Avant Garde film has progressed in the last 100 or so years to the point where what once would have been as shocking as the dancing of The Rite of Spring is now commonplace as an SNL skit. This evolution has meant that many things of the past have lost their lustre, and experiencing them within the context of their time is next to impossible. Luckily, we are presented with so much material from the days of early innovation, we can come to them anew and create an entire vocabulary for them without having to project backwards. Such is the case with one of the truly great early American avant garde works, Manhatta by Paul Strand.
What Strand does is pretty simple: within a frame of short passages from a poem, we are presented with rather still images of New York City, with a focus on the unmoving, the permanent, the iconic. Within those perameters, though, we are shown that there is no such thing as a static universe, and the movement of the world, and in particular of people, is as permanent as that which is captured. There is some camera movement, but little. To capture the entire height of an early skyscraper, Strand cuts it into several shots, each containing a portion of the building. The technique is more a series of still-lifes than a documentary, and at the time, this was unusual. Why record with stillness in mind; that's what photographs are for. Instead, Strand subverted the concept and gave us not a series of still images, but a document of a city of uncaring, cold buildings and human life skittering about them like so many light-propelled roaches.
Looking at it today, we have to find the ideals contained within the film and how they apply to today's film concepts, as well as our concept of The City. A shot where workers walk past gaping factory windows that look to swallow them up can be read many ways, but if we take it at face value, just as a space occupied by this object, we get a new sense of the time and place. This is not a New York at the Human scale; this is the New York of the gigantic scale. This is the city that can swallow you in such a way that your body will never be found. This is a city of constant change, but at the same time, as timeless as the pyramids.
The story this film tell is obtuse to a modern viewer, but at the same time, there is a lyrical quality that is undeniable. The shots allow us to experience the awesome power of the New York of the past, every bit as unattainable as Oz or Neo-Tokyo. Today, this film is a fantasy, even to those who are not pushing well into their 90s. We have moved beyond this place and this time, and we can only consider the film as an artifact, but more than that, as a statement that has lasted for it is built on the foundations of those sky-scraping statues of late 19th and early 20th Century industry. Like Ozymandias, they are forgotten, even if they still rise above the sidewalks of the 202. Those buildings are no longer monuments, but simply places that exist. This film presents them as wonders, and certainly they once were, but now they are tombstones, catalogued for us on film.
Klaus at Gunpoint
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