"New York: A Documentary Film," public TV's 10-hour history of that once-great city to the north, ends with a three-word threat that's enough to send chills up the spine and down again:
"To be continued . . . "
No, 10 hours just isn't excessively excessive enough, so a sixth two-hour episode will conclude the series sometime next spring. Until then, viewers who thought they couldn't possibly learn too much about New York will have to content themselves with the first five chapters, which air nightly, tomorrow through Thursday, at 9 on Channel 26 and other PBS stations.
The film was co-produced for the "American Experience" series by Lisa Ades and Ric Burns, brother of Ken. Burns also directed the film and co-wrote the script. In essence, the Burnsie Boys are at it again, and with their usual lethargic vengeance.
Why is it that the techniques Ken and Ric Burns deployed so effectively on their landmark documentary miniseries "The Civil War" have seemed so inappropriate and even punishing on subsequent productions--"New York" hardly being an exception? Perhaps because "Civil War" chronicled a monumental tragedy, one which could have ended a great nation very prematurely. Thus the hushed tones and mournful music and stately pace seemed ideal.
But they were not appropriate to "Baseball," another Ken Burns film, and they are not helpful on "New York," from Ric Burns, either. The Jazz Age of the '20s, for example, is almost devoid of jazz in the "New York" saga, and doesn't come along until the fifth and temporarily final chapter anyway. "New York" opens way, way back in 1609, with its first chapter covering just over two hundred years.
Among the positive adjectives that most people associate with New York City, "energy" would have to be somewhere, probably high, on the list. But the PBS "New York" is forever funereal, opening with scenes of hustle and bustle on the city streets cranked down to slow motion--the tamest hustle and bustle ever--while the narrator begins his 10-hour verbal dirge.
Look there in the distance--it's a ship, Henry Hudson's, proceeding into view. But very slowly. For God's sake, Henry, get a move on! A snippet of lively music follows under the opening credits during this sort of prologue to a prologue (the ditty sounding a bitty like "Brazil"), but most of what you get, at least in the first and fifth installments, is sober, somber and ponderous.
At least it is firmly established that New York has maintained a certain consistency over the years. Not long after the Dutch settled there and bought Manhattan from the Indians for more than the legendary $24, the narrator says, but less than $600, New York becomes a mecca for mayhem, misery, disease and drunkenness. After it's liberated from the imperious British in the Revolutionary War, an unimpressed Thomas Jefferson pronounces New York "a sewer, filled with all the depravities of human nature."
New York's role and value as harbor, ethnic melting pot and creative and commercial powerhouse is examined, reexamined and then examined from new angles. The script is full of hyperbole, with frequent uses of words like "astonishing" and "astounding." Of the Erie Canal it is said, "The scope of the project was nothing less than mind-boggling."
Visuals are the usual Burns mix, at least until the 20th-century portions when historical film footage is available: portraits, paintings, maps, maps and more maps, and the talking heads of historical experts, several of whom seem a tad too thrilled to be there. Words from literature about New York are read portentously on the soundtrack, usually in a spirit of world-weary melancholy that grows tiresome and draining.
Among those seen on-screen during the first episode are Daniel Patrick Moynihan, witty writer Fran Lebowitz, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (with little to contribute), novelist E.L. Doctorow and "folklorist" Nancy Groce. Part 5's commentators include Brendan Gill of the New Yorker. It's too bad Woody Allen couldn't have been coaxed into appearing, since he remains among our most prominent personifications of the city.
Indeed, there was more oomph, eloquence and New Yorkishness in the first five minutes of Allen's film "Manhattan" than in the four previewed hours of the Burns and Ades production. The filmmakers leave few banalities and truisms unused as they splatter superlatives onto the great metropolis. They mean to be troubadours and venerators, but they end up seeming more like pallbearers. "New York" is just too much pall to bear.