Brilliant Job Of Restoration

ON FILM

Film Historian's Four-year Effort Shows Off The Luminosity Of The Masterpiece 'Manhatta'

July 10, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

A masterpiece of avant-garde filmmaking becomes a masterpiece of restoration with Manhatta.

Film historian Bruce Posner spent almost four years on this inspired salvage job, using some of the same cutting-edge digital tools developed to restore better-known pictures such as Kurosawa's Rashomon. The labor paid off: This print renews the sharp, gritty luminosity of the 1921 collaboration between photographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler. It plays Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, a perfect setting for a quintessential art film. (The new print of Rashomon opens a week from today at the Senator Theatre.)

Taking Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta" as their inspiration, Scheeler and Strand test the expressive limits of film composition. Their huge yet impeccably detailed images capture the mingling of power and beauty in Manhattan at the onset of the Roaring Twenties.

Aside from the film's poetic inter-titles, Manhatta and Whitman's "Mannahatta" are quite different. Whitman celebrates "a million people -manners free and superb - open voices - hospitality- the most courageous and friendly young men."

Even when the poet waxes ecstatic over the island's geography, architecture and machinery, he's passionate about the humans on top of or inside it, such as "The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-formed, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes."

Visual poets Sheeler and Strand present the populace as an abstraction, most spectacularly when hundreds of people funnel out from a ferryboat. The city itself becomes the thriving organism, with smoke emerging from rows of stacks like spouts from a leviathan with multiple blowholes.

But Whitman's verse and their imagery meet in the film's stirring depictions of "hurried and sparkling waters!" and "spires and masts!"

Strand and Sheeler fill their imposing frames with a tingling lyricism all their own. There's a remarkable formal dignity to a shot of people strolling through a city cemetery; they move with a different pace and posture than the men and women striding on the sidewalk beyond it.

These days most filmgoers think of computer technology as the source of video games and Transformers movies. Posner's work showcases its capability to extend the life and further the potency of movie art.

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