BOOTLEG FILES 223: “Manhatta” (1921 short by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand).
LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on numerous web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Included in several public domain collections of early avant-garde movies.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is a public domain title.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not on its own, but it is guaranteed to turn up in future anthologies thanks to its orphaned film status.
It would be lovely to claim avant-garde underground cinema as an American art form, but it actually originated across the Atlantic with the German feature “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” That 1920 film, directed by Robert Wiene (who earned the job after Fritz Lang rejected the assignment), sped miles from traditional filmmaking with a striking Expressionist style that had no precedent in motion pictures at that point.
Of course, everyone knows about “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” But where did American underground cinema begin? It actually had its roots in 1921, the same year that the German film was presented in U.S. theaters. But unlike “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the first American underground offering was barely acknowledged in its day. Even at this late date, many people are not aware of its existence. The film is a 10-minute creation called “Manhatta.”
“Manhatta” was a collaboration of two acclaimed visual artists with no previous filmmaking experience and no connections to the film industry: painter-photographer Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand. The circumstances surrounding this collaboration were never recorded, so it is unclear why Sheeler and Strand decided to try their hand at motion pictures.
“Manhatta” was a very curious film for its time, since it didn’t fit into any established genre. It has no plot, but it is not a documentary in the true sense of the word. It is a non-fiction film in presenting a day in the life of lower Manhattan, but there’s no particular storyline that takes the viewer from Point A to Point B. One could imagine it as the cinematic equivalent of an abstract poem – the film’s images are linked with passages from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” albeit with no attribution to Whitman’s authorship – but in 1921, no such genre existed.
As far as anyone can determine, neither Sheeler nor Strand openly stated their desire to purposely create a new school of cinema.
“Manhatta” consists of 65 different shots that highlight the physical majesty of New York City, as seen from the peaks of its skyscrapers and the harbor that connects the city to the ocean. The film is a celebration of architecture and transportation, not human achievement. At no time does “Manhatta” look at the New Yorkers directly from street level. Instead, the camera’s strange perspective does everything possible to de-emphasize the human elements to an extreme degree.
Sheeler and Strand aimed their camera from great heights in the city’s office towers, thus making the New Yorkers look like ants. In their film, the city’s architecture repeatedly minimizes its inhabitants: the soaring arches on the Brooklyn Bridge create a huge void above the pedestrian traffic that travel across its span, while the huge windows of a Wall Street corporate fortress seem more appropriate for fairytale giants than ordinary wage slaves.
Even the construction of these mighty edifices is not a celebration of human greatness. In one scene focusing on the construction of a new office tower, Sheeler and Strand shoot from the ground level upwards, capturing the construction workers in silhouette as they labor furiously amid the massive steel beams that will form the shell of their building.
Camera movement in “Manhatta” is also curious: there is very little of it. Occasionally, there is a slight horizontal pan. But for the most part, the camera stays stationary to capture the images of the extraordinary cityscape. Yet that is not to say the film is stagnant. When there is movement, it mostly involves the transportation vehicles that move people and commerce to and from: the ferry that disgorges passengers onto a terminal ramp, the trains that chug along railroad lines with their cars full of passengers and cargo, the rectangular freighters gliding in quiet majesty across the choppy waves of New York harbor, and a massive cruise ship slicing its way across the harbor after a journey from across the sea.
“Manhatta” also fills its screen with swirls of smoke from chimneys and smokestacks. It is visually striking to behold, with the thick white curls of smoke dancing across the skyline. Needless to say, air pollution wasn’t much of a concern back in 1921.
But what does it all mean? For the most part, “Manhatta” had no specific meaning. It didn’t say anything that wasn’t already obvious – New York is a very big city. And the stillness of the motion picture camera aimed at buildings and skylines clearly suggests Sheeler and Strand were attempting to create the cinematic equivalent of still photography (mercifully, their visual artistry prevented the film from being a monotonous montage of static shots).
Yet in its quiet, abstract and often disturbing glimpse across a city that seems too large for its people, “Manhatta” is a powerful celebration of how man’s creations overwhelmed its creator.
So why isn’t “Manhatta” more famous? Sadly, Sheeler and Strand didn’t give much effort to getting their film widely seen. The film debuted in New York in 1921 under the title “New York the Magnificent.” It turned up in Paris a year later as “La Fumee de New York.” It was shown again in New York 1926, and then the London Film Society screened it in 1927 as “Manhatta.” And as far as anyone can determine, those were the only public screenings for “Manhatta.”
Sheeler never worked in films again, although he made prints from some of the “Manhatta” shots for display in photographic galleries. Strand made a few additional independent films, but he showed little pride in creating “Manhatta” and never spoke of the film, which vanished after its 1927 London screening. During the 1920s, several filmmakers sought to make similar motion pictures celebrating a city in motion: Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Big City” (1927), Joris Ivens’ Amsterdam-based “Rain” (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s Moscow-based “Man with the Movie Camera” (1929) were hailed in their time for their avant-garde artistry. But it is unlikely that Ruttmann, Ivens or Vertov knew of “Manhatta.”
In 1950, a 16mm print of “Manhatta” was located in the British Film Industry vaults. Over the years, “Manhatta” belatedly began to receive recognition as being the first U.S. avant-garde movie. As a public domain film, it has been duped endlessly and can be found on numerous web sites, in museum exhibits and in DVD anthologies – which is ironic, considering at the time of its creation it was barely seen and acknowledged.
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