Chivo does it again, with Malick

Mar 09, 2016 Published under Family, Innovation, Interesting Random Stuff, Movies

Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” Challenges Hollywood to Do Better

By Richard Brody

Perhaps no film in the history of cinema follows the movement of memory as faithfully, as passionately, or as profoundly as Terrence Malick’s new film, “Knight of Cups.” It’s an instant classic in several genres—the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama—because the protagonist’s life, like most people’s lives, involves intertwined strains of activity that don’t just overlap but are inseparable from each other. The movie runs less than two hours and its focus is intimate, but its span seems enormous—not least because Malick has made a character who’s something of an alter ego, and he endows that character with an artistic identity and imagination as vast and as vital as his own.

As such, “Knight of Cups” is one of the great recent bursts of cinematic artistry, a carnival of images and sounds that have a sensual beauty, of light and movement, of gesture and inflection, rarely matched in any movie that isn’t Malick’s own. Here, he—and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki—surpass themselves. Where “The Tree of Life” is filled with memories, is even about memory, “Knight of Cups” is close to a first-person act of remembering, and the ecstatic power of its images and sounds is a virtual manifesto, and confession, of the cinematic mind at work. It’s a mighty act of self-portraiture in dramatic action and in directorial creation. And because “Knight of Cups” is about the world of movie-making itself and is set mainly in and around Hollywood, it’s also a vision of the modern world, the world of inescapable images and of their dubious demiurges, of whom the movie’s protagonist, a screenwriter named Rick (played by Christian Bale), is one.

At the beginning of the film, Rick is trying to remember: he recalls, in voice-over, as if addressing his father, a legend about a knight whose father sent him out West in search of treasure—and who, there, was served a drink that made him forget his quest, his origins, himself. The “West” for Rick and the movie is Los Angeles. He has been there for thirty years and feels lost—specifically, feels not like a whole person but like “fragments—pieces of a man” (a marvelous echo of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 album). Surfacing from a Lethe of his own making, Rick wants to remember, and it’s one of the movie’s majestic paradoxes that his desire to make himself whole involves not an artificial synthesis from the start but the acceptance of fragments—of incidents, experiences, episodes, impressions—from which their own unifying principle will arise. “Knight of Cups” is Rick’s act of remembering, and it follows the strange double logic of memory—the triggering efforts of willful thought and the free-flowing associations of the unconscious mind.

Between a snippet from “Pilgrim’s Progress” announcing the vision of a dream and some intertitles derived from tarot cards (and there’s a brief scene of a card reading, in Serbian, to bring the theme into action), Malick offers the slightest hint of metaphor to fleeting moments, to visions and sounds that bring pieces of Rick’s latter-day life (as well as flashes of childhood) rushing ahead with an irrepressible energy. The movie organizes itself around several intimate dramas, especially one that recurs throughout the film, the furious and violent bond that Rick has with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley), as well as the death of a third (unseen) brother, which stokes their agony and rage to white heat.

It turns out that the main incidents in Rick’s life, as he sees it, are his relationships with women—some that are bonds of obvious emotional depth, such as his marriage to a doctor (Cate Blanchett), with whom he didn’t have children, to his regret, and his fiercely tender relationship with a married woman (Natalie Portman), and others that are obviously more fleeting, as with an undefined Hollywood starlet (Imogen Poots), a model (Freida Pinto), and a pole dancer (Teresa Palmer).

But, crucially to Malick’s sensibility, these latter characters are at least as sharply lucid about their own lives and about their relationships to Rick as are characters of apparently greater intellectual achievement. The dancer speaks insightfully to Rick about her work and its place in her life, as well as in his own, and Rick recalls her with admiration—as he does the starlet, seemingly a lighthearted playgirl of no obvious professional accomplishment, who nails his heart to the wall when telling him, “You don’t want love, you want a love experience.”

Rick has also had several one-night (or one-day) stands, even a casual threesome, and the movie flickers, intermittently, with his brief recollection of sexual pleasure and the sensual, visual pleasure that goes with it—albeit with an inhibited man’s wistful, slightly self-satirizing detachment mingling delight and regret. (What an idea: that several women with whom Rick had flings years ago should still somehow loom large in his memory years later, and with frank—yet reticently abashed—delight in their bodies! Let other critics throw the first stone.)

Hollywood is a party scene, and Rick has taken part in its revelry. There’s only a little bit of time spent on the business of movies—a few brief meetings with executives, a moment on a set alongside a horse—but lots of time recalling the social side of Hollywood, from vaguely erotic frolics to a formal industry bash where Antonio Banderas, Ryan O’Neal, and Bruce Wagner turn up. (Banderas delivers the movie’s exemplary Hollywood-asshole line, explaining that he changes women as if they were flavors of ice cream.) There’s a relaxed Las Vegas disco party, where Rick has trouble relaxing. Malick doesn’t depict Rick as a man of woe but as an introvert thrust into an extrovert’s playground, as someone who has trouble throwing himself wholeheartedly into the throng because he has the habit of standing back from the event even while within it. (As the model played by Pinto tells Rick, “You told me that sometimes you felt like a spy, always had to pretend.”) An intellectual near-prude who may never have gone near a strip club before getting to Hollywood, an ambivalent party-goer, not a man of the night life, Rick is watching the events from afar, and also seeing himself there, with some embarrassment—and, all the while, he’s filled with images, not ones that he’s actively composing but ones that compose themselves in his mind.

That very vision of spontaneous inner creation is at the core of the film. Lubezki has won Oscars three years in a row—twice for his work with Alejandro González Iñárritu and, before that, for filming Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” a trio of films in which he normalizes, rationalizes, and banalizes the boundary-breaking styles that he developed with Malick (it’s like giving Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for “The Revenant” rather than for “The Wolf of Wall Street”). Where, for Iñárritu and Cuarón, Lubezki provides a mere adornment to their narrative, for Malick he creates a new way of cinematic seeing—because Malick himself creates a new mode of directing.

For Malick, the cinema is also a matter of the unconscious, of indeterminacy, of tension between decision and accident. Most of the movie’s images are done with a handheld camera, and most of them involve so much motion, on the part of the actors and the camera alike, that they would defy, in the rapidity of their complexity, any attempt to calibrate them in advance to the exact framing and composition. Malick creates the circumstances under which Lubezki can make these images; Lubezki, untethered to storyboards, roaming freely around and past the action, collects images that embody Malick’s ideas and emotions without being overdetermined by his intentions.

These images, brilliant and radiant with a love of light, rapturous with a love of motion, bring to the cinema a big and great idea: the overcoming of the distinction between subject and object, between recording and imagination. The images are both of and from Rick, showing the practicalities of his experience, his sensory apprehension of them, and his inward visual projection of them at the same time, in the same shot.

No less important than the images is the freedom with which Malick edits them. Recognizing that the memorable things that people say aren’t necessarily memorable moments of life, Malick separates the image and the sound, including snippets of synchronized dialogue along with snippets of voice-overs, turning the words themselves into images. He separates scenes into nodules of dramas that unleash their implications in flashes packed with imaginative potential. The full version of “Knight of Cups,” unfolded in the familiar styles of dialogue-centered dramatic scenes in chronological order, would be a multivolume monster.

Yet, in another sublime paradox, this very dramatic compression and abstraction renders the remarkable cast’s performances all the more powerful. Malick moves them into a middle ground between the theatrical and the existential. The actors are neither leached of expression in undefined situations nor composing continuously psychological characterizations. Rather, Malick creates an acting style that’s in between, filled with dramatic power but rooted in how they move, how they talk, how their glances flash. Malick’s incisively fragmented and recomposed editing emphasizes the actors’ strongest and most emblematic moments. He turns the fluid frames into mnemonic spaces of movement, gesture, and inflection that burn them into consciousness exactly as they’re burned into Rick’s, and into Malick’s own.

“Knight of Cups” is also very much a Los Angeles movie, and it features some of the most aesthetically ambivalent architectural modernism since Antonioni’s heyday. In “The Tree of Life,” skyscrapers mocked the ambition and marked the alienation of the protagonist, whereas, in “Knight of Cups,” Rick can’t help delighting in the soaring forms and shining light of the modern city, from its glass-and-steel towers and marble halls to the lights and lines of the street as seen from the rush of the cars that he drives. (It’s no less a poem of Los Angeles—and of the view of the city from moving cars—than is Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.”)

It’s a movie of the many cities in one—a city of seemingly limitless luxury and almost supernatural refinement, as in a glisteningly white, cavernous, and ornate Versailles-like reception hall built like gilded whorls of whipped cream. There’s the natural paradise of the beach and the ocean, the inferno of cracked desert flats, and the wastelands of abandoned cottages and uninhabited hills. There’s the workaday face of the city, with its storefront closeups and its luminous nighttime streets; there’s crime and hardship, as in a scene where Rick’s brother takes him on a tour of the streets where he endured his own down-and-out days; there’s physical ruin, as in scenes of the hospital where Rick’s wife tends to patients who seem to suffer from grave maladies (perhaps even leprosy); and there’s the suave suburb where Rick and his wife lived—and the staff who keep it looking suave.

Within its lavishly overflowing beauty, “Knight of Cups” is an angrily prescriptive film, the contention of which is: the bullshit of Hollywood lives is reflected in the bullshit of Hollywood movies, including the ones that Malick has made. If filmmakers can make films in which they see that bullshit for themselves and let other people see it, too, they might well find a way both to live differently and to work differently.

The crucial question of the modern novel is memory—specifically, the tension between fiction and nonfiction, between the sharp-edged exclusivity of the contours of a finely crafted story and the loose-ended and associatively meandering and indeterminate formlessness of experience as captured (or trapped) in memory. That’s why the grand landmarks of literary modernity—such as those of Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Bellow, Hemingway, Faulkner, Duras, and the Roths (Henry and Philip)—are simultaneously struggles with the irrepressible profusion of memory and the hotly forged imperatives of style and idealizing abstractions of form. The cinema has lagged behind; some of its modernists—including Jean-Luc Godard and Chantal Akerman—have made mighty attempts to create a memory-cinema of a distinctive style. In “Knight of Cups,” Malick brings the effort to a full and radical flowering. No less than do these reflexive modernists, his contemporaries, Malick has made a movie about the possibility of making a movie, images that are the troubled source of a future cinema.

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.


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