Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Bold and the Beautiful

“Knight of Cups

When I first saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in cinemas in 2011 – as I was first developing my notion of cinema as an art form, and long before I’d even thought about writing about it – I felt that it was everything a movie should be, and that it had surpassed the boundaries of everything I had previously thought a movie could be. It was the first time I had realised the possibility of images conveying meanings and ideas independent from text; and of performance, setting, speech, music, light, composition, and film editing imparting an entire story and evoking far-reaching experiences free from the literary (i.e. non-cinematic) constraints of a script. I was deeply shocked and vastly moved by the experience of that film – of the discovery of a new film language and a new knowledge of what can be caught on and revealed by the camera. Two years later I came upon the even higher beauty, and even more breathtaking revelation of his film To the Wonder, and it was through my ardour for these two movies – along with a tight fistful of others – that I was moved to begin writing. This blog and the thoughts you’ll find speckled across it are the fruit of a devotion that, though gestating for a short while before it, was birthed by my encounter with Malick. Among filmmakers, he has contributed the most significantly to my idea of cinema, and has nurtured my most tender affections for it. Any problems you have with me can be taken up with him.

Knight of Cups is a continuation of the artistic promise first conveyed in the critical and commercial success The Tree of Life. It has also, rather unfortunately, been met with the same sharp disappointment and frustration shown for To the Wonder by critics and audiences alike – not excluding my own friends that I dragged with me into the theatre for both the 2013 feature and the 2016 one (although I have read a few poorly articulated Instagram reviews both defending and attacking it). The Tree of Life was so widely loved because many viewers (including me) felt an immediate and surprising affinity with the childhood it evoked, despite biographical differences (it centres on a childhood in Texas in the 1950s). As many who wrote about it expressed, Malick had delivered such a deft and strangely familiar portrait of childhood that audiences couldn’t help feeling that “the film was about me”; “I was those children in the movie.” The reason we should be even more enthusiastic about Knight of Cups is that it’s so utterly not about each of us – it’s so deeply rooted in and fundamentally defined by the individual consciousness at its centre – while declaring the possibility of what might be made of each of our own lives. Every sound and image is one both caused by and contributing to the identity of the main character, Rick (played by Christian Bale). As the literary critic Harold Bloom maintains, we view art because we can’t know enough people in our lives, nor undergo enough experiences to enjoy the full blessing of Life. We must supplement what we have with the creations of others, and if that creation is distinctive enough, it can count towards the additional living figures within our own consciousnesses.

The point, I feel, of Knight of Cups is not that Rick is an inspiringly extraordinary individual, whose being merits more of our attention than people in real life. Like the novel that inducted me into the club of readers of 20th century literature, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it strikes me as a work of art which asserts that, despite being so sublime in its conception of a wholly unique human character, the same can be wrought of the life of any one of us readers or moviegoers. One finds in Mrs Dalloway that everything there is to know about human life can be discovered in every living day of every human life; and, similarly, one finds in Knight of Cups that the identity of any warm-blooded individual among us can be traced back through a lifetime’s accumulation of memories and reveries, and that that wealth of experience is what is required to render an honest and profound work of art.

Rick is a Hollywood screenwriter, and so his story in the film is something of a commentary by Malick on filmmaking and artistry. It’s told nearly entirely in flashbacks, with Rick’s memories rolling about in his mind, mingling together, spouting new mental creations of his own, and building on each other to form what now emerges as his identity. Being memories, what’s seen on the screen does not play like a collection of neatly devised movie scenes, depicting literal events and progressing in coherent order. Rick allows his memories to flow fluidly, and snatch at their own assortments of free associations and stems of imaginative possibility. In his memories, the characters in his story don’t say precisely what they actually said to him, nor are his memories always set in the place where the events actually occurred. He remembers conversations from the point of their subjective impact on him, and the repercussions they had on what came afterwards in his life. He remembers how he felt about what we’re being shown, and those feelings are imputed to the onscreen events as we watch them.

It’s not difficult to spot that, with Rick’s story, Malick is telling part of his own story, and that, in assimilating the expansive memories of Rick, Malick is doing something of the same for himself. It is thought that Malick’s teenage brother committed suicide and Knight of Cups, as The Tree of Life before it, finds the protagonist and his family still in mourning for the death of a brother. Rick passes time with his surviving brother, Barry (Wes Bentley) on occasion, as well as some time with both Barry and their father (Brian Dennehy), which invariably lead to angry confrontations between the two of them, often carried out with jolting force and sobering violence. The father blames himself for Rick’s brother’s death (and Barry seems to blame him too), and in one surrealist scene, taking place in what appears to be a largely abandoned apartment building, Rick’s father is seen washing in hands in a basin of blood. Rick and Malick strike me as impassive on this point, however, as if to say, “How can anyone tell who’s to blame? How can it matter to condemn anybody for this tragedy?”

Rick, again as with Malick, is involved in the business of movie making. We don’t see much of this business going on – only a meeting with agents in one scene, a few quiet walks across vacant studio lots in others – and, as Malick has, seems to sense that for him to make movies that are any good, to make something that he himself can count as worthwhile, he must excavate his deposits of memories, and draw on the breadth of his experience to discover something worthwhile to put on the screen. Movies, we’re being told here, are composed largely of empty and impersonal waste, which reflects the empty and wasteful lives of those who make them. The weariness and boredom of Rick’s life is hanging on to the edge of the frame throughout the movie, and we know he’s dissatisfied with his life and so, by virtue of being part of and a channel of his life’s output, his work. Malick suggests to filmmakers they make the kind of movie he has given us: movies in which they expose and confront the concealed decay in their lives, so that they may find a new way of living and a new way of working. Both Hollywood and its audience will benefit from this unleashing of shames and demons, terrors and regrets, indecencies and heartbreaks.

But Knight of Cups is not Malick’s Confessions, nor is it a dour private journal detailing a range of his discontents and misfortunes; it’s a work of rapture and of ecstasy, and of the most profound wonder with the intimacies and infinities of Life. The main relationships that pervade Rick’s memories are not the furious ones with his bereft relatives, but with the women he’s encountered, to varying degrees of emotional depth and intimate connection. There are those with whom his romances are more fleeting, such as the young British actress with eclectic fashion sense played by Imogen Poots, or the model whose photo shoots he attends and we are invited to scorn with laughter, played by Freida Pinto. And there are those whose affairs were more lasting: Cate Blanchett’s Australian doctor, whom we watch tending to the grievous injuries and illnesses of impoverished black people in the area, and with whom Rick regrets having no children; Natalie Portman’s already-married Elizabeth, for whom Rick clearly fosters deeply tender feelings; and Teresa Palmer’s Australian stripper, who invites Rick to engage with the playfulness in his life. And, besides these, there is a selection of other, briefer attachments, probably one-night stands and, in one scene, the playful suggestion of a threesome. Rick remembers these women not as simple emotional markers, but as gorgeous and wondrous personalities, undergoing experiences just as complex as his own.

A rather important feature of Knight of Cups – because it is a rather large feature in the consciousness of Rick – is the appearance and the feeling of his city, Los Angeles. He sees its urgently modern architecture, the glass skyscrapers, the large towers of bricks and concrete, the steel frames of buildings, and the marble halls inside them, and wonders at the astonishing whirl of visual rhapsody to be found all around him, missed, it would seem, by nearly all other filmmakers at home in the city of Hollywood, Malibu, and Beverly Hills – the beauty hidden in plain sight and bright sunlight, no less. But he also discovers, with staggering awe, the splendour of the surrounding natural scenes (the hills, the undeveloped grasslands, the beach, etc.) and the inhabitants far too often hidden from view in the movies his colleagues put out: the impoverished, and the unfortunate. Barry takes Rick on a short tour of the very poor parts of Los Angeles, and he witnesses the dealings of the criminal and the homeless Californians, beaten down by their political and social and economic circumstances and drowned out by the extravagant vulgarity of their nearby celebrities.

Richard Brody offers this lapidary summation of the film’s message to filmmakers that cannot be bettered in his review for the New Yorker:

In its displaced confessional mode, Knight of Cups is about the kind of movie that filmmakers make when they’re being honest about their experience, and, at the same time, it is, itself, that kind of movie. They’ll have affairs; most people do, maybe especially in Hollywood. They’ll divorce; many people do, especially in Hollywood. There will be tough business deals and the allure of money; most will yield to it. Luxury is impressive, vulgarity is alluring, and the mighty and gleaming architectural and urbanistic modernity that runs on massive infusions of corporate money and government collusion – well, it can also be spectacularly beautiful. Nature is majestic and terrifying; the leisure to contemplate it is expensive. Physical and emotional pain is everywhere; poverty imposes specific and grievous agony, people who endure it are very nearby, and you’re likely to be upset by the sight of those who suffer from it as you walk past them. Family relationships may suffer; that’s a sad commonplace. And there may well be a temptation to leave, to go home, or to go, at least, elsewhere. You are not likely to be an angel; it’s not part of the job description for being in the business, or, for that matter, for being an artist. But be honest about your experiences, about your failings – and about your enduring intimations of beauty even in places and situations that you’d hesitate to call beautiful, because the production of beauty in a world of suffering, and from your own suffering, is the closest thing to a higher calling that an artist has, the closest thing to the religious experience that art has to offer.

All of Malick’s vast ideas and admirable intentions would falter, however, and deserve little respect or attention unless coupled with his overwhelming sensibility of style and sensibility of cinema. His images, radiant with sunlight and delighting in the visual and tactile marvels of water, encompass and penetrate Rick’s life and his mind, and are rendered as not only memories, but a fully formed conception of the act of remembering. Our memories don’t present as portraits and landscapes, and don’t appear to us within neat rectangular frames. They encircle us, and stretch above us, and bend over us to include the image of ourselves. Malick’s camera – wielded by the superlative photographer of Hollywood, Emmanuel Lubezki (ludicrously lauded for his competent work on the tasteless films of Alejandro Iñárritu– does the same, and twists around its subjects, turns upside down at the side of a swimming pool, moves flowingly through a crowd of dancers, and shifts behind and in front of Rick as he watches the events of his life. The images are so complex, and so saturated with the exultation of the present moment, they cannot have been planned in advance by Malick and Lubezki; the camera roams freely through the circumstances created by the director, capturing the visions of beauty and ideas of experience and memory that Malick has laid out for it to catch. As Brody rightly says in his elegant review, Malick not only sends a message to filmmakers about what they can and should be doing with their art, he presents to them a euphoric example of what may be done with his suggestions. Long may the jubilation of his cinema last.



  1. This is brilliant, Jared! Your review and interpretation of the film helped better my understanding and appreciation of it.

    1. I am very glad to hear it. I hope you can find it in yourself to see the film once more some day.


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