Manhatta (1921)


*. It’s a cliché to speak of a city or a place as being a character in a story or film, but here that’s obviously the whole intention. Indeed, Manhattan (the “Manhatta” was an affectation of Walt Whitman’s) is not just a character but the only character.
*. This is a movie of facades (“tall facades of marble and iron”), not faces. The people have little identity. They wear hats and are usually seen from a high angle and at a distance. They are a “million-footed” beast who are admitted to the canyons of Manhattan in the morning, work, and then leave at night. We get the feeling nobody actually lives here.
*. Do they work in the city, or for the city? The sense I have is the latter. The ant-like workers perform a necessary organic function within the larger structure, but they are not part of it. They are akin to those little tugs steaming away at the side of the Aquitania: they exist only to service the giant, or to act as scale models.
*. Is there a political message in this? Robert Hughes found one in co-director Charles Sheeler’s “Precisionism,” a movement he identified with the absence of nature and individual humanity. As Hughes says of the Sheeler of Manhatta: “His vision was dour and romantic at the same time. You often feel, in Sheeler, the presence of an artist who wanted to submit himself to structures and ideologies larger than himself, as though — whatever doubts he might have had about them — they promised security. And the ideology of American managerial industrialism underwrote that promise. So he set out to become its artist laureate.”


*. What sort of a political message is “managerial industrialism”? Despite the direction later taken by Strand’s work, not to mention the humanistic vision of Whitman’s poetry, it seems dark and authoritarian to me. People are only featureless cogs servicing the machine. It’s no big leap of the imagination to see in the crowds disembarking from the ferry an only slightly less disciplined and uniformed version of the factory workers in Metropolis. And, of course, after that Riefenstahl.
*. This movie is usually compared to other “city movies” like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and (to some extent) Man with a Movie Camera. It certainly shares their formalism of image, but it’s this de-emphasis of the social and human qualities of a city that sets it apart, for good or ill.
*. I can’t say this is a favourite film of mine. It’s undeniably beautiful, but quite static, with nothing particularly interesting about its editing and (limited) camera movement. What’s more, its abstraction is a dead end. We might want to question how a city imagined this way makes its citizens feel, but they’re not heard from, and finally we’re left to wonder if Strand and Sheeler are all that interested.


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