Film made by Francis Thompson
Music by Gene Forrell
15 min.; U.S.A.; Color; Mono
One of the greatest unexpected pleasures of writing this chronological film blog has been experiencing short format motion pictures. Shorts run the gamut of picture making from avant-garde to zoological documentary not to mention everything in-between. They remind us that movies are more than the feature releases of Hollywood and the national cinemas, that documentaries are more than motion pictures accompanied by narrative truth claims, and that experimental cinema is not just a convenient umbrella term for anything not given a commercial release. In 1957, Francis Thompson completed a fifteen minute abstract documentary titled N.Y. N.Y. (1957). It is at once an experimental film and a documentary, and it just may be my favorite short subject film. In the picture, Thompson used prisms, mirrors, lenses, and who knows what else to transform actuality footage of New York City into a personal impressionistic view of a day in the life of Gotham. This is the city as seen by one who finds it joyful, vibrant, comical, and always surreal. This is the city as one who loves it and lives in it might explain it to someone who has never experienced it--or even to one who has experienced it but never realized the magic of the world all around. Few things reveal or reminds us of the beauty of everyday things as seeing them in new ways. Filmmakers like Thompson offer us the chance to do just that.
Thomspon's picture features the kind of playful cinematic whimsy we often see in animated shorts. Pedestrians are compressed into double-footed legs. Cars disappear when the light turns green (if only that were true). Steel girders gently float from the sky downward. Buildings look like they belong in a surreal landscape (see image above).
Gene Forrell composed a dynamic score that fuses symphonic music with everyday sound effects to underscore mood, and establish pacing and rhythm to the images. One of my favorite instances of Thompson and Forrell's cooperation is the visual sound of an alarm clock for the morning sequence of the film (see image above). It just screams: WAKE UP!
The short film received glowing reviews in the New York Times and earned awards in New York, Brussels, London, and Cannes. The Times review stated that Thompson was negotiating with United Artists for a 35 mm theatrical release but I've found no evidence that this ever happened.
Thompson trained as a painter, earning an art degree from the Carnegie institute in 1930. Soon after he was exposed to the artistic and documentary potential of cinema when he viewed the works of Eisenstein, Bunuel, Clair, Cocteau, Dali, Pudovkin and others while studying painting in Paris. Back in the United States, he made Evolution of a Skyscraper (1939) for the Museum of Modern Art before teaming up with filmmaker Julian Bryan to make documentaries for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and the State Department among others. By the early 1950s he was in business for himself creating documentaries and working on N.Y., N.Y.
Thompson's agenda was to create an abstract documentary, a "moving modernistic painting" of New York. His training as a painter and his exposure to art cinema is evident in every frame of surreal buildings, cubist avenues, and impressionistic elevator rides. He revealed that he shot the footage around New York on Kodachrome color film using 16mm Eastman Cine Special and Arriflex cameras but took the exact techniques and tools used to create the amazing distorted images to the grave (Thompson died in 2003). Perhaps it's for the best that his methods remain a secret. For when we deconstruct a thing we tend to diminish its power and shatter its magic. Anyway, I'd hate to see his talent reduced to a "Thompson" plug-in for Final Cut.