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New York City Symphonies

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Streaming now through January 19

The time-honored film genre known as the city symphony has yielded many memorable images of urban life. These usually short documentaries may celebrate the marvels of modernity or decry the decline of a neighborhood, frequently following a dawn-to-dusk cycle without any characters, speaking parts, or plots. Instead, a structure is derived from the movements and motifs of orchestral symphonies or the special rhythms of daily rounds. Walter Ruttmann, a German filmmaker who in the 1920s was an early practitioner of the genre, wrote, “I had the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city.” New York, with its dissonant harmonies, has long been a favorite city symphony subject.

Skyscraper

The famous high-rise at 666 Fifth Avenue, designed by Carson & Lundin and completed in 1957, is the focus of Skyscraper, a short film that celebrates the modern construction materials of steel, glass, and concrete while gently mocking New York’s stately stone facades. Though seemingly indifferent to the preservation of New York’s past, the film’s makers (among them Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, Irving Jacoby, and D. A. Pennebaker) crafted a distinctive record of Midtown Manhattan at midcentury, while construction workers—the film’s real heroes—narrate in their wisecracking fashion to Teo Macero’s breezy jazz score. Skyscraper received an Academy Award nomination. (1960, 20 minutes)

Free Time

Recalling the work of great New York street photographers like Helen Levitt, Free Time—a recent montage of expressive black-and-white 16mm footage captured by the cameras of Manfred Kirchheimer and Walter Hess as they explored Manhattan’s streets in the late 1950s—forms a lyrical mélange of everyday moments in the city. Accompanied by the music of Count Basie, Maurice Ravel, J. S. Bach, and Hanns Eisler (with ancillary street sounds), this wistful portrait of a bygone era, at once rough and romantic, makes stops at a scrapyard in Inwood, a burial ground in Queens, Washington Heights, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, and the financial district, giving equal time to stoop sitters, kids playing stickball, window washers, and workers on Wall Street. (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1958–2019, 60 minutes)

Bridges-Go-Round

Filmmaker Shirley Clarke crafted Bridges-Go-Round—a paean to the vast bridges spanning New York Harbor—from surplus footage from an earlier project. Shots soften into colorful, dreamlike abstractions that swing to two musical scores as the footage plays twice, back-to-back: first with a jazz score by Teo Macero, then again with a track by Louis and Bebe Barron, composers of the electronic musical score for Forbidden Planet. Clarke achieved intense color by bipacking, a technique in which certain colors are altered by running the footage through the printer a second time. The short work is also an homage to Joris Ivens’s 1928 classic The Bridge, a montage of viewpoints of an iron bridge in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and a symphony of abstract structural forms. (Shirley Clarke, 1958, 8 minutes)

Stations of the Elevated

In the late 1970s, filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer documented the spectacular graffiti art that adorned New York’s subway cars at the time. In his view, the paintings were a distinctive kind of urban folkcraft. Stations of the Elevated has no narration and only incidental dialogue, and the moving subway cars are accompanied by a jazz soundtrack featuring Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin (with added ambient noise of local weather and street sounds). Kirchheimer would travel to the Bronx to film the trains moving overhead: “They would come by and it would be screaming full of colors—just gorgeous. The smart thing I did was shoot it all outdoors. Most of the lines are indoors, and the way most people would see these paintings was indoors. Doing it outdoors gave a whole other perspective.” (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981, 45 minutes)

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