Still from “Manhatta” a 1920 modernist look at the city.

Painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand’s 1920 short film “Manhatta” is an epic portrayal of the city, made just two short years after the end of World War One.  Restored in 2006, the film draws from several of Walt Whitman’s poems to create the inter-title quotes.

The film is a significant piece of history. To see the city “alive,” as it were, nearly a century ago, is a remarkable experience. Moreover, it is the vision of the film itself that provides historical insight into a sense of America in the early 20th century.

The film is an artistic portrayal of a city whose everyday forms and movement constitute artwork themselves. Shadow, light, contrasting patterns are viewed through the eyes of two artists interested in issues of representation.

Grand, epic, vast–the city they portray is one of spectacular proportions, a place where the human is but a small cog in the great wheel of a great city. Nonetheless, the film seems to say, the city was built by those very individuals, conceived by people, built by hand. In this sense, the film offers viewers a New York City that is proof–photographic evidence– of the great progress of the United States. A country capable of such remarkable creations as the Brooklyn Bridge, the film suggests, is on a trajectory of great progress.
Flash forward to 1979. Now, in the hands of Woody Allen, and with the aid of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the city is portrayed once again in epic proportion. The opening sequence of Allen’s 1979 Manhattan owes a lot to Sheeler and Strand’s groundbreaking film. And like those two artists, Allen also waxes poetic over his beloved city as various shots of New York City in black and white offer viewers a panorama of the city’s beauty.

But this is not New York of 1920, when all seemed to be full of promise. By the late 1970s, the future was no longer a place into which Americans happily ventured, and the city itself seemed evidence of the country’s failures.

This was “after”– after Watergate, after the Vietnam War–and it was in the midst of a financial crisis in the city and the country. It was a time when Americans suffered a “crisis of confidence.”

And thus, instead of Whitman’s exclamations of joy over the thriving, beautiful metropolis and every free soul within it, as supplied in Manhatta, we have Allen’s character writing–and re-writing–a book and providing the voiceover to the film’s introduction.

“He adored New York City,” Allen states. “He idolized it all out of proportion.” As he struggles to get the opening right, he tries out several more variations. Finally, he says, “He adored New York City. To him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture.”
Allen’s humor, coupled with his love for Manhattan, create the perfect postmodern, post-industrial relationship of the individual to the city.
And in fact, Allen’s take on New York in the 1970s, just might have been closer to Whitman’s own take on the city, and the country for that matter, one hundred years before.  “This is the city,” Whitman stated, “and I am one of the citizens.”  Like Allen, Whitman saw the city as evidence of humankind in all its facets ( See Whitman’s “Song of the Broad-Axe”). It was a testament to the possible; it was evidence of human greatness; it was a manifestation of human weakness, greed, and “decay.” In it, everything was indeed possible.

-Jenny Thompson


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