Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Manhattan Odyssey" by Herman G. Weinberg

In researching the life and work of pioneering film exhibitor, subtitler, critic, and avant garde filmmaker Herman G. Weinberg, I came across a copy of his memoir, A Manhattan Odyssey, which was published in 1982. I hoped that it would contain information about his time in Baltimore, when he served as the manager of the Little Theatre, an early arthouse cinema that was the city's sole outlet for foreign and avant garde films at the time.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Weinberg devotes an entire chapter of his book to his time in Baltimore. He recounts being sent there by the operators of the 55th Street Playhouse, an art cinema in Manhattan, to oversee the opening of the Little Theatre. He ended up staying in the city for six years (from 1929 to 1936), living off of Mount Vernon Square and even meeting his first wife, Erna Bergman, who worked at the Little and was the star of his landmark experimental film Autumn Fire.

Beyond that, however, Weinberg's memoir is a fascinating evocation of a time and place that no longer exists. Most of the book focuses on his many years spent living in Manhattan, from his early childhood (a particularly tragic story involves the death of his young sister), to his years as a luminary of New York's arthouse film scene (during which time he authored a long-running column, "Coffee, Brandy, and Cigars", which ran at various times in publications such as Film Culture and Variety). Unlike our current age, in which every film enthusiast is expected to develop a specialized area of expertise in the most niche, unexplored aspect of the medium, Weinberg was a generalist, bringing his talents to bear in several different areas of the cinema.

Weinberg entered the film world through his musical training, after writing a trio of articles on silent film scoring that brought him to the attention of the burgeoning arthouse scene in Manhattan in the late 1920s. He developed the process of subtitling foreign films that has become the standard (superimposing the translated dialogue at the bottom of the screen), wrote pioneering studies of directors including Lubitsch and Sternberg, and in his later years, was a regular presence on the film festival circuit for many years, where he rubbed elbows with many Hollywood greats.

The chief delight in reading Weinberg's memoir, however, is his eloquent style, and wide-ranging references to literature, art and poetry. He re-produces a number of poems throughout the book (including one by his daughter Gretchen) that reflect a real appreciation for that art form. Like the best critics, Weinberg's enthusiasm for the subjects about which he writes is infectious.