City Secrets Movies

pieces for books

This is an entry from City Secrets Movies: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Cinema’s Hidden Gems, edited by Robert Kahn and published by Universe in 2009.


You may think you have little or no interest in watching experimental films. And you may think you have little or no interest in watching a 77-year-old silent documentary. Not long ago I operated under both of these misapprehensions myself, and curing the first led directly to the cure of the second.

Jeff Scher is an experimental filmmaker of some renown in the low-renown world of experimental film. I got to know him because he was the boyfriend (and then the husband) of a friend of mine. When I first sat down to watch his films a couple of years after we’d met, I was a little anxious: what if I was bored or confused or repelled by them? Instead, I experienced something like the aesthetic-platonic version of that stupid moment where the Guy sees the Girl without glasses for the first time and sputters – “W-why, Miss Johnson! You’re – you’re beautiful!” I won’t try to describe the films here. But they’re all produced on old-fashioned celluloid, they’re all short (Sid, a comedy starring a dog named Sid, is three minutes long; Grand Central, a moody cinematic poem set in Grand Central Station, runs fifteen minutes), and they’re all gorgeous. And unlike most art called “experimental,” they’re gloom-free, pleasurable, even uplifting.

So once I realized Jeff was a kind of genius, I started relying on him for suggestions of movies to rent. And among the best of those – available from — was Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, a documentary made in 1927 by the director Walter Ruttman. It’s an amazingly rich, cinematically revolutionary, Koyaanisqatsi-esque day-in-the-life-of-a-city, with black-and-white images quick-cut to the (original) score. And given the city and the moment — Berlin on the verge of the Nazi nightmare – the film seems all the more resonant and beautiful and sad.