Top of the Docs #46 – Manhatta (1921)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be touring North America looking at documentaries focused on specific cities!

Manhatta is a film that, much like the city it documents, has a rich history. Photographed as a collaboration between painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, the film ties together 65 shots of the big apple in the early 20th century to give a feel for the city, its development, and its people. It is considered by some to be the first American avant-garde film, and as such, captures much more than just the city of New York.

The film’s primary function was to explore the relationship between film and photography. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and the highly orchestrated framing of shots allows us to examine the footage through an almost photographic lens. The shots are reminiscent of the early realité films from the Lumiere brothers, however, in Manhatta,the tying together of shots allows a portrait of the city to be created. These images paired with intertitles using the famous words of Walt Whitman bring out a picture of New York as the gateway to America.

Manhatta is not unlike other city films from the same period, the ‘city symphony’ was a much-lauded genre that is home to such acclaimed titles as Berlin: Symphony of a City and some of the works of Dziga Vertov, particularly Man with a Movie Camera, and perhaps on a grander scale, A Sixth Part of the World. These films used film, a relatively new artform at the time, to create a feeling of the city. Be this through pacing, collaging images, montage, the techniques vary but are rarely ineffective. Manhatta though perhaps lacking the stamina of the features just mentioned, certainly doesn’t lack the substance.

The film captures New York from the city’s awakening – with commuters arriving on the Staten Island ferry – to the end of the day, as sunset hangs of the metropolis’ jigsaw like geography. We see the docks, the construction of skyscrapers, and an iconic shot of the Brooklyn Bridge that would go on to inspire how the bridge was depicted on film for the century since the film’s release. All of this within a compact 10-minute runtime feels almost like a city break cut off too soon.

Last week’s entry, Los Angeles Plays Itself,looked to create a vision of Los Angeles through its depiction on screen. Manhatta almost inverses this concept, taking images of Manhattan and asking what relevance they have to this new art form, how does it stand out? 100 years since its release, it is still a profoundly fascinating film that captures an image of New York as it was only beginning to blossom.

Manhatta (1921)

Header image courtesy of Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand