MANHATTA (1921) is a film that, for decades, has been more famous as a topic amongst film historians than for actually ever being seen (or even heard of) by anyone. It shared the mostly unseen worship that silent films such as F.W. Murnau‘s NOSFERATU and Robert Wiene‘s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI evoked in the days before cable television. Indeed, the film was largely forgotten, left to its inevitable fate of cellulose nitrate decomposition, until audiences’ renewed interest in silent films and film preservation sought to resurrect MANHATTA from the ashes.
The collaborative work of the photographer Paul Strand and the painter Charles Sheeler, “it gained quite a reputation for its herky-jerky rhythms, Cubist sensibilities, and uniquely artistic view of the areas of Lower Manhattan it depicted” in avant-garde fashion. (The Screengrab) Shot with a $1,600 French camera ( an astronomical sum for that time), the movie reveals a New York City that’s largely unknown to us; a city of massive brick, rather than towering glass and steel, edifices. Nonetheless, the workaday metropolis of scurrying crowds, speeding vehicles and soaring construction are clearly familiar in their timeless expressions.
The film (currently on YouTube) was in a rather sorry state before being restored in 2007; the jittery, blotchy scars of age and neglect were are all too apparent and distracting. Whereas the like of MoMA would never allow one of Strand’s photographs or Sheeler’s paintings to deteriorate so, motion pictures failed, for the longest time, to receive the same attention. MANHATTA had been reduced to looking like a “a fifth-generation photocopy that someone’s dog had been sleeping on for several years.”(David Kehr, NY Times)
That MANHATTA, along with many other films of this era, still survive, in any condition, is something of a miracle in itself. From 80 to 90 percent of silent film stock, the first forty or so years of cinema, have been lost forever. Whereas the like of MoMA would never allow one of Strand’s photographs or Sheeler’s paintings to deteriorate so, motion pictures failed to receive similar attention. Josh Siegel, a curator at MoMA, explains that a common misconception about film is that people believe that “since it’s a mass-produced medium” it’s also “easily accessible and easily reproduced.” Of course, that’s certainly not true and this misconception doomed many cinematic treasures…invaluable gems that, if anything, document our lives.