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Spun City

Even before I first set foot upon the island of Manhattan, at the tender age of 20, I was well-schooled in its particulars, its criss-cross arterial pulse and narrow verticality, its characters and occupations, its place in the American plan. Television taught me. While the TV suburbs were most often imaginary and generic, the Big City, named or not, was always New York, home of the Kramdens and the Ricardos, the HQ of U.N.C.L.E., the Metropolis of Superman, Batman’s Gotham. I learned the town from yearly viewings of Miracle on 34th Street (and actual Macy‘s Parades), from Swingtime on the Late Show, the Bowery Boys on Sunday, Bugs Bunny on Saturday. While yet in rompers, and long before I knew that my own city contained a Chinatown, a Little Tokyo and a street called Broadway lined with old movie palaces, I understood the dramatic significance of that other, older Broadway, of Park Avenue, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Greenwich Village; knew the look of 100 years of New York policemen, and something of brownstones, penthouses and tenements, nightclubs and big hotels, subway platforms and trains, omnibuses and taxicabs, the Empire State Building, the automat.

It didn’t matter that the New York the tube proposed -- continues to propose -- was largely re-created, not to say caricatured, on Hollywood back lots and sound stages. Its meanings translate more or less intact: the port of entry, the melting pot, the city that never sleeps, the place where anyone interested in testing herself or himself not against Nature but against Culture is bound to go. With the disappearing West, New York City is the nation‘s great stage, and by no accident is it currently the setting of more than two-dozen TV series, including Felicity, Spin City, Friends, Will and Grace, Becker, Third Watch, Veronica’s Closet, Just Shoot Me, Sports Night, Law and Order, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Time of Your Life, Downtown, NYPD Blue, Sex and the City, Stark Raving Mad, Love & Money, Now and Again, Jack & Jill, King of Queens, Cosby, Cousin Skeeter, Wasteland and (projected a millennium hence) Futurama, with The Sopranos just across the Hudson and Everybody Loves Raymond a little further out on the Island, to name only those I‘m sure about. Even Sesame Street -- a funky urban thoroughfare all the way -- is clearly located within the five boroughs.

Some, likely most, will find in such programs all they ever want to know about the Big Ap. For those left wanting, there’s Ric Burns‘ New York: A Documentary, public TV’s latest 800-pound gorilla, which aims to be big like its subject, though even at 12 hours (five two-hour broadcasts this week, the last airing in 2000, I suppose in order to include the millennial Times Square Rockin‘ New Year’s Eve) it is doomed to come up short. There is not enough money in the PBS budget to tell that story whole, nor enough time in your busy life to hear it; the city eats thousand-page tomes for breakfast, and so many roads traverse its 400-year history (the earlier habitation of the native population being, strictly speaking, prehistoric) that the traveler is constrained to keep the route simple or he‘ll never get north of Canal Street. Burns (The Way West, The Donner Party, Coney Island) has for his part chosen more or less to follow the money, to examine how a city created not, like its neighbors, in pursuit of religious freedom but in pursuit of cold, hard guilders -- it took 17 years for anyone to get around to building a church -- became capital’s own petri dish, and was eventually transformed, though not wholly reformed, by the polyglot working class it attracted. I oversimplify wildly, of course.

New York: A Documentary is wonderful to watch: The city was mapped and painted, from its founding, and photographed and filmed from the very dawn of the technology, and all of it appears to be onscreen. (Matthew Brady had his studio there; Lincoln, campaigning for the Republican nomination, dropped in for a portrait.) The narrative is full of interesting facts and strange characters (like Lord Cornbury, the transvestite governor), and particularly good on such great tragedies as the Draft Riots and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But at the same time, the film suffers mightily from being rendered in the Burns House Style, as perfected by Ric‘s big brother and sometime collaborator, Ken (The Civil War) -- a kind of documentary-beautiful approach that can turn deadly dull. New York is staid in a way the city is not, its tone at times so elegiac as to be funereal. Narrator David Ogden Stiers and such contributory voices as George Plimpton, Eli Wallach and Frank McCourt have been constrained to modulate their delivery to a level resembling clinical depression; Spalding Gray reads Walt Whitman, a writer not afraid of an exclamation mark, sotto voce. (The pokey score doesn’t help any, either.) So that while the text emphasizes speed, proximity, synchronicities and superlatives, the raucous energy that drives Manhattan -- a name thought to derive from a Munsee Indian word meaning ”place of general inebriation“ -- is mostly absent from the screen. The form fails the content. It reminds me in a way of how Frederick Law Olmsted built Central Park for the classes to commingle, then posted a lot of rules guaranteeing that the poor wouldn‘t have any fun there. The film makes the people’s case, but not in the people‘s tongue. Ralph Kramden would flip the channel to bowling, if he’d ever been able to afford a television. Recommended anyway, with that reservation.

HBO‘s RKO 281 re-creates the making of the movie Citizen Kane and its attempted scuttling by the man whose life inspired it, publisher William Randolph Hearst. Based in part on the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, to which Ridley Scott acquired dramatic rights, it is a movie whose point I do not quite see. This ground has been covered, if not in precisely the same form, and covered better, more accurately and therefore more instructively.

Director Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook) calls the film a ”fantasia,“ which is a genteel way of saying that factual detail has been sacrificed to dramatic convenience, which is another way of saying they made stuff up -- though no more, and perhaps less, than is usually the case, and certainly nothing so outlandish to merit the word fantasia, which in any case would be preferable to the standard (though certainly well-executed) docudrama this is. Scriptwriter John Logan thinks it‘s ”a fable, a morality tale,“ though it is neither -- please, gentlemen, know your terms -- and believes it remains ”true . . . to the spirit of history,“ which is a funny concept. And executive producer Ridley Scott sees RKO 281 as ”an exploration into the issue of art versus commerce,“ which it isn’t exactly, Kane having been made with unprecedented freedom and Hearst‘s wrath having no appreciable negative effect on Welles’ career. (Welles was perfectly capable of handling that job himself.) Perhaps Scott was thinking of Blade Runner.

As Welles, Liev Schreiber is soft and strangely sentimental (he cries real tears), while John Malkovich‘s pale Herman J. Mankiewicz resembles hardly at all the bigger, louder screenwriter of record; you get all of his drinking, with none of the legendary wit. (”There but for the grace of God,“ he once said of Welles, ”goes God.“) Babe’s James Cromwell puts a little bit of Farmer Hoggett into his Hearst, echoing Welles‘ own stated sympathy for Kane; Melanie Griffith, the Shelley Winters of her generation (not a bad thing), is sympathetic as his maligned but stalwart gal pal Marion Davies. Brenda Blethyn is Louella Parsons, Roy Scheider interference-running producer George Schaefer, David Suchet an ahistorically low-key Louis B. Mayer.

Of course, it’s just asking for trouble to make a movie about a movie reflexively called the greatest film of all time; it begs at least a sidelong comparison. (Proceed to comparison:) Where Kane is all giddy energy and bold visual strokes applied to an essentially plotless, melodramatic art film about love and lovelessness and the vanity of things, RKO 281 is just a good-looking, well-played period masquerade, with some clever nods ‘n’ homages to the elder picture -- cinematographer Gregg Toland gets his dues. And the point is? Its heaviest conceit is to suggest a psychological resemblance between Welles, his character and his character‘s model -- they all like to get their way! -- but in the end, that’s as empty as the idea that, for all its prankish use of real-life details, Citizen Kane is a film about William Randolph Hearst.