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.
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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.