Manhatta (1921)

2007 #109a
Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler | 10 mins | download

Another ’20s city film, showing off (as you might guess from the title) parts of New York. The focus appears to be industrial — skyscrapers under construction, finished architecture, tug boats, trains near the docks; the people of the city only crop up at the start and close, and then only in faceless crowds. It’s interspersed with poetic intertitles, which make for an odd contrast.

Once again, I feel that, unless you want to go getting a bit pretentious (and, to be fair, at least some of these films were made for just that), the main interest here is in an historical perspective: it provides another snapshot of a time and place long gone.

2 out of 5

The full short is available on Wikipedia.

Skyscraper Symphony (1929)

2007 #108b
Robert Florey | 9 mins | download

Another ‘city symphony’ film, this time a short one of skyscrapers in New York.

It’s probably hard to ‘appreciate’ this without getting a little pretentious; certainly, it’s much more aimed at creating the feeling of a city, or a visual representation of it, or something like that, than it is with, say, showing pretty views of New York’s buildings. That said, in between the meaningful mucking about, there are some fairly impressive sights to be seen.

2 out of 5

Available on YouTube.

À propos de Nice (1930)

2007 #108a
Jean Vigo | 23 mins | download | U

Short film about the French city of Nice, mixing documentary-style footage of people with shots of the architecture, as well as clearly staged scenes (a man getting sunburnt, for example).

There’s a certain playful edge to it all, not just with content such as a garish parade and crazy dancing, but with amusing tricks (again, the sunburning), camera tomfoolery (for example, moving it to follow the loops of arches at speed; or using slow motion and sped-up shots), and picking out shots of pedestrians apparently for their annoyance at being filmed.

It’s an interesting amalgamation, then: part art, part documentary, part sketch show.

3 out of 5

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

aka Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

2007 #108
Walther Ruttmann | 65 mins | download

Berlin: Symphony of a Great CityGerman silent movie depicting a day in the ‘life’ of Berlin, part of the ‘city symphony’ genre that was popular around the 1920s. This makes it one of those films that is in some way Important, but sadly it’s still a bit, well, boring.

Essentially it’s a documentary showing many facets of city life and industry, though with no kind of narration and often edited in an artistic fashion (fast cutting and crazy angles to represent the chaos of a busy junction, for example). It has its moments (the opening train journey being the highlight for me), and I’m sure some would find the footage of ’20s life fascinating, but it’s the sort of thing that’s just too dull for my tastes.

For something similar which I enjoyed a bit more, try the Russian Man With a Movie Camera.

2 out of 5