“New York Historical Society, a Celebration” airs on PBS.
Wednesday, November 23,2005
Emmy Award–winner Ric Burns’ latest is his homage to the Society, where behind the beautiful-but-almost-blank neo-classical exterior exist paintings, photographs, maps, manuscripts, diaries and objects.
As a kid, Martin Scorsese wandered uptown from Little Italy and discovered the archive, which became a lifelong haunt. Burns found it while assisting his older brother and fellow documentarian, Ken, on projects that diverted Ric from becoming an English professor.
Burns: While assisting Ken, I sort of had an out-of-body experience in an editing room, realizing how deeply film’s manifold power—images, words, sounds, music working together—effects audiences on an emotional level.…
Filmmaking is much more galvanizing than a career that involves writing three or four books for an audience of 3,000.
Merin: Have you thought of doing features?
Burns: Yes, but different skills are required for features. I’d have to learn new aspects of the craft—which I’d be happy to do, but there’s a positive feedback loop in all our lives. Not so much for better but perhaps for worse, the more we do something, the more we do it. I’m more devoted to film as a medium than to history as a discipline.
Merin: What would your feature be about?
Burns: The Donner Party. I made a documentary about it. The story is true-life nightmare poetry about the American experience. In documentaries, straying from historical record breaks your contract with the audience, so there were aspects I couldn’t cover—because there were no images, and I’d guess characters’ interior experiences.
But based on the record’s tantalizing clues, I developed an imagination about several people who were on that doomed trip, and I’d like to revisit them. However, Donner Party feature projects—even Horton Foote’s and Roman Polanski’s—seem doomed.
Merin: How do you feel about documentaries that preach?
Burns: Directors make choices, so films aren’t objective. That said, audiences are tremendously sophisticated, and filmmakers must trust them to know what kind of film they’re watching—be it eyewitness accounts or something tongue-in-cheek—like Michael Moore’s Roger and Me.
A film immediately establishes a tone that’s part of the contract with the audience. Michael Moore’s true to his own tone. If mistakes occur in his movies, he’s not been true to his tone, and he’s lost track of his contract with the audience.
Merin: Does one focus characterize your films?
Burns: Moments or events of transfiguration—in a person’s life or in society—where things go from being one state of affairs to, often violently, another state of affairs. But that’s what a good story is—be it the Donner Party, or films I’ve done on Coney Island or New York history, culminating in 9/11.
Merin: Why is there increased interest in documentaries?
Burns: Audiences hunger for reality, particularly in a society inundated with disinformation from commercially or politically-biased sources that attach ulterior—money or power-related—motives to image and word. Any construct which is clearly not out to make money or accrue power, but represents only the humble vocation of reporting reality—boy, people feel that like rain falling on to their souls.
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