Watch Manhatta, the First American Avant-Garde Film (1921)

Every city needs its ide­al observ­er. More­over, a city needs an ide­al observ­er for each of its eras, and ide­al­ly each of its eras will have an ide­al observ­er in each major medi­um. Boom­ing with indus­try in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry and dai­ly absorb­ing more of what must have seemed like the entire world, New York fair­ly demand­ed the cel­e­bra­to­ry poet­ic capac­i­ty of Walt Whit­man. In time, Whit­man’s 1860 poem “Man­na­hat­ta” would inspire two visu­al artists to cap­ture the city in anoth­er time, and through a brand new medi­um. Begun in 1920 as a col­lab­o­ra­tion by pho­tog­ra­ph­er-painter Charles Sheel­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Paul Strand, Man­hat­ta (note the slight­ly dif­fer­ent spelling) made cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry as the first Amer­i­can avant-garde film.

It also deliv­ered a kind over­ture for the “city sym­pho­ny,” a genre of film that would, over the rest of the decade, test the poten­tial of the motion pic­ture by using it to cap­ture the unprece­dent­ed dynamism of metrop­o­lis­es around the world. (You can see many more of them here at Open Cul­ture.)

Man­hat­ta is poet­ic in its use of imagery — Strand, after all, was the author of the icon­ic 1915 pho­to­graph Wall Street, New York — but as the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art says, “for all its art, Man­hat­ta is also doc­u­men­tary. It leads view­ers through a day in the life of Man­hat­tan, intro­duced by lines from one of Whitman’s many odes to his beloved home: ‘City of the world (for all races are here) / City of tall facades of mar­ble and iron, / Proud and pas­sion­ate city.’ ”

Whit­man’s words appear on inter­ti­tles through­out the film, pay­ing trib­ute to “the shov­el, the der­rick, the wall scaf­fold, the work of walls and ceil­ings” and “shapes of the bridges, vast frame­works, gird­ers, arch­es” between shots of New York Har­bor, the Stat­en Island Fer­ry ter­mi­nal, the Brook­lyn Bridge, and oth­er of the city’s mar­vels of infra­struc­ture and archi­tec­ture. (Above, thanks to Aeon, you can watch a dig­i­tal­ly-restored ver­sion of Man­hat­ta, with a new­ly com­mis­sioned score by com­pos­er William Pear­son.) The last of these 65 shots cap­tures a sun­set view from a sky­scraper,  a kind of build­ing that Whit­man, who died in 1892, would scarce­ly have imag­ined. But he sure­ly believed that this “mod­ern Baby­lon-on-the-Hud­son,” as Man­hat­ta bills it, would nev­er cease to grow fuller, taller, and might­i­er, tak­ing forms in the future unpre­dictable even by the ide­al observers of its past.

Man­hat­ta will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 1920s “City Sym­phonies” Star­ring the Great Cities of the World: From New York to Berlin to São Paulo

A Trip Through New York City in 1911: Vin­tage Video of NYC Gets Col­orized & Revived with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Great New Archive Lets You Hear the Sounds of New York City Dur­ing the Roar­ing 20s

Vin­tage Films Revis­its Lit­er­ary Scene of 1920s New York, with Clips of Sin­clair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Menck­en & Oth­er Icons

1905 Video Shows New York City Sub­way Trav­el­ing From 14th St. to 42nd Street

Eight Free Films by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, Cre­ator of Sovi­et Avant-Garde Doc­u­men­taries

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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