In the 20s and 30s, at the strange intersection of Impressionist music, constructivist politics, and the broadcast networking of telecommunications, film and radio, City Symphonies like Man With a Movie Camera, Rien Que Les Heures, and Berlin: City Symphony became something of a genre. In the age of mechanical ballets, Eisenstein, Disney, and Lang, even Max Fleischer tried one; D.A. Pennebaker and Stan Brakhage would try their own variations on a New York subway years later. Espousing a sometimes Nationalist, sometimes Marxist faith in mass-production as a form of aesthetics—the rhythm of labor and the movement of modern architecture propagating its designs across water and up to heaven—the city film collapsed distinctions between politics and art, realism and abstraction, documentary and propaganda in its belief that documentary, like the State, offered the basic materials and building blocks for a modern paradise: and the means to become conscious of them. The films, taking off from modernist city novels like Ulysses and Manhattan Transfer, operate as though the city, not director, is a conductor through everyday rhythms, pathways, and rituals, and its inhabitants the floating nodes in a larger network of information exchange and routine. In the age of global social networks, these films couldn’t be more relevant. — David Phelps
Tonight’s program features only a few of the shorter city symphony spin-offs that appeared after the more sprawling features above. Included are works by Joris Ivens, the premiere artist-documentarian of his day, and a slight variation by Michael Snow some decades later. Curated by David Phelps.
Philips-Radio (Industrial Symphony) by Joris Ivens Netherlands, 1931, 36 minutes, B&W w/ sound, 16 mm
“In 1930, Joris Ivens accepted an offer from the Philips Company to make a film of its radio factory at Eindhoven in southern Holland… Ivens and his crew concentrated on the methods of work in a modern factory, developing a polished, well-crafted account of the stages involved in the assembly of radios, including the manufacture of components such as blown-glass amplifier tubes, receivers, transmitting valves, and loud speakers, until the finished products are packaged and shipped for distribution… With its central theme of men at work, Philips-Radio represents the interval between 1929-1933 in Ivens’s career, as he turned from his early works of purer formal beauty toward ones with preeminent social and political subjects.” — MoMA circulating catalogue notes
Rien Que Les Heures by Alberto Cavalcanti France, 1926, 45 minutes, B&W/silent, 16 mm
A celebrated film from the French avant-garde of the 1920s, made by a Brazilian filmmaker, Rien que les heures wants to be a manifesto, that is, a film that opposes a certain reality, and a certain way of expressing it: a film against the rich, the wealthy, and on the side of the poor, the humble, the declassed: a film that opposes clichés, preconceived images, and privileges movement, velocity, the feverish recording of real life. A manifesto proclaimed from the very first images of this silent work: one shot shows some beautiful, stylish girls going down the stairs of an estate, but the image pauses and solidifies, and becomes a photograph that a hand furiously tears off and rips into pieces. Ok, there it is: the whole film will be the reverse of that false image.” — BAFICI
One Second in Montreal by Michael Snow Canada, 1969, 17 minutes, B&W/silent, 16 mm
“One Second in Montreal, which Michael Snow completed after Back and Forth (1969), is a film at the opposite extreme of the ceaseless motion of the earlier film. Silent and static, it is composed of stills of wintry park scenes in Montreal. The photographs were originally taken in 1965 to document potential locations for large sculptures and were sent to various artists, including Snow. One Second in Montreal is primarily about time, which is emphasized by the film’s silence, its static quality, and its use of ambiguous, unexceptional images. During the first half of the film, the amount of time that each image is held on the screen increases in regular units, and in the second half that amount of time decreases (using a different mathematical formula) down to the single, last frame. The structure emphasizes the differences between viewing a photograph and a film and creates a contrast between the pictures as single images and combined to form a whole.” — MoMA circulating catalogue notes
Prints courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art. Special Thanks to Kitty Cleary.
David Phelps is a New York-based film critic for mubi.com; he has contributed to various publications, including Cinema Scope, Film Comment, The L Magazine, BOMB, and Slant, and translated for various sites. He has also worked as a programmer at the Cinema at the Whitney in New Haven.