City Symphonies at Doc Films

“City of the world
(for all races are here) 

City of tall facades
of marble and iron,

Proud and passionate city.”

These lines, excerpted from the Walt Whitman poem “City of Ships,” open the 1921 avant-garde film Manhatta, showing at Doc Films on Wednesday, August 21, as part of a collection of “city symphonies.”

In the post-war boom of the 1920s, cities began to grow at an amazing rate, and people from all walks of life started to move to these new centers of culture and industrialization. Inspired by the beauty of rapid urbanization, filmmakers were quick to aim their cameras at the evolving cityscapes and create short city symphony films, filled with their love for urban life.

As a result, unlike the dry, tourist-driven travel films popular at the time, these city symphonies are imbued with a sense of musicality – hence the name “symphony” – and poetry. Although silent and mostly black and white, the films are all accompanied by soundtracks and intertitles that propel the viewer through the film, and even those who live in the city and see the sights every day can be inspired by the fresh angles and compositions the films present.

It’s impossible not to appreciate the artistry of these early works.

Manhatta (1921)

One of the earliest and most famous city symphonies, Manhatta was a collaboration between photographer Paul Strand and artist Charles Sheeler, designed to showcase their home of New York City. Embodying the poetic aspect of the genre, excerpts from various Walt Whitman poems are intercut with aspects of bustling life in Manhattan, including workers on the street, the shipyard and the massive bridges. Due to their background in Modernist art, Strand and Sheeler shoot the city with an eye for abstraction, focusing on new perspectives and stark architecture.

However, while Strand and Sheeler clearly have a lot of love and respect for the city of New York, they appear unconcerned with the actual people who live there. To them, New York is one big and well-oiled machine, beautiful in its individual moving parts, but the people themselves are merely small and insignificant cogs in the larger work. Throughout the film, no human faces are shown, and the one section devoted to an entirely human element – the workers – only shows those workers from a distance, dehumanizing them to the point of treating them like factory machinery.

A Bronx Morning (1931)

Although Jay Leyda continued the abstract mold of Manhatta when filming his own A Bronx Morning, his film is ultimately much more interested in the human aspect of New York. Amidst a fascination with repeating lines and patterns found on the buildings of the city, Leyda includes a more intimate relationship with the people who live and work in the Bronx. As the film progresses, we see children on the street, women doing laundry, people going to work – all parts of actual life in the city. One series of shots just shows cats wandering the street, an exploration of organic form and unpredictability that Strand and Sheeler would be appalled by.

Like Strand and Sheeler, Leyda informs his filmmaking with a photographic background, but he draws more from journalistic street photography than he does abstract Modernism. Due to a lack of much movement, plenty of the shots would work just as well as still photographs as they do in the film. The best sequence, however, – that of pieces of paper floating throughout the neighborhood and connecting various disparate shots – relies on the unique movement of film to capture life. The film ends when the paper stops moving and comes to rest on the ground.

Rien que les heures (1926)

Clocking in at around 45 minutes, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (Nothing But Time) is by far the longest of the films being shown, compared to the 10-minute lengths of the other three, and therefore the most developed in its depiction of life in Paris. In fact, it almost leaves the poetry of city symphonies behind in favor of a very basic and loose narrative through-line, complete with a cast of “characters” – e.g., the Girl, the Sailor, the Newspaper Salesgirl.

The film establishes its motives from the start with the statement it that will not be a “depiction of the fashionable or elegant life … but of the everyday life of the humble or downtrodden” before moving to a montage of famous paintings of Paris to show the way artists have previously glorified the city. After this montage, though, the film focuses squarely on its poor subjects, introducing them one at a time and then following them as they move throughout the day: going to what little work they can find, gathering together for a modest meal and trying to find some happiness in the company of one other.

Cavalcanti employs a variety of different film styles in order to convey the lives of his characters, not just leaning on the tradition of still photography. A sequence that quickly cuts back and forth between baskets of food and overflowing garbage cans immediately calls to mind Eisensteinian montage designed to connect the two different worlds into one. Later, when the Girl is afraid to walk home at night alone for fear of being mugged, the sequence plays out like it would in a Hollywood film, with shots of her frightened face and the dark alley cut together to create suspense. These styles and more combine to make Rien que les heures the least city symphonic of the four films, though it does contain a few sequences of abstract composition.

Castro Street (1966)

Despite being made years after the initial boom in city symphonies, Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street fits perfectly into the genre, even furthering the abstraction that Strand, Sheeler, and Leyda’s films strive for. Most of the action in the film is obscured through a thick haze and a several layers of superimposition. Save the film’s name or the brief street sign that moves across the frame at the end, there’s no real indication that the film is actually of Richmond, California, a city in the Bay Area. Everything else is just layer upon layer of train stations, trucks, and railway signs. Although a few workers can be seen in different degrees of distortion, they are all eventually folded into the fog. The last human figure is shown in negative and washed out, becoming nothing more than an abstract shape.

The only of the four films to be shot in color with synchronized sound (though there is no dialogue), Castro Street becomes a dazzling collage of deep blues and purples and ambient railroad noises, also featuring a minor orchestral score. For a brief moment about halfway through, “Good Lovin’ ” by the Rascals can be heard mixed in with the rumble of the train, but it fades away before long, its source never revealed. This is a film that seeks to leave the viewer with only the mood of the location, not any of the recognizable landmarks. It’s the only film being shown without words of any kind, but it’s by far the most poetic of them all.

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