Knight of Cups ★★★★★

Countless times I've read film reviewers use some variation of "this film is pure poetry". It's crossed my sight so often that I can't remember a time when I thought of the phrase as anything more than an idiom that simply describes a beautiful film (genetically speaking). These films are typically carefully written, well performed (often with dramatic emphasis on actors' reactions and movement), all complimented camera work and editing. I've always read the phrase as a catch all for a generic (i.e., large group) class of film, nothing more or less. 

When I finished Knight of Cups — and every other minute while watching — I thought of two things: [1] How the abrupt fragmentation and absurdity of form reminded me of 80s-present day Godard — 2014's Goodbye to Language, and 1980's Every Man for Himself (the latter still fresh in my mind after watching it last week) — and [2], poetry; Modernist poetry to be specific. 

I was shocked by how much Cups resonated with me, but equally shocked with how different it is compared to his previous work; further shocked by how it made me realize it. Badlands is a smart, social twist on 50s melodrama and society; Days of Heaven is the rare Malick film that's equally driven visually and narratively. The Thin Red Line and The New World are perhaps his two most related in style, execution, and theme — playing with the concepts of glory and humanity in war in relation to which side is being profiled, and speculating if it makes a difference. Though Red Line is obviously more ambitious, and has the advantage of being both an anti-war film and "anti war-film" film; New World is much more subdued. 

He kicked off his "personal portrait" collection with The Tree of Life — what many, including myself, have called Malick's masterwork so far — exploring childhood trauma through single, meditative memory interrupted by commercials of present day effects, and what I believe is a anti-nihilist reaffirmation of our personal experience's importance even if they seem practically trivial in the eyes of the universe, so holding them dear (or letting them influence our growth) is neither naive nor irresponsible. It's also the sole Malick film that immediately brings thoughts of a single film — Tarkovsky's Mirror (1975). To the Wonder, a complex character study of love, sacrifice, and fear of loneliness that employs the familiar, "model acting". (Ironically, it's perhaps the first time we see Malick pulling the focus away from onscreen relationships and starting to explicitly point it at himself.) It's also his least adored work; but there are many out there who say it's their most. Of course, these are all gross simplifications of the text.

If anything has tied together Malick's films (other than cinematography and voiceover narration, of course) it's the way he takes specific subjects and humanizes them to the point of universal relativity: war, violence, love, abuse, childhood, loss, betrayal, etc... Rather than just being the most general descriptions of what a film is — "Saving Private Ryan is a war movie" — Malick's films are all explicit, yet contemplative commentaries on the meanings and effects of these commonplace words we rarely give thought to; normalized concepts that would otherwise evoke emotion, may as well have their status relegated to that of prepositions. But Malick, a philosophy scholar and (somewhat secular) devotee of Heidegger, uses his art to force his audience's faces towards these bits of language once taken for granted, and discover their truths — possibly truths about ourselves in turn, and our response to the question of "being". 

45 years and 6 films after his debut, Malick offers up Knight of Cups, which I think may be his best work thus far, or at the very least my personal favorite. This is the first film I've seen that takes the phrase "poetry on film" and actually applies it. To the naked eye, Cups looks and feels very similar to its two predecessors, but the techniques and style have indeed been re-programmed. Rather than vignettes of memories and present day trances — some call them "twirls" — accompanied by the inner monologues of multiple characters, Cups does the opposite of what we've come to expect from those elements. 

The voiceover narration in Knight of Cups is masquerading as the inner-thoughts and voices of separated characters — that is to say, there are multiple perspectives and each character's thoughts belong to them alone — though it seems the film drops subtle hints that all these different voices are being spoken by one individual: Rick (Christian Bale). In the past, Malick gave each character their own time in the hall of mirrors: Mr. O'Brien's self-hatred of himself as a failed inventor turned plant employee; the kneejerk thoughts of Nick Nolte's colonel vs numerous soldiers ("I killed man! Nobody can touch me for it!"); et. al. Whereas his first 2 films utilized the now-infamous voiceover in a more traditional narrator role. 

However, most (if not all) of the narrating voices in Knight of Cups that don't belong to Rick, are coming from people who are actually saying/have said these thing to Rick at some point, thus their words, although spoken by them, are just being relayed back to us by Rick. It's a pitch-perfect adaptation of free-indirect speech (see: Joyce, Austen, Woolf, Goethe) for film. One might even say that Rick uses the audience as a sounding board helping him find his truths as wades through half-muddled dramatization of memories to find out how he became this person he doesn't want to be anymore. Before he became paralyzed like everyone else preoccupied retelling stories of other people cause theirs have already ended. Where he went wrong. Where he forgot himself. Where he forgot he was a knight. 

This change in voiceover strategy compliments the tweaks in Malick's familiar vignettes of people twirling. Before Cups, Malick's films (though shot and edited basically the same) all focused on a single, drawn out event/story — told through mixtures of memory and the present, which Malick walks us through in a (commonly uncredited) linear fashion, abstracted by photography and editing doubling as clever smoke and mirrors. 

By contrast, Knight of Cups travels through many memories that take place in various settings, with diverse characters, and experiences that all seem to end with him left by himself, back on the road towards the next past event in order to scavenge it for answers. This dynamic narrative combined with the de facto singular narrator/perspective, turns the vignettes into what can only be compared to lines in a poem; each setting a stanza; each major relationship a section. Malick works the screen and narrative in a wonderful blend of Eliot's "Prufrock" and Joyce's Portrait/UlyssesCups is an epic poem and Modernist exercise as worthy as any other. 

The change in narration also refreshingly finds Malick transforming as a writer and editor (in the literary sense), taking his usual repertoire of Modernist devices like parataxis, stream of consciousness, and imagism, and playing with them in exciting new ways. Pound, once a champion of phanopeia, moved on from that style when he realized it's limits concerning epic poetry. With Knight of Cups, Malick accepts his challenge and comes as close to proving him wrong as anyone is ever going to get. This will probably be the best attempt at a true-to-style film adaptation for the likes of Leaves of Grass, "Prufrock", and Portrait of an Artist as we will see, and it's both all of those and none at once. 

I've read some reviewers who believe the film's events are happening real-time/the present, where Rick is stumbling through life on a journey of fulfillment and self-discovery. However, I'm of the camp that believes Rick is understood to be searching through his memories for the majority of the film, with bits of the present sprinkled in. Assuming this is true, it's implied that present day-Rick is offscreen daydreaming or something else that causes his conscious to enter a state of paralysis as he wanders through memories trying to find the answers of his past, self, and what he should do moving forward — an intriguing take on Joycean Epiphany. 

I feel like I've committed the worst sin by not allotting any space to the topic of fragmentation and unforgiving ambiguity in writing — arguably the two most key devices and themes of both Modernist writing and nearly every Malick film — but this review just passed 1500 words, so I'll save it for later and wrap this up...

The most personal and satisfying reason behind declaring Knight of Cups my favorite Malick film to date is it's ability to mimic the imagination that poetry, particular Modern works, relies on in the reader to bring the language — and thus, truths — to life and give them a face. Watching the first 10 mins of Knight of Cups sends me back in my own memory of being handed "Prufrock" in high school, and not understand (along with most of the class) what the hell was going on and why all these images and situations were seemingly thrown in a blender, then sprinkled with meditative and profound reflections, grievances, and questions. Then throughout the rest of the film, I'm reminded of the pure joy and wonder I felt when re-discovering "Prufrock" in college, and being much more interested in poetry. Knight of Cups is the exact kind of visual picture I conjure up when reading poetry, or any literature for that matter. The experience of watching a film about searching through memories and it making me relive my own life-shaping memories and feelings I thought I'd lost or never find again, is something damn special.

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