New York made modernism; modernism made New York. And the city, in modernist eyes, was its own total and challenging work of art.
_Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, 1997
It makes sense that the first American art films cast New York City as the star. What other "celebrity" had such allure, promised such compelling art-in-motion, and symbolized the essence of modernity? Photographers, painters, and film journalists answered the siren call and headed to the streets and rooftops of New York City. What captivated them about Manhattan? What dynamics of the modern city could they capture in film that eluded still imagery? How did they use motion as a dramatic device? How did they interpret man as the city creator and dweller? What differentiated silent art films from silent newsreels and documentary films? What made them art?
Manhatta, silent art film by Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler, 1921 (9:40). INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE
The first American art film, Manhatta is a nine-minute silent montage that celebrates New York City as a dynamo of the machine age (its title when first shown was New York the Magnificent). People as individuals are secondary; people as man who created the megalopolis are revered by their invisible presence as operators of heavy cranes, captains of ocean liners, and conductors of train engines. Structured loosely as "a day in the life of the city," Manhatta opens with the morning arrival of a commuter-filled ferry and closes with sundown over the Hudson River. Rooftop shots of the city, dramatic pans of skyscrapers, and scenes of industrial might are interwoven with lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (including "Mannahatta").
Created by photographer Paul Strand and photographer-painter Charles Sheeler, Manhatta is a modernist's exaltation of the urban and industrial landscape. In its emphasis on bold geometric shapes, dramatic vertical line, unmodulated light-dark contrast, and its de-emphasis of human beings, it models the Precisionist style that dominated American modernism in the 1920s. With its Whitman poetry, it claims legitimacy in the American pursuit of artistic self-definition. Compare Manhatta with the urban landscape paintings of co-producer Charles Sheeler and other precisionists (Modern City in Art), especially Sheeler's painting Church Street El (1920), painted from a still in Manhatta (at 8:50 in the Internet Moving Image Archive upload). Also compare Manhatta with the 1929 art film, Skyscraper Symphony (below), that employs contrasting film and structural techniques to capture the city. And finally, compare Manhatta with the newsreel segment "The City of Skyscrapers" (below). What differentiates art film from newsreels and documentary film? What makes it art? (Note: Numerous Manhatta uploads include added sound. We recommend the silent Internet Moving Image Archive upload.)
Skyscraper Symphony, silent art film by Robert Florey, 1929 (11:20) YOUTUBE
Manhatta inspired a genre of art film soon labeled "city symphonies," among them this silent homage to New York's verticality entitled Skyscraper Symphony. Its French-born producer, Robert Florey, had arrived in New York in 1921 as an experienced film producer. Before heading to Hollywood to launch a career in popular film, he made several experimental films in New York City, including the avant-garde The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928), which includes surrealist urban images evocative of the abstracted skyscraper footage in Skyscraper Symphony. In three "movements," Symphony presents New York City as a modernist composition.1 The first sequence (about two minutes) presents a series of middle-distance stills of architectural groupings that resemble building blocks more than urban structures. The second sequence offers abstract constructions of building and sky, where the "negative space" (the space surrounding or between objects in an image) of the white sky dominates the frame. Gradually the buildings become more architecturally varied, and peripheral realities begin to penetrate the space—a one-way sign, a billowing flag, Victorian street lamps. Jerky camera pans whimsically suggest a human presence, and the city begins to come alive. Real motion appears as elevated subway trains intersect the scenes. The third sequence leads us through the skyscraper canyons of lower Manhattan, with brief glimpses of vehicles and pedestrians in the dark streetscapes. In the final scene we fully enter the city-as-itself, with an unobstructed view of workers and machinery at a construction site, before the closing pan of a skyscraper.
What makes these silent urban montages "symphonies" (in the broad sense of "symphony" as a harmonious collection of musical, visual, or other sensory input)? Compare Manhatta, an assemblage of dynamic urban scenes, many filmed looking down from city rooftops, with Skyscraper Symphony, a procession of skyscraper pans, always looking up, emphasizing geometric grandeur and slowly introducing the human presence of the city. Compare them with other "city symphonies" of the period, especially Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (German, 1927), Man with a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929), and A Bronx Morning (American, sound, 1931). How was the city exalted in the "city symphony"? Why was the visible presence of man minimized? When humans appear in the films, what do they signify? (Remember that despite its title, Skyscraper Symphony is a silent film. Sound was added to the online video to simulate the theater viewing experience.)
The Crowd, silent film by King Vidor, 1928 (opening sequence, 2:07). TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES
The opening sequence of The Crowd, a Hollywood silent drama set in New York City, owes its visual impact to the "city symphonies"—the steam-and-smoke skylines and commuter bustle of Manhatta, and the indomitable skyscraper facades of Skyscraper Symphony. What impressions are we given of the modern city before the camera leads us to John Sims, the lowly office worker trying to assert his identity amidst "the crowd"? [Two clips follow the opening sequence: the hospital maternity ward scene (note its vast uniformity like that of John Sims's office) and the Luna Park scene. In a third clip, King Vidor describes filming the opening sequence.] How is New York City a character in popular silent films, such as the comedies of Harold Lloyd (see Never Weaken, 1921, and the famous clock scene in Safety Last, 1923), and the 1906 drama, Skyscrapers of New York? What fueled the popular fascination with the city and its skyscrapers?
Cockeyed, special-effects newsreel segment by Alvin Knechtel, ca. 1925 (clip: 1:55). NATIONAL FILM PRESERVATION FOUNDATION
From a wide empty sea, the Manhattan skyline ascends to its habitual domain. Skyscrapers emerge from the street and rise to assume their dominance of the skies. Airplanes and automobiles become comic actors in the surrealist New York City of Cockeyed. Subtitled "Gems from the Memory of a Nutty Cameraman," the three-minute whimsical segment was created for the weekly newsreel series Pathe Review by special-effects photographer Alvin Knechtel. Between newsreel and art film, how did Cockeyed play with New York City imagery? for what effect? Compare it with "The City of Skyscrapers" and other newsreels that chronicled the skyscraper phenomenon (see also Modern City and Detroit News newsreels).
"The City of Skyscrapers," silent newsreel segment, early 1920s (2:16). BRITISH PATHÉ NEWS
This brief newsreel offers rich possibilities for comparison with the art and entertainment films discussed above. Subtitled "unique views of New York City from an aeroplane," it presents fly-over footage of the city taken from successively lower altitudes, highlighting the "gigantic Woolworth Building" in Manhattan, and closing with the familiar sunset over the Hudson River. How does the newsreel deliver news first and foremost? What elements of entertainment and artistic flair are suggested? How did the producers embed a touch of awe in the segment? How would an artist adapt this footage in a "city symphony"?