By Jamie Iwata (Portland, OR, USA)
One of the first film exhibitions was the Lumière brothers’ screenings of the Cinématographe in 1895. The films they screened were around 40 to 50 seconds long and only showed one un-edited shot. These shots could show people walking out of a factory, a train entering a station, or a boy playing a practical joke on a gardener while he was watering plants. The purpose of these films wasn’t to tell a narrative, but to capture life in their own eyes.
American filmmaker Terrence Malick has the benefit of advanced technology to make movies with sound, feature length, and sophisticated editing. Even with all these advancements, Malick’s approach to movies isn’t far off from the earliest days of film. With every movie he makes, Malick drives further away from a conventional narrative or even any narrative at all. His films are all about the way he views the universe in his own personal way through visual poetry.
With his latest film, Knight of Cups, Malick continues to mature the impressionistic style he started with The Tree of Life and furthered in To the Wonder to make the most abstract and romantic film he’s ever made. Instead of telling a coherent narrative, he creates a collage of images through a stream of consciousness. These images as a whole become a transcendent experience unlike anything I’ve seen.
Sure, Malick is breaking just about every rule most people think a movie should follow (which is probably one of the reasons this film is currently at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes), but why should an artist follow the rules? Didn’t Picasso revolutionize the art of painting by moving away from realism? Didn’t Jimi Hendrix create the most amazing guitar tones by employing distortion and feedback? What Malick does is revolutionize the way we look at movies or, as SF Gate writer Mick LaSalle says, “Malick is inventing a new kind of cinema, one that calls for a new language to describe it.”
The story, if you can even call it that, follows Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter who seems disillusioned by the hedonistic lifestyle of Hollywood. There’s plenty of money, women, and excess to fill in his life, but none of it satisfies him. Rick just seems to float through life searching for something he can’t find.
The movie is separated into eight chapters that are named after tarot cards. Each chapter relates to a central character in Rick’s life. It could be a woman who Rick has a fling with, a family member who indicates a haunted past, or a larger-than-life man who thrives in inappropriate behavior. Nearly all of these chapters don’t connect together… or maybe they do.
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a three time consecutive Oscar winner) filmed Knights of Cups like a dream. Sometimes you experience many stories in one dream and they can shift around based on your mood. Lubezki’s camera, like Rick, is on a search to find the beauty that fills a soul while realizing that the beauty is always surrounding us. The luscious natural light, the texture of water, and the completion of a human are all captured by Lubezki’s incredible handheld images. The only reason people like Rick can’t see this beauty is the distraction from his personal life and ill-fated desires.
Every film by Terrence Malick is about humans’ relationship to nature and how it affects our emotions. This is integral to understanding the characters of Knight of Cups when the movie cares so little about dialogue. We connect with these characters by watching how these actors move, how they react to the setting, and how Lubezki’s camera reacts to them.
In the seventh chapter, called “Death,” Rick has an affair with a woman named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). Rick takes Elizabeth to a beach, which is a recurring setting throughout the film. The beach seems to be the only place where Rick can have a satisfying spiritual connection without the buildings or excess to distract him from the pure ocean. Near the end of this scene, Rick jumps off the edge of a pier into the ocean depths, but Elizabeth doesn’t jump and is seen with a sad look on her face. This could foreshadow the idea that Elizabeth can’t follow Rick into his world and the doomed nature of their relationship.
Knight of Cups is clearly a personal film for Malick. How personal we may never know due to his infamously reclusive nature. However, there are aspects of his life that can give us clues to this film. Terrence Malick made two masterpieces in the 70’s (Badlands and Days of Heaven) under the guise of big studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount. Afterwards, he fell off the face of the earth for 20 years until he came back in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. Because Malick is most likely an introverted person, it’s unlikely he would’ve enjoyed the lavish Hollywood lifestyle. Maybe he got too popular in the 70’s and worried that Hollywood would end up consuming his life. Malick also seems to have divorced or separated from a good number of women in his life. Maybe these women couldn’t handle his reclusive nature. Maybe he was too absent from the world to make any strong connection to a person.
How do my speculations on Malick’s personal life affect how we view Knight of Cups? It shows that Malick searches for truth in life and how honest he is in letting the audience be a part of that search. His observations of relationships, luxury, and nature are not just about Malick, they’re about everyone. By allowing this movie freedom from common filming, editing, and narrative techniques, Malick tries to show moments that speak to his heart based on his own relationships and experiences of modern Hollywood. He uses the character of Rick and the art of cinema as an alter ego to let the audience see how he views the universe.
Think about how many times nature has just passed by because you didn’t take the time to look at it. Think about how many times people use relationships to fill in an empty void in their lives. Most importantly, think about how you recall memorable moments in life. Memories don’t appear in our minds as a whole. They’re disjointed fragments that may be missing sounds or words. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups might be one of the most authentic representations of memories ever created. It’s disjointed and feels incomplete in our minds, but so do our memories.
Rick: [voice over] All those years living my life with someone I didn’t even know.
Barry: [to Rick] Let me tell you about you. I want to make you rich.
Rick: [voice over] You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.