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Walt Whitman’s poetry frames scenes from 1920s New York in this film classic

Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies

Billed as ‘a study of the modern Babylon-on-the-Hudson’, the short film Manhatta (1921) captures the rapidly developing cityscape of New York in the early 1920s. Made in collaboration between the US photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) and the US painter Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), the piece is widely regarded as the first American avant-garde film, as well as the first of the non-narrative urban documentaries known as ‘city symphones’. The influential work traces the rich contours of a modern metropolis via a series of dramatic vignettes, as guided by Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Mannahatta’ from his collection Leaves of Grass (1855-1892). This version of Manhatta features a 2k digital restoration of the original 35mm film print, as well as a new score from the Illinois-based composer William Pearson commissioned by Aeon, with movements inspired by the film’s symphonic structure.

Directors: Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler

Composer: William Pearson

Cellist: Genevieve Miedema

Percussion: Abigail Foehrkolb

23 July 2020

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