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Manhatta (1921).

January 23, 2009

The Scoop:
The rise of modernism in art brought with it not only the elevation of abstract forms and structure, but also a faith in mechanical progress. The signature media of modernism — photography, architecture and film — celebrated modern machinery, the emerging American metropolis and the products of each. A bold new century required a bold new vision supplied by an energetic new generation artists. Among these were Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler.

Strand was a photographer whose pioneering work helped separate photography from the painterly conventions of the 19th century and establish its own aesthetic. While Sheeler was a photographer as well, his best known work came as a painter. But his canvases revealed a strong photographic sensibility at a time when most other painters were caught up in the maelstrom of cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

Which brings us to “Manhatta,” a collaboration between Strand and Sheeler meant to celebrate the modernist vision of New York City, with its new, towering skyscrapers and bustling population. Both artists were experimenting with motion pictures at the time and worked together compile this 10-minute short film, a collection of images of the city — from the ships in its harbor, to the crowds in its streets, to its majestic skyline. The film is based on Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta,” and excerpts from that work are used as intertitles.

While there are some impressive individual shots, they don’t hang together as a narrative whole, particularly toward the end. And the intertitles just distract from the flow of the imagery. While “Manhatta” does not rank among Strand’s or Sheeler’s best work, it is a fascinating experiment from two great artists and also offers a great rare look at a much younger NYC.

Best Bit:
That one shot of the Brooklyn Bridge’s supports, which is pure Strand.

Side Note:
“Manhatta” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995. By that point, the original negative of the film had long since been destroyed and only a single, damaged 35mm print was known to survive That print was used as the source for the digital restoration that’s available today.

Companion Viewing:
“Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) — although I love the fact that IMDb’s automated recommendations include “Escape From New York” and Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Take a Look:
The full film, with a modern electronic soundtrack:

…and with a conventional soundtrack, if that’s your preference:

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