Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler, 10 minutes
This silent documentary short shows a day in the life of Manhattan – people arriving by boat, smokestacks, sprawling buildings, crowded streets. These shots are interspersed with quotations from Walt Whitman, which sound like a love poem to the city. Manhatta reminds me of another New York film, A Bronx Morning (1931), in the way the shots are set up, and how the city is explored. However, rather than following people and work, Manhatta documents the city as it is, and the camera solidly focuses on the constructed environment of the city. The rhythm of the film is slow and poetic, and I found it really interesting to take my time in exploring the visuals, as the audience is given plenty of time to do so for each shot. This film stands as an ode to an earlier time. It’s very beautiful in an industrial sort of way.
Przygoda Czlowieka Poczciwego (1937)
Stefan Themerson, 8 minutes
The title of this film means ‘Honest Human Adventure’, according to Google Translate. My copy started with a whole bunch of unsubtitled Polish text, and the only words I vaguely understood were ‘humorous’, ‘irrationality’, ‘poetic’, and ‘extravagance’ (because they looked like English words). I honestly have no idea what this film is about and I’m happy to admit it – that’s half the fun of surreal/avant garde/experimental shorts. This one is not technically silent, since there are voices in the film occasionally, but again, there were no subtitles and I really can’t understand Polish, so it may as well have been silent for me (slightly cheating there). This film is pretty strange, and seemed to have some interesting underlying political or religious undertones. If only I understood Polish. Watch out for some humorous uses of a mirror in the forest to create strange shapes and creatures.
Symphonie Diagonale (1924)
Viking Eggeling, 8 minutes
This strange experimental short is intended to investigate “the basic principles of the organisation of time intervals in the film medium”, according to Frederick J. Kiesler (as a big quote says at the beginning of the film). At the beginning, about two or three minutes in, I felt that the film was tedious and boring. I had gotten sick of the shapes. But somewhere around the middle, this film drew me in. By the end I was really interested to see what kinds of shapes were coming up next. This is an interesting film that becomes mesmerising over time. I have to say though, that the music accompanying the version I watched was really bad and sounded like a MIDI file from a 90s video game. If you can find a version with an alternate soundtrack (anything earlier than the one composed by Sue Harshe in 2005), it would probably be worth watching.
Le Ballet Mécanique (1924)
Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy, 16 minutes
This film is kind of amazing. There are strange, repetitive visuals, erratic music, and highly experimental techniques throughout. This might be one of the best films to show people who are interested in the experimental silent shorts of the 20s, or someone who’s interested in the dadaist art movement. Although it’s very experimental, there are a number of concrete ideas that it explores, such as contrasting humans with machines. I loved this even though the loud music and rapid shots gave me a headache. If that isn’t the mark of a good film, I don’t know what is. Words are almost meaningless when it comes to this film – it’s absolutely worth a watch.