Conor Bateman
April 27, 2016 — By Conor Bateman

Terrence Malick’s City Symphony

A video essay made for Fandor Keyframe.

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This video essay and the below text was initially published by Fandor Keyframe in April 2016.

Manhatta, the 1921 short from painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, is a work of visual poetry. Inspired by and featuring text from Walt Whitman’s poem Mannahatta, it matches the poem in splendor, bringing Whitman’s emphatic descriptions of the cityscape and its inhabitants to life. It’s an early example, if not the first, of the “city symphony” film, a genre that emerged in the early 1920s and arguably hit its apex with Walter Ruttmann‘s 1927 feature Berlin, Symphony of a City. Sarah Jilani, writing in Senses of Cinema, notes that Manhatta, “a film with neither Dadaist influences in juxtaposition, nor with a deliberately disorienting montage rhythm, nonetheless yields a representation that ‘wobbles’ on shifting temporal and spatial ground.”

Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015), the second in a run of critical disappointments in the wake of his Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life (2011), is not, on its face, a city symphony film (and not only because this mode of filmmaking dissipated in the 1930s). While cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures in stunning detail the urban and natural environment of Los Angeles, his director has his eyes set on human figures and form.

It’s a shame, to some extent, that the film is wed to its vague philosophizing and somewhat troubling depiction of the women in the Christian Bale character’s life. It’s a heady mix of ideas and imagery that coalesces in parts but not as a whole. Malick’s regular editor Billy Weber sat this one out and in his place are four separate editors—A.J. Edwards, Geoffrey Richman, Mark Yoshikawa and Keith Fraase—which explains to some extent the shambolic nature of the film. But in mess and madness there is often beauty and genius; so too with Knight of Cups.

What captured my attention and imagination when I saw the film for the first time months ago was the way Lubezki framed the Hollywood backlot and the emptiness in his landscape imagery. Writing about Knight of Cups for The New Yorker, Richard Brody espoused that “where, for Iñárritu and Cuarón, Lubezki provides a mere adornment to their narrative, for Malick he creates a new way of cinematic seeing.” And there is something profoundly ecstatic and captivating in the way Lubezki sees the world in this film.

In reframing Knight of Cups as a city-symphony short I wanted to put the film’s images at the forefront, detached from narrative. It’s rare that a filmmaker like Malick places us within urban confines, so perhaps this short too acts as a demo reel for the ingenuity and visual splendor on offer when he does.

“The five-minute essay, edited in the style and format of Malick’s most recent work, is a free-flowing, dialogue-free cinematic re-evaluation of the film’s sweeping, tender beauty — often found in the most delicate and deliberately artistic shots seen inside.” – Will Ashton, The Playlist

“In the spirit of city symphonies, in which “the city plays itself,” Bateman frees the film’s mise-en-scene from the narrative pull of individual protagonists to focus on the camera’s movement throuh the sun-drenced micro-environments that comprise LA’s sprawl… [Terrence Malick’s City Symphony] prompts viewers to scan for the truths beneath the establishing shots and location settings of Malick’s film.” – Allison de Fren, “From the Essay Film to the Video Essay: Between the Critical and the Popular,” in Reclaiming Popular Documentary, ed. Steve Anderson and Christie Milliken (2021)