- Historic Sites
“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
In New York you can’t just show up. You have to have gotten your act together. The cultural reality is that it’s a stage, and there are ten other people waiting in the wings, so you’d better kick high and make the gesture both broad and dazzling. All these people intuitively understood that. I’m still astonished by them all and what they’ve given the film.
Where does it all ultimately lead?
The reason we made the movie has to do, oddly, with that most symbolic of New York landmarks, the Empire State Building. It’s as if since the Ice Age—in a completely unhistorical way of looking at things—New York had been moving in the direction of putting up that twelve-hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall building with a dirigible mast on top. They dug the ground, and in a few weeks the Crash came. It never should have been built; it was a last twitch in the great era of speculation. It’s almost a gift to the screenwriter. A number of techniques had to be pioneered, and it was put up by an army of workers with a speed and efficiency that were almost reckless, all while the Depression deepened. Then it was such a financial failure that it remained unsurrounded by other buildings—which is why you can see it from everywhere. It immediately became the icon of the city, the greatest expression of the manic upward aspiring thrust that had been the city’s ensign for centuries.
The most moving thing ever written about New York from within a very precise historical context, I think, was by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was the human emblem of the twenties, and he was on his way down, too, when he came back to New York in what he called “the dark autumn of 1931.” Zelda was in an institution, and he was woefully alcoholic, and in a famous essay, “My Lost City,” he took inventory of the New York that had flown too high and had its wings melted. It was in smithereens with the exception of this incredible building, which had just opened that year.
He described how, looking out from the top of the Empire State Building, he understood the mistake New York had made. Staring off into the infinite distance, he saw that the city was a finite entity, and “only the expanse of blue and green is limitless.” New Yorkers hadn’t realized the city was not a universe but just a city after all. It didn’t go on forever, it wasn’t the whole world, “and the entire edifice we had reared in our imaginations,” he wrote, “came crashing down.”
Rarely does a city have a narrative that’s that spectacular, and that tragicomic, in its essence.