Apr 8, 2019 in Review


The introduction of modernity in film has come a long way with different filmmakers including photographers taking on different technological aspects to communicate messages of modernity through the presented images. Early theories of film have for many years been underestimated and overlooked. Nevertheless, their rediscovery in the recent past has sparked a new sense of understanding the role of film framing in invention of “modernity”. The most interesting aspect of early film theories lies within the capacity of such films to focus on and highlight some of the major characteristics of life in modernity, including economy, speed, excitation, and contingency, among other factors. The attention is thus focalized on the spectator through granting priority to the filmic experience. The ideas of ‘modern language’ research and ‘modern art’ were also important aspects in early film theory. As such, differences existed in terms of early theory film as defined by the background of modernity interests. National identities and ideological differences determined the definition of theoretical research perspectives. Manhatta is one of the early films that, though initially noted, brought a new perspective in to the inclusion of modernity in film. Being the first American avant-garde film, the ten-minute film is a celebration of New York, in a new perspective, where it was portrayed as a machine age dynamo. This paper is going to review the film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand and the incorporation of aspects of modernity in the film. 

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Strand changed the direction of his photographic approach after he was famously criticized by Stieglitz, with the claim that his works had “graphic softness”. He embraced a “straight up” documentary approach, and from a modern perspective, upheld the belief that through proper use of technology in photography, primarily the camera, he could bring improvements to human life. The new approach adopted by Strand is evident in the short film Manhatta, in which he makes extraordinary principles based on three major principles including abstractions, movement in the city, and street portraits. It is important to note that throughout the 1910s and the 1920s automobiles, carriages, and pedestrians thronged the streets of New York, and the city was a symbol of change, flux, and modernity. Manhatta is evidence of Strand’s shift towards use of photography as an influential tool aimed at transforming societal views of modernity and instigating change within societal constructs. 

In the images portrayed through Manhatta, Strand makes individual persons as secondary, whereby they are invincibly present as heavy care operators, ocean liner captains, and train engine conductors, yet they are the creators of the megalopolis. Manhatta is loosely structures as a “common day in city life” with the morning opening with the arrival of a ferry filled with commuters and the evening closing with a sunset viewed over Hudson River. Strand Weaves the city’s rooftop shots, industrial might scenes, and dramatic skyscraper pans to bring out a clear scenario of a typical modern city. The film is an exaltation of an urban industrial and modern landscape. It emphasizes the bold geometric shapes, the light-dark contrast that has not been modulated, and a dramatic vertical line. On the other hand, the film models the Precisionist approach towards modernism in America during the 1920s through its de-emphasis on humans and their role. Strand also employs Whitman poetry to establish legitimacy and pursue artistic self-definition in the American context. 

In his approach, Strand employed increased objectivity epitomized by Manhattan’s modernity. At a point, he appeared as if he was celebrating designs in the urban context through his images that were sharply focused and his increased interest in line, light, and volume. In other cases, he tended to focus on mechanization’s destructive force. As such, he embraced the camera as a modern machine with which he could explore modern art and depict all aspects of modernity, both positive and negative, as portrayed in the artistic traditions of the western world. The positivity of modernity is observed through Strand’s lens, where people development has hit its peak and there are industries, transit networks, and employment opportunities all through New York with arrival of a large number of persons to the city in the morning, probably going to work, and imaging of skyscrapers, to picturing of people walking along wall street with briefcase and appearing focused on their own business. On the other hand, the negativity of modernity is clearly brought out through the picturing of the smoke that is coming from the trains and the industries, considering the contents of such smoke and the effect they have on the environment, and the congestion experienced in the city and the pressure that such congestion has on the City’s resources. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all these aspects, both positive and negative and evidence of a changing city and increased embracement of modernity in the city’s development. 

It is important to note that as much as film perpetuates the present or a continuous motion, it greatly relies on displacement and repetition to achieve smoothness. Through this, there is articulation of a “continuous present’s” vital crisis thus marking of modernity. As such, the modern metropolis, which is characteristic of visual stimuli and speed, also establishes itself as an environment of fragmentation and alienation. There is a close connection between destruction and restoration of spatial and temporal coherence in the metropolis. When viewed via filmic representation, such a modern dynamic is made apparent in terms of spatio-temporal perspectives. As a visual and not textual experience, a new language was established through both metropolis and cinema, with such a language being at odds with the contemplative traditional gaze. Nevertheless, this language forms a center of cohabitation and conflict where the life in the city is on one hand mass accumulation while on the other hand mass dissociation into a continuous present. The established understanding of the affinity between the city and modern life greatly influences the perception held by individuals concerning concrete experience. Manhatta, in its representation of New York in the 1920s records such a pulse of fragmentation and disintegration running alongside a rhythmic, mechanized totality, and thus establishing a modern temporality in which flux and simultaneity are rhythms that determine city life. 

As much as Manhatta does not have a storyline and was conceived very early for montage techniques that were employed in city symphony films later in the decade, it is a highly detailed work that depicts an early attempt towards articulating the paradoxical new urban modernity. The film makes a critical and clear statement about modernity and involves an anesthetist’s exploration of shapes, rhythms, patterns, and movements, while eschewing completeness. Manhatta’s configuration as a form of pre-narrative space, just waiting to give a part of its threads for making of a story, forms a general observation that the landscape is teeming with imminent dissonance and fragmentation even in its representation as a whole. Strand’s choice of the modern metropolis in Manhatta, a film without a montage rhythm that is deliberately disorienting and also without Dadaist juxtaposition influences, establishes a representation that coggles on the shifting spatial and temporal grounds. 

Manhatta begins with a wide shot that clearly focuses on the Manhattan skyline, which impressively rises out of the waves that has been built upon the sea’s natural tempi yet it is beyond its reach. There is a clear emphasis on the metropolis’ presence through a portrayal of the ships as threading seas and the trains threading land. Its status and centrality is guaranteed by the held global and national connectedness. The permeant sense of this is the space in which there is establishment of the present. Such establishment is achieved through various formal choices that are made in the shot’s composition, in which case the frame selects a portion of the world that it shows, thus establishing a field of entities that are within a closed set and suggesting that beyond the image one is to achieve continuation. Strand employs high framing angles in Manhatta, where the camera strains to achieve the cityscape’s total vision. To achieve a total frame, Strand attempts to contain the beyond by suggesting that the framed portion is a space-time block held up to be observed.

The aspects of a capitalist world is clearly brought out in Strand’s photography in Manhatta, where he takes images of oblivious individuals throughout the city going about their daily business, each person concerned with their own business and work. Individuals rush out of the ferry as soon as it stops, each rushing, most probably to work, even as strand later shows images of the industries bringing out smoke. In a capitalist world, individualism and competition are highly encouraged, thus allowing individuals to ensure that they highly invest in their skills and use them to positively contribute to the society. This is clear from the photography even as different individuals are seen to engage in their business, while contributing to the general development of the city. At a point, individuals are seen breaking stones others operating cranes and heavy machinery, efforts that could be attributed to the increase in skyscrapers in the city. This is an indication that each of the individuals knows their role to play in the society, and as much as they may be engaging in the economic activities for their own development and stability, their efforts have had positive contributions towards the development of the city. It is important to note that the movement in the city forms the central idea in Sandra’s photography and he uses this to identify the patterns that define modern life including patterns of work, of transit, and the established networks within a modern metropolis.

In conclusion, it is clear that the aspect of modernization has been well embraced by Strand in his photographic approach in the short silent film Manhatta. The photographer employs a modern approach to communicate a message of modernization using film and the aspect of the city to tell a story of the characteristics of modernization while depicting both the disintegration and fragmentation of the city through an objective approach. Strand embraced a unique approach to photography, with its impact going undiscovered until the recent past when it was clear that his use of the camera to communicate various aspects of modernization was distinguished. He used high angled to cover events of New York City right from sunrise to sunset, depicting the various aspects of industrialization, speed, work, and interaction that were evident in the city and modern life. Images of skyscrapers and developed transit networks are evidence of modernization. 


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