Around 10 months ago, my Good Friend and I decided to take the plunge and get a dual MoMA membership. This was very exciting because a) Our shared love of modern art was one of the things that brought us together b) It was the most grown-up thing I’d ever done c) the membership was tax deductible! and d) we could all to MoMA’s film screenings for free.
Of course, about half-way through our year-long membership, this incredibly grown-up act was overshadowed by me turning out to not be quite as adult as I envisioned. In short, instead a dual membership, we had joint custody. On solo visits to the museum, I would vacillate between feeling relieved that I didn’t have to struggle to conjure up perceptive remarks about paintings and feeling like I need to explain myself to other museums visitors. “I had a dual, Ok? It just didn’t work out. I’m here alone because I’m a victim of circumstance!”
But earlier this week, maturity prevailed, and my Good Friend invited me to accompany him to a screening of a short film called Manhatta, shot by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler in 1921 and entirely remasted by Bruce Posner for the film exhibition. The film’s title is based on the poem Mannahatta by Walt Whitman and is series of photographs that capture the New York that will all want to see; the New York that lures us in and loves us back; the New York that is so effortlessly austere, elegant and idiosyncatic that we breathe differently just being here; the New York that lets us know we can’t really exisit anywhere else.
The images were of building, barges, ferries and trains. It was shot of at enough of distance to create the facade of a naturalistic serenity, and with a calculating artistic eye that illuminated a cavernous, yet deliberate man-made magnificence. When we were together, the Good Friend and I loved to look at pieces of buildings, angles, and awkward yet lovely juxtapositions of city scenes, then make imaginary frames. We were both completely blown away by this film.
When it was over Posner, who did the remastering, and Donald Sosin, who composed the orchestral accompaniment, came to talk about process. Clearly, they performed a tremedous intellectual, artistic and technical feat in making this film. And one thing is certain. Although as you will see if you watch the above YouTube video, the original quality of the film is very poor, this was definitively one of the first instances of film as art.
Interestingly, Manhatta was followed by the Francis Thompson’s film, N.Y., N.Y, a dizzying ode to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet insanity that rules our lives as New Yorkers. Both films were made by chunking and fragmenting images of the city, but N.Y., N.Y’s kaleidoscopic approach reveals how when we’re not lucidly basking in the beauty of the city, the sheer pace and quantity of imagery here can feel like a LSD trip. (Not that I would know. I definitely WOULD NOT know.)
Ultimately, the two films together captured most of what it means to be a New Yorker. And I should know. I am an official New York City expert.
Mannahatta, by Walt Whitman
|I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,|
|Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!|
|Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient;|
|I see that the word of my city is that word up there,|
|Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful spires,||5|
|Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships—an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,|
|Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies;|
|Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,|
|The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,|
|The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d;||10|
|The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business—the houses of business of the ship-merchants, and money-brokers—the river-streets;|
|Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;|
|The carts hauling goods—the manly race of drivers of horses—the brown-faced sailors;|
|The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft;|
|The winter snows, the sleigh-bells—the broken ice in the river, passing along, up or down, with the flood tide or ebb-tide;||15|
|The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes;|
|Trottoirs throng’d—vehicles—Broadway—the women—the shops and shows,|
|The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;|
|A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men;|
|The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!||20|
|The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!|
|The city nested in bays! my city!|
|The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them!|
|The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!|