The city-symphonies of the 1920s and 30s defined both film technique and “the city” itself as representational space. Beginning with Manhatta in 1921, they swept across the globe: Paris, Berlin, Moscow, etc. When I taught a class on film and urban history last semester, we began with Manhatta—it’s short, legible but still open to discussion, and a good way to begin thinking about montage, mise-en-scène, and how cinema narrates urbanism (for one smart, if theory-heavy analysis of the genre as revealing “the temporal movements of urban modernity,” see Sarah Jilani’s 2013 Senses of Cinema article; a perhaps more reader-friendly, if NYC-centric, century-long overview from Jon Gartenberg can be found here as a pdf)
The genre persisted in various ways after its heyday—if a basic scattershot canon might include Manhatta, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City , Man with a Movie Camera, and A Bronx Morning, later efforts range from Brakhage’s Wonder Ring to Menken’s Go! Go! Go! and Lights, through the recently-departed Peter Hutton (some of whose work I caught at a recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective). I’ve seen Amos Poe’s 1970s no-wave films (great) and Hollywood crossover attempts (wretched), but not his experimental 2008 Empire II; David Bordwell makes it sound interesting, though.
Missing from all of this, of course, was Newark, skipped over by the city-symphony movement. There was Sightseeing in Newark in 1926, which I wrote about here and can be viewed here; it’s a great document of the city, and not devoid of creative flourishes, but really a little too stilted and postcardish to qualify as a city symphony. So, no Newark city symphony.
Until 2009. Filmmaking team Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno are probably best known for their documentaries, including the powerful Revolution ’67 and the education film The Rule (both of which deserve eventual posts unto themselves), but they’ve also made an eclectic array of fictional and nonfictional works—see the whole list here. Marylou is from Newark, Jerome has been here for decades, and they’re deeply committed to the city—so when the Newark Museum prepared for its centennial in 2009, it made perfect sense to commission them for a short cinematic celebration of the city.
The result, New Work: Newark in 3D, finally gives Newark its belated city symphony, capturing the city’s vibrancy and beauty in gorgeously-composed shots featuring both its iconic architectural and urban-design highlights, and also the everyday vitality of the city in action. Continue reading