A Generic Terrence Malick Voiceover Reviews ‘Knight of Cups’


I. Lord of Buckets

Birdman. A film. About an industry. The film industry — partially. Evacuated of meaning, a tumescent bag of plasticine superheroes. Simulacra. The Godlessness of it all. A man. His failed pasts with women, paraded in front of him. One man, at the edge of nonexistence, searching for spiritual and creative affirmation and only finding superheroes. Stunning cinematography. The sweep! Vertigo. Existence. Nonexistence. Emmanuel Lubezki. The Great Beauty. A man at the edge of existence, examining the ruins of Italian tradition, the hollowed cultural signifiers. His pasts with women. Women shake their flesh around Rome. The Godlessness of it all, stunning cinematography. (Not Emmanuel Lubezki). The sweep! Existence. (A much better film than Birdman, despite the near-identical summary.) 8 1/2, a precedent for some of these others (and for Nine!). And now: Knight of Cups.

Knight of Cups: The third of a series of thematically semi-autobiographical, free-form-ish films by Terrence Malick: 72. Christian Bale as a seeming substitute for the older cinéaste. “Startling” observation: Hollywood, a mecca of artifice. Champagne. A tumescent bag of beauty norms. Empty sex. Naked women prancing in a minimalist apartment as the word “life” intones in voiceover. One man, representing the older director, examining the ruins of the film industry and searching for spirituality at the end of it. It’s Terrence Malick, so of course he seems to find it. The Godliness of it all. The sweep! Emmanuel Lubezki, again.

The film is set in Los Angeles: city of Angels. That name — ironic. Angels? No. Just costumes. Empty. “Amiright guys?” — Leviticus 24:16

The juxtaposition of the falsely spiritual city and the attempted grandiose spirituality of Malick, director of florid films whose recent work has been steeped in biblical symbolism. A philosophy student with spiritualist inclinations working in an industry whose home, he posits, is the epitome of artificial divinity. Knight of Cups: about a Creator, a screenwriter searching for affirmation in this Southern Californian epicenter of nihilism. To “find love in a hopeless place.” — Henry David Thoreau

Here, Malick turns his lens on the bleak corporate Hollywood world he’s always known, which he previously eschewed onscreen, favoring natural settings. Because leaves: so grand. Though, he still finds splendor in this metropolis. The ocean, foaming like God’s latte, the palms, towering like furry muffin-topped deities over Hollywood Avenues. The director thus, we see, massages the two poles (“wink, wink” — Job 40:22) of his existence: an affinity with spiritual and natural wonder, and a profession within a world entwined in cynicism and capitalist excess. Marble stairs. Billowing dresses, fabrics flowing nowhere. Lights. Camera. Inaction.

II. Duke of Chalices

Christian Bale is Rick. Rick, a man whose relationship to his family (he has two brothers, one committed suicide) is similar to that of Malick. Rick, a word that sort of rhymes with Malick. Rick, a man, formerly married. (Malick, a man many times formerly married). Marriage: a union between nature and grace. Rick was married to Nancy (Nancy: a physician who, for her 15 minutes of onscreen existence, is Cate Blanchett. Blanchett: a presence who for 15 minutes grounds this airy movie, and when she leaves lets its characters float — dandelion puffs or famous actors? All so weightless). Nancy and Rick’s marriage dissolved. Because, after all, Rick is the Knight of Cups. (Cups: cylindrical vessels we hold to our lips for sips of aqua, soda, vino, in which veritas.) Knight of Cups: a tarot card representing the wandering lover. Thus: Rick has vacantly wandered through life, flitting from woman to woman. So, too, does this film that centers around him.

Rick does genital coalescing with Della (Imogen Poots), Helen (Freida Pinto), Keren (Teresa Palmer), Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) and someone (Isabel Lucas) who for some inexplicable reason leads Rick to affirmation. All represent something different, per the named Tarot chapters their sections are broken up into (Portman: Death, a woman he feels passionately about, but who is married; Palmer: The High Priestess, a fun, enigmatic stripper).

But these women mostly do not talk. Antonio Banderas’ hyper-hedonist character Tonio growls at one point that women are “like flavors. Sometimes you want raspberry, then after a while you want some strawberry.” Strawberry and raspberry, alas, are quiet bedfellows — essences. As are these characters. They look pretty as they’re swept in and out of Rick’s apartment. Naked bodies set against Los Angeles as they bask on his balcony. Body, city. The body, nature’s city. Body — the real. Los Angeles — the fake. The merging of the real and the fake — dizzying, or so we’re supposed to think. Each woman gets a chapter in the film as in Rick’s vacuous life. Man: a constant, here. Women: mere chapters, here. Bored with this structure of assuming the audience will be interested in the archetypal emotionally distant male artist filling a void with muses: me, here. So much. So much boredom by the end of it all.

This cup, oh knight, is looking rusty. “I do not like green eggs and ham.” — Genesis 24:67

III. Prince of The Container Store

Simplicity bedecked in grandeur. “Rick moves in a daze through a strange and overwhelming dreamscape — but can he wake up to the beauty, humanity and rhythms of life around him?” — An actual part of the synopsis. Which says it all. It could be an abstract adaptation of an advice column in a self-help magazine, with Ben Kingsley narrating with fragmentary quotes of wisdom (Ben Kingsley does narrate, with fragmentary. Quotes. of Wisdom). Self-help. Help, self.

Repetition and a sense of floating to emphasize a repetitive, floating existence. Does it work for Knight of Cups? No: its critique of Hollywood, if true, offers nothing new. Without interesting ideas, the antagonistic slowness is palpable. Shards of other ideas we’ve seen in less emptily contemplative Hollywood satires (watch The Comeback, Adaptation, Mulholland Drive) emerge, slip into the ether, amount to so little.

Malick’s eye for natural beauty, juxtaposed with this movie’s particular preoccupation with artificial beauty makes for some memorable moments. And memorable shots. Memory. “It lights the corners of my mind.” — Heidegger. But I digress. A shot where a woman walks down a New York City street studio set wearing a Marie Antoinette outfit dazzles. The movie needn’t exist beyond this shot, or perhaps beyond its own trailer, which reveals its full emotional and philosophical scope in less than three minutes. There is visual splendor. There always is, in life, in Malick.

It sustains the movie for a bit, but since cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has spread himself like the most breathtaking, Oscar-worthy butter across so much cinematic toast (The Revenant, Gravity, Birdman) recently, one might as well just catch similar camerawork elsewhere (until one realizes those films likewise aren’t the best.)

The most interesting aspect of the almost-satire in Knight of Cups is that Malick — A man. Man, a question. Oh right — is that Malick once made Tree of Life, a magnum opus of over-aestheticized semi-spiritual contemplation, and that he does seem to prod the vacant new aginess of Hollywood here. Tarot is an amusing way to break down, as Knight of Cups does, the search for higher humanist purpose in a culture that fetishizes expensive new age trends. And similarly, Tarot’s gender archetyping could also seem a satiric move in a movie about a man who sees women as symbols. It’s refreshing to see a more cynical side of Malick. Refresh, aqua vita, eau de vie, eau de cologne, Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O’! But even “in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” For the satire, if there is any, is negated by Malick’s own seeming attraction to the type of nature-oriented self-help affirmation that Hollywood uses to balance its artifice: the film is overwhelmed by the very things it may interrogate. On top of that is the fact that, after all, our world is a brimming, bounteous bucket of other recent films that take a similar aesthetic approach to masculinity and self-reflection at the edge of a crumbling pop-culture saturated society. Do we really need another journey into this particular aspect of the male ego, rendered with the same self-seriousness and aesthetic flourish we’ve already seen in more interesting films?

So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, ‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed.’ — Green Eggs and Ham