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“The Supreme Laboratory Of The American Experiment”
One of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers takes on America’s greatest city: Ric Burns discusses his new PBS series, New York
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
Ric Burns’s projects have grown ever more ambitious since he became a director. He first made a name for himself as co-producer and co-writer, with his brother, Ken, of the landmark PBS series The Civil War, which aired in 1990. Since then he has directed acclaimed and award-winning historical documentaries on the nation’s greatest playground (Coney Island, 1991), one of its most haunting human tragedies (The Donner Party, 1992), and the entire ‘Westward expansion (The Way West, 1995). His latest work outstrips them all. He has been putting together New York for more than seven years, and the result is a twelve-hour biography of what he calls “the world’s first modern city” and “the place where the idea of America is created, ” a story that stretches from Henry Hudson’s first sighting of the lonely, remote harbor in 1609 to the sprawling, congested world capital of finance, media, and culture of 1999. The first five 2-hour episodes of New York will air on the evenings of November 14 through 18; the sixth segment is scheduled to be shown in the spring of 2000.
I talked to Ric Burns in the offices of his production company, Steeplechase Films, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
First of all, why New York City?
Americans are fond of thinking of New York as the most foreign of American cities, but to a degree that I think is startling, the story of New York is the story of America. I mean, the principal themes of American culture and society, in a fascinating and very moving way, came bubbling out of the ground long before they called it New York, back when it was New Amsterdam. The extent to which America is a commercial, diverse society that thinks of itself as at once unrelentingly capitalistic and unrelentingly democratic, and hopes to not compromise either of those enterprises, all comes from New York. It remains today the supreme laboratory of the American experiment in capitalism and democracy, and the laboratory for modern culture. That’s what drew us to the project.
An experiment in democracy, when it was founded purely for business, not for moral or religious, reasons?
Yes. It’s funny for a liberal kid who grew up in Ann Arbor in the sixties to discover the degree to which the logic of capitalism and the logic of an alternative to capitalism developed in the same place and for the very same reasons. The Dutch found very early on that they had created the most diverse society in the world. There were eighteen languages spoken on the streets of New Amsterdam by 1643, nineteen years after the colony was founded. That seems like nothing today, but it was a very complex and heterogeneous society for the time. And they didn’t want it to be that way. Peter Stuyvesant was a bigoted Calvinist who sought to keep Jews out but was overruled by the board of directors of the Dutch West India Company precisely because it would be bad for business to exclude anyone who might wish to come here and work. So the relationship between a non-ideological business-oriented culture and an inclusive multiethnic culture was set from the very beginning, not necessarily out of benevolence but out of a kind of instinctive or even conscious sense that it was going to help the society, help the business culture. I found that surprising.
It’s a very long way from 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed in, to the metropolis of seven and a half million people today. How do you tell such a huge story?
Despite how relatively new film is, it’s essentially an ancient storytelling medium. I mean, film rips through the camera and then through the projector at twenty-four frames a second in one direction and one direction only. We’re carried into a river of light and sound, and move from beginning to middle to end. What that means is that every time out you have to find what the story is. What is the one story to tell about a city that sprawls nearly four hundred years in its history, covers some 326 square miles, clearly embraces every conceivable human enterprise and kind of human being? I think we settled on a very simple proposition, which was to see how it happened that everybody in the world came to be living in the same place and could live together there. One can really see the experiment in the creation of a worldwide culture beginning in the early seventeenth century. That was the first step in a process we now call globalization. It’s not glib, I think, to say that the experiment that in a sense began in New Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century is the experiment of the turn of the millennium.
You make it sound as if New York is the essence of what’s best about America.