“In the Master’s Narrative, We Don’t Hear the Stories of the Oppressed, the Disenfranchised, of Women”: Director Cathy Lee Crane on Her SF Indiefest Premiere, The Manhattan Front
Developed with the support of a 2013 Guggenheim Creative Arts Fellowship, The Manhattan Front is experimental filmmaker Cathy Lee Crane’s first feature-length narrative film in a career spanning over two decades. True to Crane’s hybrid art film roots, though, The Manhattan Front melds melodramatic acting on silent-film-styled sets with newly digitized archival footage of daily life in New York City and on the front lines during World War 1. Via this unconventional approach Crane presents the true story of how a German saboteur’s plans to prevent American munitions from reaching Britain during a period of official U.S. neutrality became entangled with the progressive labor movement of legendary activist Elisabeth Gurley Flynn, resulting in consequences that arguably reverberate to this very day.
The Manhattan Front had its U.S. premiere yesterday at SF Indiefest, and it will screen a second time, with a live score by local musicians, on February 14 at 7:00 PM.
Filmmaker recently caught up with Crane to discuss The Manhattan Front and what she calls her “poetic speculation” of history prior to the film’s SF IndieFest premiere.
Filmmaker: So how did you come upon this WW1-era story, and what made you choose to do it as a film? As I think I mentioned, I felt it alternately could have worked as a theater piece as well.
Crane: I wanted to make a film about my maternal grandmother. Elsie was an orphan in New York City: born in 1914 and adopted in 1917. After months in census records from the Bronx to New Jersey, I began to look at her from another angle: who might my great grandmother have been; what was life like for a woman in NYC between 1914-1917? I soon realized (because I was as uninformed about WW1 as any other American) that those were the first three years of WW1 and more importantly the years of U.S neutrality before we entered the War. I stumbled into a bunch of stories like Dos Passos’ 42nd Parallel and then discovered an intriguing story in Franz von Rintelen’s The Dark Invader. In it he describes his coming to the United States in order to sabotage the production and export of munitions to Britain. He called his project The Manhattan Front; the front of the war that was playing itself out in the New York Harbor and on the docks of Hoboken. I got caught up in that and followed his lead. I dedicate the film to my grandmother who lives in the film through a character named Elsa. This young girl does what children do: she plays. As played by Marlene Sickora, Elsa becomes a conjurer, a magic-maker. The puzzle of the film orbits around the little orphan girl.
Filmmaker: You’ve been working with silent film and archival footage throughout your long career, yet you always take an experimental approach. What does the hybrid art form allow for that, say, a straightforward tackling of history might not?
Crane: Not to be glib, but it’s a film because I make films. Mine is a spectral cinema that works with how moving images mimic a mental operation not unlike the thinking of the unconscious one does in dreams. But this film is not interested in being the ether of a soma holiday. Its mesmerizing flow has stops too. Sudden. Blatant. The sets are one of them. They were purposely built to feel like theatrical sets because foregrounding artifice is a crucial entry point to the film. The crude qualities are also a nod to the history of silent film’s mise-en-scene which trades in the language of the soap opera. I bet if we could hear the dialogue of those actors from silent film history, we would be watching a soap opera. We started to use inter-titles as a way to resolve the need for plot exposition, which is a vastly more palatable device than having actors deliver it through dialogue. Throughout this film there are a few scenes that play themselves out in silence because words often keep us from the language of the body, which is often more articulate than words. Silence enables the viewer to look closely at the archive, the ambience of place, and the gestures of characters.
I want to be clear about the term experimental. Experimentation is a strategy, not a genre. My experiments revolve around speculations on an unknown past. I seek to answer these questions formally. Exploring the poetics of cinema means to utilize the flexibility of an image, its metaphoric capacity. Meaning is variable depending on context. Film is a set of experiential propositions (shots) rooted in light and movement like in life: a bird crosses the sky sending its shadow across me, I hear snippets of another person’s conversation; these impressions in turn trigger something else: an image, a memory. As a set of provocations, all films allow the viewer to make their own film. No one in the audience is going to have the same understanding of this film. There’s no way. There will be certain plot points that viewers comprehend but the experience of it is like putting a puzzle together.
Many hybrid art filmmakers work with ambivalence in the image, particularly around genre expectation: the fluidity of when and how an event can be read as staged which in turn upends certainties around whether one is watching a fictional or documentary film. An extraordinary example of this is Teddy Williams’ film The Human Surge.
In my film, I explore this slippage in reverse. My film announces itself as a conflict between the genres of fiction and documentary. Staged enactments in color crash against archival documents in black-and-white. We provoke a genre conflict immediately because we’re cutting back and forth between these two extreme visual registers. What starts to happen, an interesting development in the trajectory of the film, is that slippage sneaks up on you. Over time, it becomes possible to see two extremely different visual registers that start out in sharp conflict as having a more integral relationship. Part of what enables this is the fact that the archival image depicts the exterior and all interiors are staged. In a way, the actors get imbued with an historical charge from the archive and the building from the elevated train could be outside a character’s room. This is also made possible through sound bridges. The idea is that these very different strands cooperate even in conflict. Perhaps that is what the film’s central theme is. Part of the film’s power depends on confronting the assumption that the staged is false and an archival image is true. The more I push the artifice of the live action, the more we can start to see that the archive itself is fictional, that is, it’s staged, it’s framed. The beautiful thing is that these registers also interrogate each other, unmask each other’s conceit.
This film also moves across other platforms for its wider historical context. Our website’s History page teases out circuits of influence that precede my film’s action. These are documents from the first 14 months of the war which constitute my film’s backstory. I also produced my own newsreels from these months on our YouTube channel in which you might see characters from the film folded into the archive. We even made decks of playing/trading cards.
Filmmaker: Weaving together staged performances with archival footage from the National Archives in DC must have been a tricky feat.
Crane: A historical film has to answer the question, why now? Why are you being made now? The 20th century culminated with the complete eradication of labor unions in the U.S. It’s a travesty. We find ourselves within a labor force not paid a living wage and no way for that labor force to strike. “There are plenty of scabs right behind them.” Until we have international labor laws (which is what the IWW was setting out to do), we will continue to see massive profit margins for global capitalists and lower standards of living for the working class and now, the middle class. This is both a history of labor in this country, and an entry into a history of WW1, which in and of itself is difficult to grasp. Historians seem to agree that WW1 was, if not the birth, then certainly the cementing of the military industrial complex… which the entire 20th century articulates. It’s ridiculous how this structure and its devastation is timeless. You can’t pull off a general strike if people aren’t protected through solidarity. The IWW was intent on becoming one big union, uniting across trades and nations. It was effectively destroyed in the 1917 espionage act because labor’s threat to the industrialists was twisted into the unpatriotic. Sound familiar?
I have been interested in and have utilized archival images in all of my films because my primary drive as a filmmaker is to examine, perhaps interrogate the historical record. In my shorter films, I was interested in blurring the record with staged material in black and white; silent like a newsreel. In Pasolini’s Last Words, I started to take a more aggressive approach to the interrogation of the historical record. The record is not the final word on how it is we got here. Because “we” is a set of systems and relationships. How do these characters become who they become at the end of the film? Each character is influenced by public/social circumstances; not just private ones. In this way, I’m deeply inspired by Fassbinder, who was interested in how it is that personal/domestic lives develop in relationship to the pressures of socio-economic reality.
When I look at archival material… I look for what people do, how they move. The difference in what one might be used to seeing is startling. That will be an image I want to incorporate. Not many films have been made about WW1, but there are lots on WW2. This film has all of this material from the streets of New York City, so you’re riding the elevated train and you have the perspective of that. You’re slipping on ice. If I see an image I don’t even know where it should go, it probably has no relevance to plot. But I love it because it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. So when I see these skating sailboat things on ice, I want to play with them. Which gave me a real opportunity to play (and this for the audience too). The film never takes itself too seriously.
Because licensing archival material is cost prohibitive, I decided to make a film with material in the public domain. Everything is before 1923 — songs, books, images. I may have to make films that contend with history before 1923 for the rest of my career. Or get some intense financing. I see these images and I want others to see them. It is “history” — it’s a story that affects all of us. Why don’t we have access to disseminating that record? Why? To me, the entire record as it is captured in the street, “life caught unawares,” and that is a public object. This film is a movement pushing up against and exposing an archive that hasn’t been seen. Some of these images do appear in previous WW1 documentaries, but most of this stuff you’ve never seen and it’s devastatingly beautiful.
Filmmaker: I was actually surprised to learn that the actors — quite topnotch for a hybrid film — were cast from the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. As an Ithaca College professor, was the decision to cast locally a matter of convenience? Supporting your community?
Crane: There’s a sincerity to the performances that is compelling. I am interested in working with actors trained in the Meisner technique because I think it’s the technique that works best to produce presence before the camera. There are probably other techniques that work to produce a sense of engagement, but that’s the technique with which I feel most comfortable. I’m also interested in acting that is difficult, brittle and awkward. My Simone Weil film is so off-putting in the acting style, primarily because the dialogue is written text meant to be read, not spoken. That film took me to Ithaca’s Actors Workshop, like rehab. I went through some of the training because I thought if I don’t know how to direct actors then I’m sunk. I cast a number of the roles for this film out of Ithaca through my casting director Eliza VanCort, the founder of Actors Workshop Ithaca. Casting the actors in Ithaca wasn’t about convenience, it was about a devotion to this community of actors and the Actors Workshop whose work is extraordinary.
What I find interesting about the Meisner technique is that it demands that an actor get out of their head (the camera prefers this too). This depends on one’s attention being directed to what the other actor in the scene is doing. Directing actors I now know is about directing an actor’s attention. I think what’s amazing about these actors’ performances in this film is that they believe in their circumstances. Meisner said: “acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” I cast actors with great instincts, their choices, their organic capacity to listen. I guess my actors knew they could trust me. I was watching them closely. Meisner’s core is the repetition exercise so though perhaps tangential, we worked with repetition explicitly. It becomes possible to see that even though we repeat take 1, take 2, there is a sincerity in the presence of the performer which makes each take unique. Whatever about continuity. The fact that my editor also trained at the Actor’s Workshop was crucial. His first assembly sought out the strongest performance in each scene. His sense of that was spot on.
Filmmaker: What is your editing process like?
Crane: Usually editing is my job. I’ve built all of my films in the edit. How a film’s structure comes into being is an extremely challenging and a thoroughly philosophical project; a material philosophy. The process of editing with Daniel Masciari was an existential collaboration. Neither one of us takes the project of editing lightly. We are both extremely interested in the moment of the cut, the interval of meaning that occurs at a cut. This preoccupation is inspired by Eisenstein, who saw each shot as a montage cell. In other words, a shot’s composition, the light, the movement within a single frame is what provokes one shot’s move to the next. In that interval between images, there is always, maybe unconscious, sometimes explicit, but there is always an associative space where the viewer feels and even thinks. Two things informed our inquiry into the interval and enabled it to work in a productive way. One was the decision to compose the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio and the other was to draw out that extreme distinction, a dialectical pressure if you will, between the color live action and black-and-white archival.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss further why you wanted to shoot 4:3?
Crane: There are a number of reasons for 4:3: it matches the ratio of the newsreel from this period and since I still shoot with the Bolex, it is my aspect ratio. It’s my thing. It’s easy to feel cramped watching 4:3 on a 16:9 computer screen. At one point, I had this idea that I’d make an online version available in 16:9. We had after all shot it in 16:9 but composed 4:3 in camera. Daniel was adamant. We would have to revisit every single cut if we were going to change the compositional space. He was absolutely right. There’s a constraint that happens in the 4:3 where you expand off-screen space and in doing that, you make more room for the audience’s imagination. So 4:3 was a crucial governing principle, governed a lot of our choices, shaped them even. Daniel would slip the matte in some cases to make a stronger juxtaposition.
Our editing process enjoyed (perhaps that’s debatable) an indulgence of re-conforming picture and sound in a back-and-forth conversation. The sound design from Jeremiah Moore (with whom I’ve worked on my last four films) inspired changes to the picture. Jeremiah and I talked about building references to parallel spaces especially in the relationship between the children and their world and the live action storyline of spies and traitors. The sound design pushed scenes to have direct conversations with one another and that allowed Daniel and I to refashion the picture sequence more than once. I thought we were finished cutting this film after six months. I was a year off.
Filmmaker: You seem to have an affinity for history’s female political activists. Labor leader Elisabeth Gurley Flynn is front-and-center in The Manhattan Front, and you featured Simone Weil in an earlier film. Do you see your films as feminist works as well?
Crane: It’s complicated but I feel that every single female character could have been the depiction of my great grandmother, any one of them; or a composite of all of them. Why don’t they have children, why can’t they keep children? None of these women have children and yet children haunt the film and stand in for a kind of lost innocence. The early 20th century was an historically important moment for the independence of women — women who were going to live, who were going to work and were not going to have a family. And it leads to the film’s suffragist storyline. The independence of women lead to this; or it was the other way around. Either way, this period is the end of what is conventionally referred to as the first wave. The film looks at relationships between women as being complex in being mediated by men or separated by class. Just because we all want voting rights doesn’t mean that across class lines women can commune.
The fact that I found Elisabeth Gurley Flynn is one of those extraordinary gifts that came from a friend over dinner. She directed me to the NYU Tamiment Library, a research library that documents the radical left history. I’m interested in the archive because I’m interested in history. My problem with history is that it is partial. In the master’s narrative, we don’t hear the stories of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, of women. Early on in my graduate program at San Francisco State, I made two short films (Sketches after Halle and The Girl from Marseilles) that were interested in finding the absented female subject and giving them voice. The fact that I have Simone Weil and Elisabeth Gurley Flynn is because these two historically lived realities are still obscure. And both of them push the envelope of radical thought. When Gurley Flynn writes on Sabotage in 1916, she makes a claim about what, in the worker’s arsenal, is moral. It was later pulled from publication because it could be taken up and used as rationale for espionage. This story gets wound up with Rintelen’s project in the film’s plot in order to produce complicated (and still relevant) questions about reform vs. revolution in the Socialist party.
I continue to be very interested in female characters from history, but that’s not the most important act of my feminism. My feminism is a polemics that is embodied in the fact that I’m making the kind of work I’m making. Kind of an audacity. This could be my first film of mine with commercial possibilities. That it is legible to a broader audience is very exciting. Before this, I haven’t cared really if people “got it”. I am a feminist insofar as I’m a woman working up against the conventions of rational causal thought, the cornerstone of patriarchy.