Neon NY: John Arvonio’s “Abstract in Concrete” and other abstract ‘city symphonies’

By on July 6, 2015

We were reading this recent article today in the Guardian, about the disappearance of neon signs in New York, and it reminded us of this great little short film from 1954, which presents, without narration, as it says at the Youtube clip, “reflections of the neon lights, pedestrians and street traffic on the sidewalks of New York’s Times Square at night in the rain….the lights resemble precious gems and the shiny sidewalks appear to be animated stained glass windows.”

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John Arvonio’s film “Abstract in Concrete” — edited by Gordon Hessler — features soundtrack music composed and performed by Frank Fields, who met Arnovio at a screening party for the then-scoreless work-in-progress in 1951. He offered the filmmaker a movement from a 1931 composition, the aptly titled “Times Square Silhouette” (the audio is a bit distorted on this clip, sorry!).

This abstract little film is now in public domain film, and can be found in the US National Archives, along with many others which are often abstract, or experimental, or impressionistic, and often with jazz accompaniment, or classical music.

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“Abstract in Concrete” also reminded us of the hypnotic opening sequence to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Bernard Herrmann’s haunting music (Mr. Scorsese surely must have seen Arvonio’s film before he shot his opening sequence, right?):

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According to An Introduction to the American Underground Film, by Sheldon Renan, “Abstract in Concrete” is namechecked in a section about “pattern films” that also included Blacktop, the 1950 short the Eameses (Charles Eames, Ray Eames), which focuses on puddles and reflections on a playground being cleaned. Many of the Eameses’ films, Renan notes, were “commissioned by organizations like Henry Miller Furniture and IBM.”

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According to Renan, some of other films which might be included in this sub-genre of short documentaries from the 1940s and ’50s, often focusing on urban buildings or city-life settings, which Renan collectively calls “city symphonies” include two by Frank Stauffacher, Sausalito, (1948), and Zig Zag (1948, the latter of these features the blare and brightness of neon lighting in San Francisco at night, echoed with jazz accompaniment); Philip Leff’s Symphony (1951); another by Frank Stauffacher, Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1952, narrated by Vincent Price, and it’s also about San Francisco — not particularly abstract, but worth a look); Allen Downs’s Freight Stop (1954, a poetic work without dialogue showing trains entering and leaving a station), and Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1957), in which a variety of distorting lenses were used to transform New York City into a series of plastic shapes. Have a look at N.Y., N.Y. below:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.