On Terrence Malick’s new movie, which is very much in the vein of his recent work.
Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick’s latest head-scratcher movie, starring Christian Bale, features an earthquake, a temperamental sibling, an emotional ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), several dalliances (including one with Freida Pinto, who sticks her toes into Bale’s mouth), a hold-up in an apartment – it’s the stuff of high drama, but without an iota of dramatic weight. It’s like the scene in the café in Godard’s Masculin, feminine, where we witness a shooting, but aren’t allowed to linger on what its implications are, what its aftermath is – we’re led quickly, almost abruptly, to the next moment, as if the violence meant nothing.
It’s isn’t just Godard who springs to mind. Bale plays a Hollywood screenwriter (at least, that’s what the press notes say; you may come away thinking he plays a man who likes to walk a lot but not talk a lot, and you’d be right) in the sort of creative/existential crisis that plagued the protagonist of 8½, but in the meantime, with all those women, with all that money, he could be toplining La Dolce Vita. He’s a Fellini hero filled with the anomie of an Antonioni leading man – witness all that near-silent drifting amidst cold, urban architecture.
And then we get the plot point about a knight – Bale may be that knight. A priest tells him, “God shows you his love by sending you suffering.” Someone else exclaims, “Treat this world as it deserves. There are no principles, only circumstances. Nobody’s home.” And in this emptiness, in this silence, there is much wondering about the soul. Somewhere, Bergman is getting in touch with his lawyer.
At one level, Knight of Cups appears to be a mash-up of the concerns, the sensibilities of the gods of art-house cinema – except that Malick doesn’t have the wit of Godard, the carnivalesque brio of Fellini, or the doggedness with which Bergman went about his questing.
At another level, the film comes across like a parody of recent Malick movies. Malick was never the most plot-oriented of filmmakers, but in his early films (Badlands, Days of Heaven), there was at least the semblance of a narrative, within which the longueurs were dispersed. Then, with The Thin Red Line, we came to the phase where the plot began to recede in favour what we may term meditations (if we are to be charitable) or meanderings (if not). But the films, up till Tree of Life, still connected with us, because there was still some sense of what was happening, and to whom, and when, and why – the basics of narrative.
Now, Malick’s entered a phase that’s all about meditation – though I’d call it meandering. And the cinematography, by Emmanuel Lubezki, is in sync – the camera literally meanders. It floats towards the characters, as if tethered to a balloon in the vicinity. It floats away from them. It follows a tennis ball that’s tossed into a swimming pool as a dog dives in after it. It goes to outer space and shows us the lights. It then shows us the lights of Paris, of Vegas. We get scenes from what seem to be home movies. We get scenes set in a strip club.
There is the sense – surely intentional – that we are floating too, and the flip side is that we are cast adrift. There is nothing to hold on to, nothing to root us, orient us. The editor, upon receiving the raw footage, must have been the happiest person on the planet. This must have been the easiest job ever. Splice it together any which way and the movie wouldn’t have been any different. It would have still been this inscrutable series of images. And the lines. “As I walk through the wildernesses of this world…” “See the palm trees. They tell you anything’s possible.” These could have been replaced by randomly selected passages from, say, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and, again, the movie wouldn’t have sounded any less… profound. It’s the same with the music. Replace the classical passages with – I don’t know – bossa nova, and you’d still be watching the same thing.
What does it say when every stylistic choice appears so interchangeable? Some would argue that this is the very essence of modern art, that the film is nothing but a Rorschach test recording our responses, our interpretations. Knight of Cups, in other words, is what we make of it – it practically dares us to make something of it all. And what I made of it was that it was… interminable. If I wanted to watch a stretch of nothing-happening-yet-everything-happening set amidst the alienated upper classes in Hollywood, I’d return to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. The nothingness in that film is sculpted, intimate, finite – I can process it. The nothingness in Malick’s recent work is like that of the universe. You’re lost.
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