Binge-Worthy #4: In The Street (Helen Levitt, 1948)

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

In the Street is a sensitively observed slice-of-life portrait of Spanish Harlem shot in 1948 and released in the early 1950s. It’s a non-narrative film that manages to tell a compelling story nevertheless, immersing viewers into the world onscreen. It’s visually innovative and mesmerizing to watch.

Acclaimed street photographer (and Walker Evans protégé) Helen Levitt made the film in collaboration with her sister-in-law, painter Janice Loeb, and author James Agee, who wrote the text for Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. All three took turns handling the silent portable 16mm film camera, Levitt edited the footage, and Agee wrote the opening text. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who filmed what, but this really feels like Levitt’s vision overall, in large part because it’s of a piece with her photographic body of work: decisive-moment street photography mainly preoccupied with the lives of children.

In the film, kids play, laugh, and fight in the street. They mug shamelessly for the camera, cool off in the spray of a hydrant on a hot afternoon, and dress up for Halloween in simple homemade costumes. This is a child’s-eye view of their world, filmed with a social conscience, empathetic without being overly sentimental.

Agee’s prologue begins by stating, “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground.” The “theater” becomes almost too literal during a sequence where children dance in an alley. The battlefield does too, at one point. The streets and sidewalks, which double as the kids’ playground, practically transform into a war zone during a particularly chaotic free-for-all. (The rough-around-the-edges nature of children playing in the street is a theme that emerges in Levitt’s still photography as well.) Kids chase each other, hit each other with things, and run around with cardboard boxes on their heads. It’s rowdy, violent, anarchistic, and results in tears more than once.

In the midst of all this is Levitt’s camera. They trust the filmmakers enough to let them into their world–and at one point are very clearly avoiding hitting the camera as they attack one another. For the most part, the adults in the neighborhood relegate themselves to the background of this scene. Some seem oblivious while others stay well out of the kids’ way.

Like the previous entry in this series, In the Street embraces the language of street photography while mostly disregarding cinematic conventions. The filmmakers capture the everyday dramas unfolding in the street, and their loose, informal camera work results in dynamic and spontaneous compositions.

In the Street has been digitally restored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is being presented as part of their From The Vaults series, which highlights rarely-seen films from the museum’s archive. The film can be viewed on the Met’s website as well as on YouTube and Instagram.

The Met has added a new musical accompaniment composed and performed by Ben Model, who astutely sums up the silent film as “an exhibition of moving images” in his video introduction. Originally, Levitt hired MoMA’s longtime resident silent film accompanist Arthur Kleiner to record a piano score after she finished editing the film. Sync sound hadn’t been developed yet for portable 16mm cameras, so including the actual sounds of the street would have been an incredibly complicated task.

It’s debatable as to whether Model’s score improves on Kleiner’s original. They’re both quite beautiful. However, to my ears, they also seem to be superfluous nods to the perceived demands of the viewer. Watching the film with the sound muted resulted in a more authentic and immersive experience for me, and it enabled my mind to reconstruct the approximate sounds as the images rolled past.

Worth noting: Levitt, Agee, and Loeb collaborated on other projects as well. Around the same time, they penned the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Sidney Meyers’s socially concerned 1948 docudrama The Quiet One. Agee also wrote the text for Levitt’s 1965 monograph A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York.

In the Street (directed by Helen Levitt, James Agee & Janice Loeb). 16mm film (black and white, silent), 17 min., 1948.

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