NY, NY: A Century of City Symphony Films

By Gartenberg, Jon | Framework, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

NY, NY: A Century of City Symphony Films


Gartenberg, Jon, Framework


New York City has always been a center of the motion picture industry. Since the dawn of the twentieth century, independent and experimental artists, as well as commercial filmmakers, have paid tribute to the dynamically changing landscape of New York City. The filmmakers have employed diverse stylistic approaches to express both the formal beauty inherent in the city's architecture and the rhythmic energy of its people. Photographed during both day and night, through distorting mirrors and prisms, as well as by more direct photographic methods, the films include scenes filmed from atop skyscrapers, under bridges, through parks, down Broadway, and in Coney Island. Such motion pictures have come to be identified as "city symphony" films.

In cinematic terms, such works represent the articulation of both a defined time frame (most often from morning until evening) as well as a carefully articulated geographic space (e.g., a loft apartment, a city block, the length of the island of Manhattan). Rather than offering a comprehensive listing of all city symphony films made in New York, this article endeavors to define the framework for thinking about such motion pictures from an enlarged perspective, encompassing a variety of genres (early cinema, documentary, experimental, animation, independent, political films, etc.).

The first films exhibited in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century (1895-1905) revealed a sense of wonder at capturing motion by showing busy street life and powerful machines at work. The films also showcased spectacular man-made constructions such as bridges, skyscrapers, and tunnels. There was an expression of optimism by the filmmakers about the limitless potential of man to control production and increase his leisure time in the machine age.

Panorama films were a popular genre view. Electric lights were first used on the exterior of public buildings in the late 1800s. Soon thereafter, filmmakers captured floodlit urban views at night. One such film, Coney Island at Night (US, 1905, Edwin S. Porter), captures nocturnal views of the fabled amusement park (see figure 1). This film is composed of three shots. The texture is high-contrast black-and-white imagery. The night is so dark that the electric lightbulbs function to illuminate geometric forms-the circular, rectangular, and triangular outline shapes of the buildings, interior arches, and windows-in abstract fashion. The carefully controlled and slowly moving pans and tilts serve to contrast the different forms of the buildings-the merry-go-round whirls, the steeplechase sign seesaws, and the Ferris wheel circles.

With the rise of the Nickelodeon (around 1905, when storefront theaters began showing movies), filmmakers turned their attention to making story films, which were of longer duration and composed of more shots edited together. In films of this period, the chases take place in the countryside and in streets, with the protagonists running diagonally from the background of the image to the foreground. In each successive shot, the characters traverse obstacles in their path, including natural barriers such as steep inclines, bodies of water, and fences (over, under, and through which they run, climb, and fall). All of the characters pass through the image before the cut to the next scene occurs. How a French Nobleman Got a Wife through the New York Herald "Personal" Columns (US, 1904, Edwin S. Porter) is representative of the chase film of the period and contains exterior shots in which a groom is pursued by prospective brides, beginning at Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park and ending on the waterfront.

Interiors N.Y. Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (US, 1905, G. W. Bitzer) is representative of the early documentary, or actuality form of filmmaking (see figure 2). From a camera mounted on the front of the subway car, the camera travels through the tunnel toward Grand Central Station while pillars whiz by and dwarfed human figures move silently about on the platforms. …

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