‘The City’: The Most Seen Documentary

Oh, what beauty is here. What harmonies of sound and image. What nobility of purpose, evidence of a quaint and nearly vanished optimism.

Thanks to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pioneering city planner Lewis Mumford designed the “new city” of Greenbelt, Maryland in order to express his vision of gracious living as the harmony of man, machine and nature. The City, a documentary made to be shown at the 1939 World’s Fair — an event both seminal and ultimate, and iconic in all senses — is a propaganda piece designed to trumpet Greenbelt as the model city of the future.

The film lists no director and is usually credited to its brilliant photographers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, but it’s primary shaper and influence is Pare Lorentz, the mastermind behind two landmarks of lyrical American documentary: The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), both scored by Virgil Thomson. The City was the first film scored by Aaron Copland, and his work is the impetus for this DVD. The Thomson films have been released on a Naxos DVD as part of a project to provide newly recorded scores for what has previously been available only in its original monaural form, and The City is now added to that project. Some passages of Copland’s score had been omitted from the original film for creative purposes (such as putting in narration), but now it’s all here in vividly recorded glory.

The original version is included as a bonus, and I advise watching it first. The 43-minute film is in three movements. In the beginning, as it were, was the Eden from which American culture fell, or at least that’s the lapsarian myth Mumford’s narration (delivered by Morris Carnovsky) spells out. The paradise is a quaint, bucolic town in New England, a world where boys skinny-dip while old folks jaw at the Town Hall and everyone else is dignified by the “art” of their work, which is largely the handcrafting of pottery and the spinning of looms, or the use of watermills to grind grain. Here and there are rows of cheerful fellows hewing the fields with scythes, but in general there’s no sense of backbreaking labor, child mortality, religious intolerance or class or racial strife in this golden age. During this nostalgic and elegiac web of vanished purity, Copland’s music too spins and weaves in gentle trills of Protestant Americana.

Then comes the Dickensian inferno: the factories pumping “smoke by day and fire by night”, the smelting of metal that flows like lava and that hovers over the dirty mill towns where the workers’ families dwell in a dismal hell of railroad yards and hand-pumped water. One fellow has a peg-leg, another seems to be washing his face with grease. One thing the captivated viewer may observe, however, is how eye-poppingly lovely is this smoky, almost mystical landscape as shot by Steiner and Van Dyke. Their eye is for beauty even in misery, and their compositions make this part of the movie a pleasure to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

And the result of this industrial fall is the towering, thronging city, introduced with a reference to Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes”. Here is the film’s most dynamic and witty segment, as well as its most visually and musically innovative. The juxtaposed imagery, with its fabricated little dramas (most actions are staged in this essayist-evangelist brand of “non-fiction”), is intended to convey Mumford’s point that modern city life is random, enervating, reckless, dangerous, frustrating, and bad for you.

It’s a funny thing, though. The rapid editing of human hustle and bustle, combined with the neck-craning shots of skyscrapers and the hectic willy-nilly of the streets, creates an invigorating delirium that, will he or nil he, places this film with such celebratory city-symphonies as Berlin — Symphony of a Great City and The Man with a Movie Camera. This sequence also uses an aural montage of voices for certain sequences, mainly the diner scene and shots of secretaries in endless rows of desks (flashing back to King Vidor’s The Crowd and forward to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment).

The use of rapid editing as a visual correlative for city life wasn’t new, but the diner sequence, with its montage of food and customers in a fragmented assembly line of consumption, will make you think you’re watching Koyaanisquatsi decades ahead of time, just as the repetitive chords and triads of the following traffic sequence ring with proto-Philip Glassian panache. The Janus-headed Copland is famous equally for his music of lilting wide-open mythological America and the jagged, jarring, spiky urbanism where he actually lived. Thus this film combines both his modes into program music of the highest order.

Then comes a sequence called “Sunday Traffic”, with humorously bouncy music counterpointing the images of stalled traffic that undercuts the commuter’s Sunday dreams. This way of life is metonymized in the image (stock footage?) of a single jalopy crashing down a hill to a semi-comic decrescendo.

Third movement: Shiny new airplanes fly through the clouds! The thrill of science carries us to a brave new world — the new city, not too large, where city and country are integrated in a clean, green, cholesterol-free vision. A hosanna is sung (not literally) to aerial shots of “the multi-highway” (cloverleaf intersections), whose perfect geometries symbolize the rational endeavors of minds at peace with eternity. The supermarket and the laundromat are celebrated as communal spaces.

This Paradise Regained is the vision to which the film has been building, but as Joseph Horowitz indicates in the liner notes, there’s some danger that this happy land seems a bit dull, unreal or antiseptic after what has come before. This is especially true if we observe that the only non-white folks in the film seem to live in the hellish mill town.

And yet, the inherent beauty and rightness of the Mumfordian vision must finally overturn any modern impulse to cynicism and condescension, for the people really seem happy here amid their well-designed parks and walkways and libraries and the schools where “boys and girls achieve a balanced personality”. The testimony is provided in a bonus segment in which four ex-children of Greenbelt (not three, as the notes say) fondly recall growing up there during that pioneer period and still sing the town’s praises today; a fifth resident, a newby, is also interviewed. One of the interviewees appears in the film as the boy on a bicycle.

This bonus video, shot in 2000, is named after a Greenbelt project poster, Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter?. This underlines the point that Greenbelt was sold to parents as an ideal place for their kids. Children at play are a constant visual motif, and the baptism of recreational swimming is especially significant. In the first and last segments, skinny-dipping boys emphasize communion with nature.

Indeed, the boys are the first humans we see in the film, and its final images are provided by the camera looking up toward joyful young faces as Copland closes on a kind of fanfare for the common tyke. There’s also a Greenbelt segment where grown men unshirt one of their number after a baseball game and toss him off the dock in a healthy splash of effervescence. The boys who try to swim in the city harbor, however (not naked of course), are chased away from this busy workplace by an officious lumbering lumpenprole.

In another bonus, Horowitz converses with documentarian George Stoney about the film. I watched it after writing the above review and found they mostly bring up the same points, by which observation I intend not to underline my insightful brilliance but the clarity of the film’s intended and unintended meanings. Stoney points out that these aren’t only modern insights. He says that Archer Winsten’s laudatory 1939 review makes the same reservations about the lesser dynamism of the final section. Stoney agrees with him, though he adds that the film’s use of humor, especially in the final third, is a device to entertain middle-class audiences who attended the World’s Fair. Horowitz compares Copland’s score with Thomson’s in the Lorentz films, explaining influences and differences and Copland’s subsequent impact on film scores.

Funded by the Carnegie Foundation, the film was part of the science and technology exhibit of the Fair’s American pavilion where, according to Stoney, probably more Americans saw it than had seen any documentary before. Its orchestral soundtrack was conducted by Max Goberman. The new soundtrack highlighted on this DVD, which is labeled the world premiere recording of Copland’s full score, is performed by Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Both the original version and the newly recorded one use the same filmprint, which is unrestored and somewhat worn. It’s too bad no one has burnished the image or tried to clean up the original soundtrack a bit better.

As for the new recording with its new narration, there is one caveat which Horowitz’ notes try to explain as a positive feature: “A note on balances: contradicting Hollywood common practice, Virgil Thomson once advised that when film music is mixed with the human voice, voices should be no louder than is required for words to be understood. The present DVD endeavors to follow this ‘sound’ advice. We feel that we have honored the contrapuntal density of a rare transaction between word, music and image — and that otherwise Copland’s score would not project with full weight. And so where Francis Guinan ingeniously impersonates a worn mill worker, his tired voice becomes, in effect, another musical instrument in the mix. Viewers desirous of a more traditional balance, favoring the narration, are directed to the original film.

Honestly, Thomson’s sounds like bad advice, and in any case they haven’t followed it. When the music and narration are together, the words frequently can’t be understood. Guinan’s soft voice becomes an instrument in the sense that a distant, distracting mumble may be an instrument. Indeed, the music-free narration can hardly be heard without strain unless you turn up the sound enough for the music to blast you out of the room. If viewers desirous of a more traditional balance must resort to a copy where the music doesn’t sound nearly as glorious or full, a fair weighting hasn’t been achieved. I’m going to suggest, superfluously at this point, that two new soundtracks should have been prepared, the second track having either a traditional balance or dispensing with narration entirely.