Binge-Worthy #1: Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

Welcome to the inaugural entry in this series! Granted, at 9 minutes long, there’s not much to binge, but what better film to start with than a semi-forgotten gem that MoMA cites as the first American avant-garde film? Manhatta was co-directed by Paul Strand, one of the most influential photographers of the early 20th Century. His co-director was the highly accomplished Charles Sheeler, a classically trained painter and self-taught photographer who came up with the initial concept for the film.

The short film takes its name from Walt Whitmans’ poem “Mannahatta,” and title cards with excerpts from Leaves of Grass appear throughout. The lines of poetry effectively break up the work into short sections and add to the impression that the film is moving at the rhapsodic, breakneck pace of the city itself.

Strand and Sheeler survey the city from above, composing dynamic Modernist images that showcase, alternately, its massive feats of architectural engineering and the rush of humanity in the streets. The film is a celebration – of the city, of the Industrial Revolution, of the working classes, of life itself. The original title, tellingly, was “New York, The Magnificent.” It’s a timeless and transcendent look at a city that, throughout every era, however improbably, has retained a certain timelessness itself.

The film uses the passage of time to create a structure. It opens at sunrise as river barges glide past the skyline, then transitions to arriving ferry commuters, moves through the flat light of midday, and finally ends at dusk, as the sun sets over the Hudson.

Since nothing is staged, Manhatta could technically qualify as a documentary, although it would be more accurately described as a visual poem. There are recurring themes and motifs. Images and scenes are juxtaposed in ways that create consonance and dissonance. The editing has meter and rhythm. Stylistically, it’s an ideal visual analogue to Whitman’s free verse.

Worth noting: One of Paul Strand’s filmmaking students was a young Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose own filmography will be explored in a future installment of this column.

Manhatta (directed by Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler). 35mm film (black and white, silent), 9 min., 1921.

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