In the summer of 2008, I had the opportunity to meet the documentary filmmaker Ric Burns and to serve as a consultant for his film on the American whaling industry, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World.
I’ve been a fan of Burns’s work since watching The Civil War, the documentary series on which he collaborated with his brother Ken Burns, serving as co-producer and co-writer (with Geoffrey C. Ward). Ric is best known for the eight-part series New York: A Documentary Film, which offers a compelling portrait of the city and its cultural history. Burns’s New York remains a touchstone for the Writing New York lecture course that I teach every year with Bryan Waterman: it’s recommended viewing for the course and we show several clips from it in the course of the term. The film’s use of visual materials helps to make the history of New York more vivid for our students, and Burns’s stress on the city’s cosmopolitanism resonates with one of our course’s major themes. In addition, though, our use of the film clips enables the students to meditate on the documentary imperative, to think about the ways in which documentaries use devices such as music and experts to help persuade and about the ways in which fictions (whether on the page or on the screen) can also serve a documentary function.
It was great fun to meet Burns and his team, and to get a glimpse of how Burns puts films like New York and Into the Deep together. And now the film is set to premiere. It’ll be shown on PBS stations on May 10 as part of the American Experience series. You can learn more about the film by visiting its page on the PBS website and by reading this press release. The website is itself an excellent education resource, with a photo gallery, historical timeline, and bibliography. The film is centered on two events in the history of American whaling: the famous sinking of the whaleship Essex by a whale and the attempt by its crew to reach the western coast of South America by sailing thousands of miles in their whaleboats, and the publication of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
I’ve been invited to a preview of Into the Deep next week at the Museum of Natural History next week. Stay tuned for a subsequent post about the film.