Review of The City from 1939.
Made possible by a grant from the Carnagie Corporation of New York and produced for the 1939 World's Fair, The City is a problem-solving documentary that announces the "age of rebuilding is here." As music mirrors blacksmiths and trains, adding drama to the horse and buggy being replaced by machines, the film proclaims that Americans must find a balance between working, living, and the land.
"Smoke makes prosperity" and children grow up in slag heaps, with congested danger areas, traffic jams, accidents, and fast food. The answer lies in smaller cities planned for living, working, and playing where machines serve men. "Take your choice" the film concludes, between fresh air and sun or smoke and sludge. As Jacobs writes, "The City summed up graphically the decade's longing for a better life." 1
As Guynn points out, The City is divided into three parts: the first being the nostalgic look at the New England ideal of preindustrial communities, the second the reality of industrial progress and alienation, the third a vision of the future city based on humanity and not machines. As Charlie Keil sums up, the film presents a simple "reverie, problem, and solution" as outlined below:2
As shown by the outline above, voice-over narration plays an important role in this particular film. The voices are differentiated in each section by changes in tone, cadence, and point of view. In the first and second section the narrator uses the term "we" and in the final section he becomes omniscient, instructing "us" how to solve the problems of urban slums.
The use of "bracket syntagmas", or brief scenes linked by montage such as the successive shots of life in the city, is also vital to the overall aesthetic of the film. Guynn calculated that in The City there is one scene, eleven ordinary sequences, and the following instances of syntagma: twenty-one bracket, one parallel, nine descriptive, and one alternate. 3
The bracket syntagmas give the production its distinctive style. As Keil writes, what operates during these sequences is "a variety of diagetically motivated noises, which often act in concert with the previously described actions to effect structural climaxes. Hence, both the office and diner sequences culminate in a cacophony of overlaid voices, aurally echoing the frenzy of the accelerated montage....[making] it by far the noisiest section of the film." 4
In addition to the sequencing of shots, there are repeated signifiers throughout the film emphasizing the themes of nature and nostalgia: clean ponds, lush vegetation, and happy children are juxtaposed with street scum, no trees, and dirty children. Taken together, The City is what Barsam labels "an excellent example of the American social documetnary film, one distinguished by its cinematography, narration, editing, and sound recording." 5
1 Jacobs, Lewis. Ed. "The Documentary Tradition: From Nanook to Woodstock. New York: Hopkins and Blake, 1971. (76).
2 Grant, Barry Keith and Jeannette Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. (127).
3 Guynn, William. Cinema of the Non-Fiction. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1990. (51).
4 Grant. Documenting. (131).
5 Barsam, Richard M. Non-Fiction Film: A Critical History. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1973. (169).