On PBS: Burns burnishes the Big Apple

Review: For 10 hours, New Yorkers talk about the making of the city that is the center of their world. And it never gets dull.

November 13, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's a big documentary on the Big Apple, 10 hours of New Yorkers ruminating on what makes their city so great, 10 hours of historians tracking the people and ideas that have made New York what it is, 10 hours of soft music and famous voices and still photographs somehow brought to life.

And if all that seems a bit much on paper, the time pretty much flies by on your TV screen.

Small wonder, given the cast of characters that inhabit "New York: A Documentary Film," a five-part, 10-hour documentary making its debut tomorrow night on PBS. (A sixth part, chronicling the city from roughly 1933 onward, is scheduled for spring.)

There's Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic one-legged director general brought in by the Dutch West Indies Company in 1647 to rescue its flagging colony; Alexander Hamilton, whose devotion to capitalism ensured New York's status as the financial capital of the United States; William M. "Boss" Tweed, poster boy for corrupt politicians everywhere, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who parlayed his feel for 1920s New York into books and essays that would make him one of the most important writers of the 20th century. And there are plenty of others.

Many New Yorkers are convinced that their city is the ultimate in Western Civilization and have to force themselves to tone down the superlatives. Only a true New Yorker, for instance, would speak with pride of the 1863 draft riots as a truly "world-class riot." Nothing happens in New York, it seems, that isn't on a massive scale.

But if nothing else, "New York" makes this pride easy to understand; sometimes, it seems there isn't a thing that happens in New York without repercussions felt throughout the rest of the world, whether that something is the first steamboat or the Brooklyn Bridge or the Stock Market Crash of 1929. True, ears not attuned to the hyperbole of New York-speak may flinch. But there really is an otherworldliness to the city, the documentary suggests, a feeling of size and grandeur that can't be matched anywhere else.

Tonight's episode one, "The Country and the City," chronicles New York from September 1604, when Henry Hudson, an Englishman hired by the Dutch, first explored the river that would one day bear his name, to the first part of the 19th century. "Manhattan," narrator David Ogden Stiers notes wryly, comes from an Indian word, variously translated as "Island of Hills" or "Place of General Inebriation."

The point is made early on that New York (or New Amsterdam, as it was first known) was settled by the Dutch, who, in the words of writer Brendan Gill, "didn't give a damn about anything but making money."

That philosophy ensured New Amsterdam's diverse nature, since anyone was welcome (an early effort to bar Jews was rebuffed by the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company), so long as they contributed to the colony's economic well-being.

And it is that pragmatism that has made New York what one historian terms a great experiment, "to see whether all the peoples of the world could live together in one place." More often that not, "New York" suggests, they have if sometimes uneasily.

Throughout the episode -- in fact, throughout all the succeeding episodes, as well -- the filmmakers take frequent breaks to allow their on-screen commentators to speak in general terms about the city. Some are eloquent (E.L. Doctorow, David McCullough, John Steele Gordon), some are witty (Pete Hamill, Fran Lebowitz), some are fascinatingly obtuse (Allen Ginsberg). Much like the city they all adore so much.

Succeeding evenings continue the story on through the first third of the 20th century. You meet DeWitt Clinton, whose ruthless vision of a modern metropolis led to the denuding of Manhattan Island (designers sought to make the landscape as flat and uniform as possible) and a plan for future development that guided the city for decades.

You watch as the ruling politicians of Tammany Hall realize the surest way to hold political power is to curry favor with, and ensure the votes of, the hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving annually.

You follow the career of Al Smith, whose populist streak took him from an Irish tenement on New York's lower East Side to the governor's mansion and nearly the White House.

And you thrill as, even with the Great Depression in full swing, the magnificent Empire State Building punctures the sky above 34th Street.

All in all, PBS will be offering a thrilling, informative and emotional journey through the life and lifestyle of a city.

But perhaps a word of warning is required here: "New York" is another PBS production from the house of Burns, complete with all the wonders and warts the Burns names implies.

True, the Burns here is Ric, who collaborated with older brother Ken on the masterful 1990 documentary "The Civil War" but has since gone pretty much his own way.

But there must be something in the Burns genes that dictates a single method of filmmaking.

For fans, that means elegant, people-centered stories, backed by soothing strings and mournful pianos.

It means a pace that defines the term languid. It means casting history as a noble -- and endlessly fascinating -- discipline, an attempt to understand who we have become as a nation by looking at the men and women who set us on the path.

But for some, that approach has become almost self-parody. However you feel about their style, the Burns brothers remain master storytellers.

Yes, it would be nice to see them grow, would have been nice to see a "New York" at times as manic and as gritty as its namesake. But it's hard to complain when the results are as wondrous as this.

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