Ric Burns (Ken Burns’s brother) and his impeccable timing.

I just finished watching Ric Burns’s (Ken Burns’s brother) documentary on New York.  Its really excellent, its life affirming, its city affirming.  Its point of view is very pro new york, its unapologetically pro new york.  It makes me feel like I’M from new york.  And I’m not – I’m scared of the place, I feel assaulted, I feel like a nobody, I feel ugly.  But when new york is contained on a DVD and I can watch like 400 years of history in a couple days, I feel like I’m outside of it.

The documentary told in a very Ken Burnsy kind of way. Like, he does camera pans.  First its over portraits and maps (for the 17th and 18th centuries) then its over moldy photos, then its over early motion pictures.  Over this stuff, the audio track is always the  commentators.  (who are great in this film.  I especially liked Mike Wallace and Robert Caro.)  It’s like the visual stuff is the primary source and the audio stuff is the secondary source.  Here’s the stuff and this is what it means.

That’s fine and all, I just would also have liked more primary sources in the primary sources’ own voices.  Political speeches and the like.  I dunno.  I just noticed that that’s how it was done, and it was glaring.

Also, there’s no disagreement among the commentators – it’s as if since its history we’re talking about, we’re talking about facts.  The story is “true” and unbroken.  Things which must have been totally and completely controversial in their day are stated plainly.  Al Smith’s demise.  The Empire State building going up practically weeks after the stock market crash.  Sometimes its new york according to walt whitman and f scott fitzgerald.  The triangle factory fire, with its eerie recollections of september 11.

September 11, while we’re on the subject, isn’t in the film, because it came out in like ’99.  It’s crazy.  After excoriating urban renewal and its mastermind, Robert Moses, Ric Burns (ken burns’s brother) zooms through the 70’s 80’s and 90’s.  The loss of jobs The horrible debt that nearly wiped out the city.  The white flight and suburbanization (which urban ‘renewal’ had a HUGE part in creating) that emptied out the city.  All these terrible things which cause people in the 70’s, really, to claim that the new york experiment was dead, that the great “melting pot” was a failure, the image of the roving urban black gangsta was synonymous with city, etc – all these problems sort of melt away in the late 90’s.  People and small business (and not so small business) come back to new york BECAUSE its this cacophony of people and cultures.  there’s money to be made and life to be lived.

This is how the film ends.  Its uplifting, its inspiring.  The great american city, reborn from the hell of the 70’s.  The melting pot once more.  Looking hopefully toward the new millenium.

The internet plays no role in this documentary.  Terrorism plays no part.  Evangelical religous bigotry plays no role.  Its just amazing, because the New York that we see at the end of the film really IS the new york we know now – its the present day, modern New York, with this incredibly huge (pair of) elephant(s) in the room. Jesus!  The twin towers are everywhere in this thing.  It’s like someone played a really cruel joke on Ric Burns (Ken Burns’s brother).  Here he creates this tribute to a city he obviously loves, complete with adoring, swooping helicopter shots of our favorite buildings – and then wham!  The very next year, the most significant event in the history of new york.

It’s kind of perfect, in a way – there’s some kind of clintonian, urbanist, pro-democracry, uplift that makes me really nostalgic.

I’m pretty sure that Ric Burns (Ken Burn’s brother) made a little post 9/11 follow up sort of extension.  Maybe I’ll get around to seeing that, but I kind of don’t want to.

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2 Responses to “Ric Burns (Ken Burns’s brother) and his impeccable timing.”


  1. 1 Sebastion Bach January 16, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Huh. Seems like a neat dude. Any relation to Ken Burns?

  2. 2 aec January 16, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    No, it’s like a porn name – like calling yourself Paris Sheraton, you know?


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