Blackbird magazine feature on 1921 poetry film Manhatta

I’ve been known to refer to the avant-garde film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, which includes lines from Walt Whitman, as the first true film poem, but that might not be entirely accurate, according to a feature on the film in the Spring 2014 issue of Blackbird.

Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler filmed Manhatta throughout 1920, after Sheeler approached Strand. The film consists of sixty-four shots, mainly of lower Manhattan, with intertitles consisting of lines (sometimes partial or revised) from the Whitman poems “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856) and “Sparkles from the Wheel” (1871). It is unclear if the intertitles were integral to the filmmakers’ vision or if the Rialto imposed them.

That Strand and Sheeler hoped to explore the relationship (and the threshold) between photography and film, however, is clear. Manhatta’s shots involve a still camera focused on compositions of city architecture. While the larger elements are static, movement occurs in each shot, often from steam or people miniaturized by the cityscape.

Whether or not the intertitles were part of the original conceit, Manhatta, as it has come to us, presents tensions between text and image, as well as between movement and stillness in film, and between a city’s architecture and its inhabitants.

(Emphasis added.) Another fascinating detail of the original, 1921 screening: this silent film would not have gone unaccompanied, as a contemporary newspaper account makes clear:

Hugo Riesenfeld had the orchestra play all the old favorites like “Annie Rooney,” “Sidewalks of New York,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “My Mother Was a Lady,” etc. Two minutes more of it and there would have been community singing—a few intrepid souls were tuning up, as it was.

The feature includes a review from 1921 by Robert Allerton Parker, as well as an embed of the film itself.

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