Friday, April 22, 2016


The Word of Your City

A 2008 2K restoration (supervised by Bruce Posner) of Paul Strand's and Charles Sheeler's 1921 film Manhatta kicks off the essential two-disc Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley in North America, Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film: 1920-1970. I'll be writing more about the films included in this set, and on other recent Flicker Alley releases, in the near future. Here's an article by Dave Kehr from the November 6th, 2008 issue of The New York Times about the restoration: "Avant-Garde, 1920 Vintage, Is Back In Focus".

Strand's and Sheeler's 12-minute film serves as a kind of portrait-at-a-remove of 1920-contemporary Manhattan. Interspersed with intertitled excerpts from Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta", Manhatta purports to sing the city, to laud the demotic metropolis from the vantage of Whitman's rucksack — it ends up opting for a higher aerie, and tilt-shifts. Here is the democracy of the gilders, the erections; poignantly only in passing, there's the proletariat, the erectors. Strand and Sheeler measure the gap between mid-/late-19th Century and early 20th (see the high shot of the crazy angles of pathways in a well-kept midtown cemetery like incidental park); in turn a generation of viewers familiar with the NYC of their own time will be forced to their own reckoning. In 2016 only the Brooklyn Bridge remains at all contemporary.

by Walt Whitman
(from Leaves of Grass, 1892 / 1897-posth.)

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,
Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money- brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,
A million people — manners free and superb — open voices — hospitality — the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!


Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film: 1920-1970 on Blu-ray is available from Flicker Alley at their website for cheaper than list-price, here.