blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1


Robert Allerton Parker
   The Art of the Camera:
   An Experimental Movie

Charles Sheeler & Paul Strand

Manhatta, perhaps the first American avant-garde film, opened at the Rialto, at 42nd and Broadway in New York, on July 24, 1921. Robert Allerton Parker’s 1921 review in Arts & Decoration, reprinted here, heartily champions the film. Parker says of the experimental work that it suggests “all sorts of glorious possibilities in the development of the movies.”

Manhatta ran for one week as a “scenic” under the title New York the Magnificent on a bill that included:

Overture: Selections from “Manon”
Current Events: “Rialto Magazine” (newsreel)
Ballet: “Danse Orientale,” presented by Lillian Powell
Scenic: New York the Magnificent
Vocal: Ceasare Galletti singing “Celeste Aida”
Feature: The Mystery Road
Comedy: The Fall Guy
Organ: “Marche Pontificale.”

The film was shown only a few more times in the 1920s. In 1923, with Marcel Duchamp’s assistance and running under the title Fumée de New York, it was part of the infamous Dada event in Paris, Soirée du Cœur à barbe. In 1926 (shown again in New York) and in 1927 (at the London Film Society), the movie garnered the title Manhatta. After its London screening, the film was forgotten until 1950, when it was rediscovered in the British National Film Archives.


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.  

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