Knight of Cups

It was once asserted to me in conversation that movies with complicated worlds lent themselves to simple stories, whereas movies set in more easily-understandable worlds are more available for complicated stories. As such, fantasy films often have Manichean characters pursuing basic goals -- find The Grail, destroy The Ring -- and stories set in contemporary times, thus needing less effort to explain the world and its rules, can spend more time developing more elaborate characters and stories (obviously, this conversation was not with anyone involved with the writing of the Pirates of the Caribbean films).

I find that observation is generally true, which is better than most observations, and wonder if there isn't an analogue when it comes to the formal elements of a film. The more complicated a story, perhaps the better it is that the filmmakers utilize more classical techniques, shaking them up when they serve the story and characters. Whereas simple stories can be told in formally adventurous ways. This is more of a question than an observation or theory -- but I wonder if Terrence Malick might agree.

The story of Knight of Cups is so simple that it is introduced to us in two different voiceovers right near the beginning of the film. One is a more allegorical telling, quoting John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and the other telling comes across more as a parable: a prince is sent to another kingdom by his father to retrieve a pearl, but is given a potion that puts him to sleep and makes him forget his mission, after which the king sends messengers to him in successive attempts to wake him up and return him to his quest. It is fitting that, not long after we are told this tale, the screenwriter character "played" by Christian Bale (he's mostly just a model walking around, there are no elements of traditional performance here) is awakened by an earthquake.

I've seen at least two writers refer to Knight of Cups as being Terrence Malick's Entourage, but aside from some recognizable (though mostly not-quite-celebrity) cameos and a party or club scene or two, this strikes me as an empty comparison. My initial reaction was that it was more Malick's take on La Dolce Vita, his "come dressed as the sick soul of Hollywood party" movie, decrying the superficiality of The Industry which has mostly been of a fringe to him for over forty years. But I don't think it's really quite that, either; "Hollywood" (and its extension, Vegas) serve as thematically appropriate due to their dream creation functions, wherein illusions are made manifest, and while the film serves as an indictment of overindulging the fantasy, it doesn't seem an indictment of creative endeavor in general -- after all, two of the last three Malick protagonists have been creators (Sean Penn plays an architect in The Tree of Life) -- and, well, maybe all three of them have been, counting the mother played by Olga Kurylenko in To the Wonder (and having children -- or the absence of having children -- is recurring theme in all three movies, so I don't think it's cheeky to consider motherhood an act of creation in Malick's cinematic worldview).

Characters come and go in Knight of Cups, many of them romantic partners, others family members, but each attempting in each way to wake the main character up; some even say words to this effect. "How?" asks our protagonist at one point, and we shift from glamorous parties of debauchery on scenic rooftops to his recovering addict brother (an animated Wes Bentley) giving our man a tour of Skid Row. The excess and riches of his daily (and nightly) life keep his eye off the suffering of others, and distract from his own internal suffering (exemplified in the strained relations amongst his family, which seem largely driven by the pre-screen death of a third brother, echoing The Tree of Life and The Actual Life of Terrence Malick [continually coming to screens near you, with some intermissions, since 1973]). Each character -- obliquely introduced with a title card referencing one tarot figure or another -- seems to be bringing him another message, another way to try to wake him up, to make him open up to avenues of experience he has been refusing: to real experience.

With real experience comes suffering, and suffering is the key to waking him up; Bentley's brother shows him suffering to try to get him there, but it is a final doomed romance with a character played by Natalie Portman that brings him the true suffering to give him the strength to wake up, to turn around and change his ways ("I ... think ... you're ... weak" Imogen Poots' character tells him early in the film). Armin Mueller-Stahl appears as a clergyman in what is essentially a cameo (no other character we've seen appears in the scene) to pronounce to us that suffering makes us belong to something bigger than ourselves. It's a provocative idea, and one not often demonstrated at the multiplex; so often we have films urging us to embrace our inner Id and that pursuing delights that free us from the shackles of bourgeois society (American Beauty is the template here), but here we're being told that the way out is not necessarily from Pleasure, but from Pain.

Is this feel-good cinema? Not in the way we tend to think of it, with heartwarming mawkishness and contrivances designed to generate unearned happy endings. But it does sound like good news, doesn't it?, that suffering might actually make us stronger, might be the thing that connects us? This impulse drives religions and fuels our "Hero of a Thousand Faces" myth in many ways.

Lest this film sound like a treatise, rest assured that it contains as much sheer visual and aural pleasure as all other Malick fare. Always driven by reverie, here he trends toward more phantasmagorical, dreamlike images and editing patterns. Even To the Wonder explained why Marina was out of the country for a portion of the film, but here there is no rhyme or reason, no discernible sense of time. Images and associations often rush at us quickly, and music queues come and go with sudden abandon. Malick's doubters often dismiss his lush visuals as being resonant of television commercials, but remember Stanley Kubrick saying, in 1987, "Leave content out of it, and some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials ... If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material." This is the direction Malick has tilted his cinema in: the language of visual (and audio) poetry, a language that eschews traditional dramatic signposts and deals with themes and emotions, using surface characteristics to dive beneath the surface. But this formal adventure does come at the cost of popular accessibility. Malick is obviously fine with this, and movie stars such as Bale and Portman seem to embrace it as well, knowing full well their weeks of confused shooting might not even end up a part of the final product.

But with daring formal strategies and a complex net of references from Bunyan to tarot to unsourced parables, there is another trade-off: that of simplicity of story. Such that Malick will simply have the story of the whole movie narrated to you in its opening minutes, because what really matters is there for us to see when we heed his call to wake up. I could have watched the movie endlessly.

thestrelow liked these reviews