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Two Out of Three Ain't Bad
on June 15, 2010
The life of any great city exists on three levels - social, political and cultural. What is surprising about this documentary is how well it succeeds at presenting the first two aspects of New York, while failing so miserably at addressing the third. While I agree that a film should be evaluated on the basis of what it intended to do and not on what one thinks it should have done, it is difficult not to be critical of this omission, especially in a film with a running time approaching 18 hours.
What Ric Burns and his team have done here is present an exhaustive history of a great American city, with particular focus on the political figures at the center of it all. Peter Stuyvesant, Boss Tweed, F.H. LaGuardia, Robert Moses and countless others are given extensive coverage, as are the lives of the immigrant population that were affected, for better or worse, by these political giants. We see the various crises, upheavals and tragedies that went on to shape the city, and how the lives of its residents adapted, often with great difficulty, to the city's changes and growth.
And yet those who know New York as a center of American culture will quickly notice something missing in this film. We see the great influx of immigrants but we learn little to nothing about how these different cultures went on to form the great melting pot. The creation of ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy are given only a passing mention. New York institutions like the Italian market and the Jewish deli are never seen, despite New York's position as the multicultural food capital of the world. The great Gilded Age of New York, as recounted by literary giants like Henry James and Edith Wharton, is virtually ignored. (Burns is somewhat more successful with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age".)
Then there is the crucial arts and entertainment aspect. The development of Broadway is not here, nor is the early motion picture industry, which existed in NYC before anyone had heard of Hollywood. The great literary circles like American Bloomsbury and the Beats are never mentioned, nor are the many famous literary journals that followed them. Greenwich Village is never looked at. We do not see Yankee Stadium or the many historic events that took place there. The great museums, theaters and concert halls are passed over. We do not meet (with a few exceptions) the great writers, artists, musicians or actors, or the architectural geniuses who created Central Park, Grand Central Station, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the New York Public Library and the many other famous structures the city is known for. We learn little about the development of big-city publishing, the fashion industry or, omission of all omissions, the birth of radio and television.
Granted, any of these topics alone could fill a lengthy documentary, but the fact that they are barely mentioned in a film of this length is hard to overlook.
I give the film three stars because what it does, it does well. I just wish that after investing eighteen hours of my time, I had a better understanding of why New York holds such a high place in American culture. As it is, I feel like I attended a very long history lesson, much of which will be forgotten shortly after the exam is over.