Manhatta is comprised of 65 shots, each so formally composed that it more closely resembles a painting than a film, assembled in such a way that roughly suggests a day’s progression from morning to night. It depicts throngs of workers disembarking a ferry, trainyards, shipyards, and bridges. Most memorably, it pictures the majestic towers and deep valleys of the city in a way that evokes the tone of nature photography and landscape painting.
The title is derived from Walt Whitman’s poem Mannahatta, which is quoted in one of the intertitles. The film is laced with other phrases of Whitman’s poetry, including A Song of Occupations, A Broadway Pageant, and City of Ships (from the 1865 collection Drum-Taps).
Regardless of whether or not Manhatta was truly “the first avant-garde film produced in the United States” (so says film historian Jan-Christopher Horak), the film was not entirely unique in 1920. It is a clear descendant of the New York street scene, dating back to the 1890s. The distinction between those early street scenes and Manhatta is that the 19th-century films primarily served a documentary purpose, recording the actuality of life in New York, from a pedestrian’s vantage. Strand and Sheeler’s camera, on the other hand, is more concerned with the aesthetic of the image. It peers out from towers and ledges high above the earth (seemingly suspended in space), it shoots past concrete railings that self-consciously obstruct the panorama, and it often reduces the people of Manhattan to specks of shadow. Rather than record the realities of specific streets and buildings, Manhatta strives instead to evoke the feeling of urban life. —TCM
Paul Strand (October 16, 1890 – March 31, 1976) was an American photographer and filmmaker who, along with fellow modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century. His diverse body of work, spanning six decades, covers numerous genres and subjects throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa.
Over the next few decades, Strand worked in motion pictures as well as still photography. His first film was Manhatta (1921), also known as New York the Magnificent, a silent film showing the day-to-day life of New York City made with painter/photographer Charles Sheeler. Manhatta includes a shot similar to Strand’s famous Wall Street (1915) photograph. In 1932-5 he lived in Mexico and worked on Redes (1936), a film commissioned by the Mexican government, released in the US as The Wave. Other films he was involved with were the documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and the pro-union… read more