Updated: Nov 24, 2018
Charles Sheeler's and Paul Strand's 1921 short "Manhatta," based around the Whitman poem. It has been called "the first genuine avant-garde film made in the United States." The textures and variations in scale and activity they capture are shockingly contemporary.
The film is self-consciously a document about time's passage, in response to Whitman. (Note: the text in the film is not all from "Mannahatta," but culled from various poems in Whitman's writings about the city.) As the poem speaks of city sunlight in the Manhattan-future, as he imagines it, so the film captures a Manhattan-present sunlight, knowing that, in their medium, the light itself would be captured to be seen ages hence. Early film especially is always in part about the nature of film as a medium, and this short is no exception.
I am especially moved as I realize that this was more or less the New York my grandparents discovered when they walked off the boat from Europe at age 18, having only a mythological impression of what America was like. America and New York--what did they know of them? How could they know?
Yesterday, my Aunt Laura showed me the reproduction of a document that my Grandpa Harold (Heschl) carried with him from Malkinia, his home village, and kept all his life: a book of good wishes and poems in carefully-written Yiddish and Polish, along with bright drawings of blossoming flowers. Some are signed "your cousin" or "your friend."
(As my father and my Aunt and Uncle Les say, Heschl left "on the last boat out." Imagine you are Heschl's cousin or friend: what do you write? What do you allow yourself to dream about? Would you want to be remembered, or forgotten?)
My Grandma Ann (Ania) was more of a city girl, though just as poor. She grew up in Lviv, a minor cultural capital of Eastern Europe at that time. She arrived in this country "dreaming of streets paved with gold," as she used to say.
All they knew was what the relatives who'd already made the journey had sent back--a letter, a picture. Who knows what Heschl and Ania knew of this place before they got on the boat? What surrealist painting they might have generated with the title "America"?
I have been marveling since I was 13 and writing my Bar Mitzvah speech at what a journey that must have been, and to make it at that age, and to make it knowing what was coming. Malkinia is 3 miles from Treblinka, a town which the Nazis turned into an extermination camp virtually overnight after their successful occupation of Poland.
As I imagine their point of view in those early years in New York, I recognize how many of the perspectives utilized by Sheeler and Strand would not have been available to them. In particular, I am struck by a gorgeous shot through the beams of a balcony impossibly high over the streets. The balcony makes us safe. It is the point of view of a wealthy child, gazing over his dominion. This is not a Whitmanic gaze, but it is extraordinary.
The day after Thanksgiving, but it should be every day: this name for a place that was taken from the lips of the people displaced and killed in order to make room for we English-speakers so we could film odes about it--the Lenape are nowhere in this film except in whatever knowledge the light may have of them.