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Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand, 1921)

This is just really an excuse to post an image from the dazzling new digital restoration of Charles Sheerer and Paul Strand’s pioneering 1921 “Manhatta” that didn’t make it into my story about it (here) in Sunday’s New York Times. This is the first time that cutting edge digital restoration techniques have been used on an avant-garde film, and the results, under the supervision of Bruce Posner (the curator of the invaluable DVD collection, “Unseen Cinema”), are truly revelatory. What was once a jerky, muddy mess now looks as crisp, clear and beautifully textured as a Sheeler painting or a Strand photograph — which begs the question of why the art establishment has so long allowed films to degenerate while spending unlimited funds on preserving the other visual arts. For those in the New York area, “Manhatta” screens at the Museum of Modern Art Friday, Nov. 14 at 6:15 pm and Saturday, Nov. 15 at 2:00 pm. TCM will also broadcast the film in January.

In other happy news (and hasn’t this week been full of that?), Adrian Martin has mustered another stimulating issue of Rouge — on line here. The contributors include several familiar names from this community, including Jean-Pierre Coursodon (on Altman’s “Tanner”), Mark Rappaport (on Mitchell Leisen), Kent Jones (asking the musical question, “Can Movies Think?” ) and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian lui-meme on Manny Farber — part of a tribute to Farber that includes contributions from Bill Krohn, Donald Phelps, and the team of Patrick Amos and Jean-Pierre Gorin. And it wouldn’t be “Rouge” without a Nicole Brenez article on Abel Ferrara — this time, it’s on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

37 comments to Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand, 1921)

  • MANHATTA is a visually creative film. It is rich in composition, like most of Charles Sheeler’s work. First saw it two years ago, when the big exhibit of Sheeler’s photography was held here at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The show included the famous Sheeler photographs of Ford’s River Rouge plants, taken in Detroit in the 1930’s.

    This is a fascinating article about the restoration.

    New York City has been blessed with still photographers who specialized in cityscapes of it. Dave Kehr’s article mentions Alfred Stieglitz. One also loves Berenice Abbott.

    I love all the Posner DVDs of UNSEEN CINEMA.

  • David Boxwell

    The National Gallery of Art yesterday showed Barbara Whitehead’s UCLA restoration of von Sternberg’s first film, THE SALVATION HUNTERS (25). A wonderful job of restoration. The first half is set in LA’s docklands, and seems to be influenced by MANHATTA.

  • nicolas saada

    Wonderful docklands imagery in DOCKS OF NEW YORK as well…

  • That’s exciting news, David. I’ve seen the old Rohauer print of “Salvation Hunters,” and it is quite an amazing movie — talk about your roots of neo-realism! And combined with some typically delirious Sternberg imagery, like the Giant Iron Claw of Destiny that comes clomping down on the characters every once in a while. Can’t wait to see the UCLA version.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Paramount reissued “Docks of New York” for their 100th anniversary, which they’re celebrating this year? They did for their 75th, along with (again, if memory serves), “The Wedding March,” “The Last Command,” “Running Wild,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Wings,” and maybe a couple of others. But the new Viacom-CBS-Paramount seems to have forgotten that the company ever made silent movies. Instead, the “Paramount Centennial Collection” features reissues of “Roman Holiday,” “Sabrina,” and “Sunset Blvd.,” the latter at least in an upgrade over the previous, hideously overdigitized edition.

  • Many thanks for your kind words on the new ROUGE, Dave, it’s greatly appreciated. Just to let you know, this actually IS an issue without a piece by Nicole Brenez (on Ferrara or otherwise!) – her piece on BODY SNATCHERS (not INVASION OF THE …) was published by us (there are three editors, Helen Bandis, Grant McDonald and myself) a couple of years back in our running ‘illustrated close analysis’ section. But we are glad you found and noticed it!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Re: ROUGE. I have just read Adrian’s piece on Farber. It’s absolutely terrific and, dare I say it, definitive. Everybody who isn’t already familiar with the article and has the slightest interest in Farber should read it (it was published in 1999 in a different form, I suppose, but I was unaware of its existence).Also check out Alain Masson’s superb analysis of the “Good Mornin'” sequence from SINGIN’IN THE RAIN. Lots of great-looking stuff that I look forward to reading in that issue.

  • Blake Lucas

    I just started to read the new ROUGE and as Jean-Pierre says, lots of interesting things. I jumped to “My Budd” by Bill Krohn in the Farber section. I’d never even seen the painting and wish I could see it full size. The article effectively argues that the painting itself is a critical statement (why not?) and is quite fascinating. I highly recommend to anyone who has picked up the set of five Columbia Ranowns just out and is getting back to (or just discovering) those films.

  • Blake Lucas

    Re “The Paramount Centennial Collection”–not to say I don’t like those films OK but as Dave seems to imply, isn’t that selection just a little, well, boring? Those are the silents I remember them releasing, and if they deserved VHS it does seem like they deserve DVD, doesn’t it? I did watch THE WEDDING MARCH in that set and looked very good.

    Did anyone else here ever see the UCLA held nitrate of DOCKS OF NEW YORK? I count myself lucky to have seen it a number of times. Watching that, if you are passionate about cinema, you almost felt like you had died and gone to heaven. It was just that beautiful to look at.

  • David Boxwell

    THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK was nicely enough transferred to home video by Paramount in the late 80s–I guess I am lucky to have it, since there may not be a DVD (and we’re still waiting for DVD issue of SHANGHAI EXPRESS and DISHONORED, omitted in the Dietrich set a couple of years ago).

  • David Boxwell

    For her restoration of THE SALVATION HUNTERS, Whitehead used Rohauer’s complete 16mm print as a guide for collating two 35mm prints, one in the Library of Congress and the other from an Italian archive (Milan or Bologna, I can’t remember what she told us before the screening).

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Did anyone else here ever see the UCLA held nitrate of DOCKS OF NEW YORK?’

    Was this print donated by Sternberg? I have seen DOCKS OF NEW YORK in Japan. Very good print at Kyoto City Museum Cinema Hall.

    I saw nitrate print of MOROCCO at UCLA, so beautiful! Did Sternberg donate these prints? Someone said he did.

  • Brad Stevens

    Just returned from a screening of the restored French version of LOLA MONTES at BFI Southbank. There were three moments here that I haven’t
    seen before:

    1- More dialogue near the beginning of the first scene with Liszt, who now remarks that “Dancers usually dance to my tune, rather than I to theirs”.

    2- After Lola leaves the ship’s dining room, we now see here return to the dormitory, where a young girl says to her “Going to bed already? Were you naughty?”.

    3- The final scene with Lola in the cage is now a single uninterrupted shot.

  • Blake Lucas

    Junko, it was my understanding that Paramount gave all those nitrates to UCLA. They were all incredibly beautiful and I saw them all. Unless they were willed by Sternberg, they weren’t from him as he had died by then. Inevitably, UCLA has preserved them in new safety prints–it has to be that way and they do a beautiful job, but if one has seen the nitrates one misses them.

    At other times I’ve seen some of Sternberg’s own prints thanks to his son, who arranged various screenings. These were original 16 and did look very good.

  • david hare

    Brad have you seen the Droessler Lola? This also contains the extra footage you describe – indeed I thought for some reason the final track out from Lola in the cage still went to a dissolve, like the old shorter print. (Am hoping to see a copy of the Marcel version shortly.)

    Blake, a nitrate print of Docks of NY(along with several other titles) which I think originated from MoMa was screened in Sydney for a Sydney FF 1967 retrospecttive of Sternberg. The image was everything you describe but one’s breath (and heart) literally stopped when the film caught in the gate and momentarily swelled into fire! I don’t know how many frames of it were lost but it was the most terrifying few minutes I’ve spent in a cinema. During the same season the Von himself introduced a gorgeous 35mm print of Anatahan, minus the nude scenes, to a near empty house (which later became a porno palace.) That was another heart stopper. Contrary to all reports he seemed almost deferentially modest and genuinely happy to be screening the movie to even such a small “crowd”. (I was 17 at the time.I’ll never forget it.)

    THere were rumors abroad earlier this year that Paramount was indeed preparing the Sternberg silents (presumably the obvious three) for a Commemorative SE DVD. No news since around April.

  • nicolas saada

    I saw this print at the cinémathèque 7 years ago.There is a complete Sternberg series at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse at the moment. An David, you will be pleased to know that both SHANGAI EXPRESS and DISHONORED are available on DVD in Region 2. Great transfers by the way !
    At last, an excuse to discuss or rather reopen the “Sternberg files” a directors that seems overlooked by the newer generations (i mean those under forty). As I said in another thread some rather recommended DVD stores in Paris don’t even have a Sternberg entry ! (But they will have the complete DE MARTINO and FULCI).
    We don’t have to expect much from Paramount DVD as some of their classics get released most of the time by CRITERION. I remember reading an interview with someone there at THEDIGITALBITS who was saying : “As far as classics are concerned we are working on a new two discs edition of GREASE”. It’s not a joke !
    The Sternberg silents deserve the DVD release right now, and would be a great companion to the soon to be released MURNAU/BORZAGE at Fox.
    Stenberg manage sto collide sometimes in one shot simplicity and glamour. Watching OSAKA ELEGY last sunday, I realized Sternberg’s huge influence on Mizoguchi. I understand reading this thread that I should keep my VHS of ANATHAN in a fridge or at least burn it on DVD. I did not realize that the films was so difficult to find ! We can trust the people at CRITERION to release it somehow. I just wonder where the original material is.
    BLONDE VENUS struck me as one of Sternberg’s most accomplished films, regardless of the lot which I saw as a variation, a sort f conjunctions of motifs (the “glam” drama, the “back street” melodrama, the “musical”) on which Sternberg manages to move his audience as well as mesmerize it. Quite unique.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad have you seen the Droessler Lola? This also contains the extra footage you describe – indeed I thought for some reason the final track out from Lola in the cage still went to a dissolve, like the old shorter print. (Am hoping to see a copy of the Marcel version shortly.)”

    Definitely no dissolve in the print I saw. That uninterrupted final shot was the highlight of the restoration for me.

    There was a little German dialogue in this version (which wasn’t there in the French version available previously), but not much. Ludwig still speaks French in scenes where you might logically expect him to be speaking German (such as when he is auditioning artists).

    Haven’t seen the Droessler restoration yet – I understand that Marcel Ophuls wants to suppress this one:

    A print that isn’t cut to hell
    Is agony for poor Marcel.
    When LA RONDE was revived intact
    He nearly had a heart attack.

  • The frame from MANHATTA posted above, contrasts inverted-V’s with vertical straight lines. One can see an inverted V shape on the tower in the foreground. There are three other looser upside down V’s on the same tower. The cylinder with the conical hat in the middle ground also fits in: the conical hat looks like an inverted-V. And the big roof in the foreground persists with the upside down V imagery. Most of the other shapes are pure verticals, and form a dramatic contrast and balance.

    The dazzling shot of the Brooklyn Bridge in the Times article also contrasts inverted-Vs of wire, in the center of the image, with straight verticals in the background.

    The boat image in the article, instead contrasts U-shapes to verticals. The noses of the tugboats are U’s-tilted-on-their-sides. And the top of the large boat on the left, has a series of upside-down-U shaped rails on its top.

    Visual style is fascinating!
    The whole Precisionist movement, of which Sheeler was a leader as a photographer and painter, has much to teach us about composition.

    We all need to start thinking visually. Let’s become conscious of what we are seeing, and learn to talk about it with each other.

  • Sorry I missed “Body Snatchers” the first time around, Adrian. It must be all that clutter on your home page!

    The new “Lola” is a more dubious example of digital restoration, to my eye clogged with thick, heavy colors devoid of texture. But the new print does offer the stereo track, which is dazzlingly effective in that now prolonged final pullback from Lola in her cage.

  • nicolas saada

    By the way, does any one know if the new VERTIGO dvd has the original mono track as I belong to this group of crazy people who hate the dolby surround version of the film ?…

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘There is a complete Sternberg series at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse at the moment.’

    Nicolas, maybe already you know about this, Komatsu Hiroshi discovered the 100 meter fragment of THE CASE OF LENA SMITH 4 years ago. It’s one half reel. Komatsu sensei wrote essay, “Josef von Sternberg, ONNA NO ISSHO – Danpen” (“Josef von Sternberg, A WOMAN’S LIFE: A Fragment”) A WOMAN’S LIFE is Japanese title translated to English, similar to Mizoguchi title. Like you said, Sternberg was the big influence on Mizoguchi.

    In the essay Komatsu says THE CASE OF LENA SMITH is similar to BLONDE VENUS. He also read the continuity script for the movie made in 1929 by Takada Masaru and published in the April and June issues of film journal “Eiga Orai” (“Film Traffic”.)

    This fragment is nitrate original, but now safety print has been made of it. It’s second half of first reel and is showing Lena and her friend
    at the amusement park. The existing scene has water image, beautiful tracking shot, double exposure, maybe lasting 4-5 minutes.

  • Nicholas –

    Re: Vertigo’s new DVD release. No, the original mono track is not there. The package states there is a 2.0 track, but it’s just a stereo mix-down of the awful 5.1 track. The previous release (in the book-like set) is the only one with the correct mono track.

  • nicolas saada

    gee, with the “die hard” sounding boom of the gun on the rooftops ? Which dvd should I buy Pete ? what’s the book like set ?

  • Blake Lucas

    Gee, Pete, although I wasn’t the one who asked, thanks so much. Nicolas is not in my experience one of a group of crazy people but one of the multitudes who know the film and hated that “restored” soundtrack. When I saw it theatrically, it actively disturbed me, as this is my favorite AH film and one I didn’t want to live without. But I was willing to live without it because I didn’t want to see that version. Until now, I was just hoping sometime some collector would show their old original print somewhere (a treat in any event for the Technicolor).

    That “Masterpiece collection” is fairly named. There are, in fact, a fair number of actual masterpieces on it. Glad to get it thanks to the info you provided.

  • Brad Stevens

    “By the way, does any one know if the new VERTIGO dvd has the original mono track as I belong to this group of crazy people who hate the dolby surround version of the film ?”

    Does anyone actually prefer the dolby surround version?

  • I had the privilege of seeing an original 1958 Technicolor print a few times and it’s a joy to see and hear it properly. While I love hearing the music on the stereo version, all of the additions stand out like a sore thumb.

  • Blake Lucas

    Meant “I didn’t want to see that version again.”
    I did see the whole thing through that one time. It was in fact hard to destroy that film…(and I said more here but it sounded cruel so I cut it).

  • Blake Lucas

    Back to a happier subject, if anyone has the ear of Criterion, wouldn’t ANATAHAN be a good title for them to consider, as suggested before.

    It’s true one doesn’t here a lot about von Sternberg these days, but at sites like this one, there is always, rightfully, a lot of love and admiration for his work. Personally, I believe that in a period of about half a dozen years covering the transition from silents to sound, and the early sound films, he may have been the greatest director in the world.

    ANATAHAN, though made much later, is no less the work of a master and it’s hard to imagine anyone going out with a more personal film. This is something I didn’t feel immediately (and this was one of the films I first saw in a 16 print that was Sternberg’s own). But when I saw it at a complete Sternberg retro that UCLA did (and went to every film) and it played at the end, I felt I had gained so much more understanding of Sternberg’s ethos and artistic world that this film was fully born for me and it was the one in which I frankly wept in that final scene.

    Okay, let’s not get maudlin because von Sternberg certainly wasn’t, but this exquisite masterpiece deserves to be better known!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    ANATAHAN is one of a handful of films I haven’t seen in ages (I saw it only once, at MOMA I think, in the seventies)and which I would be very sad not to be able to see again. It sounds like the perfect choice for an outfit like Creterion, but quite possibly there is some prickly problem of rights making its DVD publication difficult.

    I was very much impressed and moved by the film but the memory has become faint. I have just re-read what I wrote about it in AMERICAN DIRECTORS, and the last paragraph (which I had forgotten)seems to best express what to me made this strange film so compelling:

    “What makes the film truly unique is the running commentary written and spoken by Sternberg, its relationship to the image (and to the rest of the soundtrack), and the effect of that relationship upon the spectator. ANATAHAN is the most silent of talking pictures, and the most talking of silents.The narration, far from bolstering the narrative, tends to make everything about it unreal. Spoken in the past tense, supposedly by one of the characters and after the fact, it consigns the whole story to the limbo of memory. Watching a fiction film, we instinctively accept the basic convention that the action is happening now as it unfolds before us…. Sternberg narration, on the other hand, keeps reminding us that the action upon which it comments has already happened.The clash between image and word makes it impossible for us to respond to the film as fiction. Sternberg’s measured but relentless flow of aphorisms puts the action at an enormous distance from us, freezes it into a commentary of the commentary. The image becomes a nontemporal illustration of the text, a text through which the author is addressing us directly. Listening to it is like hearing Sternberg’s confession, and whether or not he ever hoped to work again in the sixteen years between ANATAHAN and his death, it is fitting that this unmediated, self-revelatory meditation should remain as his last testament to the world.”

  • Dave wrote: “The new “Lola” is a more dubious example of digital restoration, to my eye clogged with thick, heavy colors devoid of texture.”

    Jack Angstreich told me that he walked out of “Ashes of Time Redux” because the image quality appeared to degraded by the digital transfer. He also said the same in regard to the 35mm prints of “The Godfather I & II” when he saw them projected at the Ziegfield. Jack commented that it may be indeed that these films look good on DVD or Blu-ray, but the prints themselves were quite poor.

    On the flip side, I recently viewed Casino Royale (2006) on Blu-ray and found it to be more like a hi-def network television show then a film. There was no grain and the colors were weak, lacking much saturation.

  • Tony Williams

    I’m also fortunate to have both THE LAST COMMAND and THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK ON VHS and saw THE SALVATION HUNTERS in a 16mm print in York Art Center, UK in 1980. I also managed to obtain ANATAHAN and it is really amazing how VS breaks the rules, gets away with it, and delivers a really great work of alternative sound cinema that has yet to be surpassed.

  • On the Criterion Forum, it was reported that Criterion will release “at least one” Sternberg silent on DVD next year. The smart money seemed to be on “The Last Command.”

  • Alex Hicks

    By my recollection of my father’s recounting to me of the walk that he and von Sternberg (and his Doberman) and I had along Weehawken’s top-of-the-Palisades King Street (Midtown Manhattan in view across the Hudson) sometime in the early 1950s is of the elderly gentleman reporting with great, enthused pride on some aspects of the film he had recently finished in Japan.

    For me this would be an especially nice frame for the actual cinematic “confession” called “Anatahan” were there access to that sharp DVD version of the film that I think we all lack.

  • Christoph Huber

    The Austrian filmmuseum has devoted a whole book (bilingual German-English) to the (quite lovely) Lena Smith fragement and whatever information is to be gleaned about the film as a whole. As a project to reconstruct an “imaginary” film it is quite an intruiging endeavor.

  • jbryant

    Has there ever been any talk of Criterion rereleasing “The Scarlet Empress” in a better print? I was quite shocked when I got the DVD, having seen a superior transfer on Turner Classics. I understand UCLA has a great nitrate print, and I’ve seen much anecdotal evidence than even some existing 16mm prints look better than that given to Criterion by Universal.

  • Blake Lucas

    UCLA does have (had?) a great nitrate print of THE SCARLET EMPRESS, and pretty much all Sternberg at Paramount (I’m least sure of UNDERWORLD and THE LAST COMMAND but since I did see them in 35 as part of that ’83 retro I assume they were archive prints). These prints were all beautiful and I and anyone else who saw them count ourselves lucky. UCLA has of course been preserving these films and I think they’ve done all the Sternbergs by now. So I don’t believe those original nitrates are pulled out and shown much now, sad to say. It’s understandable of course they would want to show the results of their own efforts.

  • Joseph Bryl

    Both of Von Sternberg’s films, “Dishonored” and “Shanghai Express” have recently been made available thru Amazon UK. I have not seen these transfers so cannot comment on their quality.