Manhatta (1921)

Manhatta was an incredible documentary because of the way that it framed the city. Using Walt Whitman’s beautiful poetry, the eleven-minute long piece did well to personify the beautiful city that is New York. Lacking any dialogue, the film simply relies on the poetry and the visual aspects of the city to emphasize its point. There were glimpses of the bustling city that demonstrated New York’s devotion to progress, such as the commuters on their way to work from Staten Island, standing closely together on the ferry with a fierce determination. This helped to show how vital something as simple as transportation was to the construction and expansion of Manhattan. The capital advancements of New York were meant to give the audience an almost over-exaggerated version of New York, as if to pose that the city was more futuristic and modern than anyone could be expected to comprehend. This was especially demonstrated in moments of billowing smoke from factories, and cameras flying around the tall buildings (that the audience of the film had most likely never seen).

“High growths of iron, slender, strong, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”, Whitman marveled, as the cameras passed along the buildings blocking the sky. It was clear that Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler were attracted by the city’s landscape, as well as its visual design. The extreme, risky camera angles were innovative and exciting, because they captured the city’s dynamic qualities. As a day in the life of lower Manhattan, the segments of character expressed are new and thought provoking. The attention-grabbing pieces were most successful when seeing the metaphors of the progress of New York physically, showing the endless possibilities of the city. The short film helped me to better understand how New York has changed vastly in some ways, like how big a skyscraper is now compared to the 1920’s, how fashion has changed, who is running around, who is constructing the buildings, some things remain comfortingly familiar. The ferry still runs to Staten Island to pick up the commuters to Manhattan, dressed in their work clothes, staring off with a fierce determination. Back in the 20’s, this film was legendary. Now, Manhattan is the subject of hundreds of films and other bouts of media. Despite the familiarity, walking into Manhattan still takes people’s breath away. The feeling of New York, though paid homage to by the film, can never truly be bottled. It must be experienced.

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