Wednesday, July 5, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0223 - MANHATTA (Charles & Paul Strand Sheeler, 1921, USA, 11m, BW)



(Charles & Paul Strand Sheeler, 1921, USA, 11m, BW)


MANHATTA (Charles & Paul Strand Sheeler, 1921, USA, 11m, BW)

Directed by Charles Sheeler
Paul Strand
Release date
Running time
10 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

Production background

Manhatta documents the look of early-20th-century Manhattan. With the city as subject, the film consists of 65 shots sequenced in a loose non-narrative structure, beginning with a ferry approaching Manhattan and ending with a sunset view from a skyscraper. The primary objective of the film is to explore the relationship between photography and film; camera movement is kept to a minimum, as is incidental motion within each shot. Each frame provides a view of the city that has been carefully arranged into abstract compositions. Manhatta was a collaboration between painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand. The intertitles include excerpts from the writings of Walt Whitman.


The film was completely restored in January 2009 by archivist Bruce Posner, working with film restoration company Lowry Digital. Posner spent close to four years returning the film to its original glory. The Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives also commissioned a new score from New York composer Donald Sosin.

About three quarters of Strand and Sheeler’s shots in Manhatta could just be stills. It’s less about the camera being motionless than about the subjects being motionless. While the subjects are varied, a lot of them are related to the water—whether the tugboats or the ocean liners or the docks, there’s a lot of water in Manhatta. Most of those shots get nothing from having movement in them.

Similarly, the shots of buildings—regardless of how much smoke comes out of chimneys—are essentially static. There’s something to seeing moving images stand in for still ones, but it’s hardly compelling. Almost a hundred years later, Manhatta is a curiosity of artifacts. It’s impossible to imagine how it played to contemporary viewers. But where it comes alive are the people. Strand and Sheeler have these amazing shots of bustling crowds, sometimes from high vantage points, and Manhatta truly becomes awesome.

Additional Information


The shift in cultural outlook associated with documentary is also evident in the cycle of 
city symphony films, which, beginning with Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's Manhatta ( 
1921), took a modernist look at metropolitan life. Manhatta rejected the assumptions of 
social reform photography and cinematography as well as the touristic vision that had 
previously dominated depictions of the city. The film focuses on the business district of 
Lower Manhattan, ignoring city landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Grant's 
Tomb. Human bodies are dwarfed by the area's skyscrapers, and many scenes were shot 
from the tops of buildings, emphasizing the sense of abstract patterning produced by 
modem architecture. Manhatta conveys the sense of scale and personality experienced 
by city dwellers. The film loosely follows the course of a single day (starting with 
commuters leaving the Staten Island Ferry for work and ending with a sunset), a structural 
form that became characteristic of the city film. The film enjoyed little attention in the 

United States but was more widely shown in Europe, where it may have encouraged 
Alberto Cavalcanti to make Rien que les heures ('Only the hours', 1926) and Walter 
Ruttmann to undertake Berlin: Symphony of a City. 

Rien que les heures focuses on cosmopolitan Paris, often contrasting rich and poor even 
as it combines non-fiction sequences with short staged or fictional vignettes. Berlin, shot 
by Karl Freund, expresses a profound ambivalence toward the city that is consistent with 
the ideas articulated by the influential Berlin sociologist Georg Simmel ( 1858-1918), in 
such writings as 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' ( 1902). From the film's opening 
sequence, in which a train races through the quiet countryside into the metropolitan 
center, city life produces an intensification of nervous stimuli. The film depicts a suicide: 
a woman is overwhelmed (her desperation depicted in the film's only close-up) and jumps 
off a bridge into the water. Yet no one in the crowd of casual spectators tries to rescue her. 
Urban life is shown to require exactness and minute precision, evident in the depiction of 
certain production processes as well as the way work halts abruptly at noon. As the 
absence of close-ups emphasizes, all this coalesces 'into a structure of the highest 

Berlin: Symphony of a City refuses either to humanize the city or to respect its 
geographic integrity. Yet Ruttmann's organization of shots and abstract images also 
emphasizes a heightened subjectivity made possible by urban culture. This tension is 
evident in the film's English title: ' Berlin' -a concrete, impersonal designation — and 

'Symphony of a City', which asks the spectator to view the film abstractly and 
metaphorically. As with Simmel, Ruttmann's dialectics underscore the contradictions of 
city life. The city allows unprecedented freedom and this freedom 'allows the noble 
substance common to all to come to the fore', but the city also requires a specialization, 
which means 'death to the personality of the individual'. On one hand there is the mass ~ 
suggested by shots of feet and the intercutting of soldiers and cattle. On the other there are 
the people who try to assert their individuality by dressing in highly eccentric clothing. As 
the film's almost relentless cataloging of urban activities suggests, the personality of the 
individual cannot readily maintain itself under the assault of city life. The city is where 
money reigns and money is the leveler, expressing qualitative differences in the term 
'how much? The film thus does not emphasize class distinctions; if they are sometimes 
apparent, it is only to suggest how eating and drinking (the oldest and intellectually most 
negligible activity) can form a bond among heterogeneous people. 

Many short city symphony films were made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Joris Ivens 
made The Bridge (De brug, 1928), a meticulous portrait of a Rotterdam railway bridge 
that opened and closed so ships could travel the Maas River. Influenced by a machine 
aesthetic, Ivens saw his subject as 'a laboratory of movements, tones, shapes, contrasts, 
rhythms and the relationship between all of these'. His film Rain (Regen, 1929) is a film 
poem that traces the beginning, progress, and end of a rain shower in Amsterdam. Henri 
Storck's Images d'Ostende ( 1930), Leszlo Moholy Nagy 's Berliner Stillleben ('Berlin still 
life', 1929), Jean Vigo's Apropos de Nice (About Nice', 1930), Irving Browning's City of 
Contrasts ( 1931), and Jay Leyda's A Bronx Morning ( 1931) all functioned within the 
genre. In contrast to Berlin, Leyda's film begins with an underground train leaving (rather 
than entering) the central city for one of New York's outer boroughs. Once in the Bronx, 
Leyda captures an array of quotidian activities (children's street games, vegetable sellers, 
and mothers with prams) that counter Ruttmann's views of the city. Mikhail Kaufman 
made a city symphony film in the Soviet Union, Moscow {Moskva, 1927), but a more 
important and internationally renowned one was made by his brother Denis Kaufinan, 
known as Dziga. Vertov. Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s 
kinoapparatom, 1929) is a city symphony film that fuses a futurist aesthetic with 
Marxism. The cameraman and his team help to create a new Soviet world. This is 
literalized on the screen by the building up of an imaginary, artificial city through the 
juxtaposition of sites and scenes taken in different locations. Alcoholism, capitalism (via 
the New Economic Policy), and other pre -revolutionary problems are shown to persist 
next to more positive developments. The cinema's role is to show these truths to the new 
Soviet citizen and so bring about understanding and action. The Man with the Movie 
Camera thus constantly draws attention to the processes of cinema ~ film-making, 
editing, exhibiting, and film-going. In this regard, Vertov's film is a manifesto for the 
documentary film and a condemnation of the fiction feature film that Vertov railed against 
in his various manifestos and writings. 


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