larger spaces way out in Brooklyn?

A few old timers still inhabit our neighborhood. You see them around some of the restaurants and bars, which, truth be told, we pretty much avoid. You see some older ladies in the grocery store or on occasion hanging out a fourth-floor window watching the supermodels walking dogs and shoppers consult guidebooks on the streets below. I see one older resident on occasion when I bike my daughter to school. She scowls at us and clutches her little dog close if I pop the bike on the sidewalk to avoid traffic, exactly the sort of thing old ladies in neighborhoods should do in response to obnoxious newcomers.

esb_little_italy_3jan04.jpgAs annoying as festival season can be in Little Italy, what with all the sloughed off oil and puke in the gutters come morning, I love the street decorations and the Christmas music rising from loudspeakers on the corner or, better yet, from an occasional strolling brass ensemble. This is one moment in the season, too, when you can tell where the old timers actually live: they tend to decorate their fire escapes early in December, lights and fake pine garlands wrapping cast iron bars and ringing windows, giant cardboard candy canes wired firmly in place.

The intrepid writermama, who’s much better than I am about carrying a camera to catch candid shots of Lower East Side life — evidence of magic that still remains in crevices and corners — took this shot of a tenement on Mott Street, below Houston, my favorite set of holiday decorations this season. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s the building she’s caught here! If not, there’s one a lot like it.) I’d like to think these lights have gone up like this as long as anyone can remember.


What do the old timers do in your neighborhood this season?

Photo of Empire State Building from Little Italy via Wired New York. 

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