I somehow feel that Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015) is the latest in what might one day be called a “modern America cycle.” While set primarily during the 1950s, The Tree of Life (2011) is ostensibly about the “boundary situation”–he’s adrift in life–of a contemporary architect (Sean Penn), and with To the Wonder (2012) (domesticity in the midwest), Knight of Cups (the decadent La-La Land of Southern California), and the upcoming Song to Song (2017) (two romances set in the Austin, Texas music scene), we move almost entirely to the present day. (Word has it that his next film moves to Europe, perhaps signaling the end of the cycle.)
While the aesthetic and thematic results of the cycle are rather mixed to this point, what remains consistent–and compelling, for me–is an effort to understand the relationship between subjectivity and space. More precisely, contemporary private and public spaces. Malick’s cycle lends new life to a classical modernist narrative device, the “boundary situation event,” where characters face a trauma–often nebulous in nature–that sets them upon an investigation into character, into their own existential states. (See, for instance, Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).) In Malick’s hands, the quality of the trauma and the search for answers are shaped by the spaces the characters inhabit. The characters wander–another classic modernist device–through the sometimes bacchanalian, sometimes vapid chic spaces of LA. Intensely private experiences and memories rise to the surface, become reflected in, and at times are taunted by, these locations and architectures.
I will confess, the idea of the emptiness of Hollywood’s dolce vita is boring, and some scenes–the party, the strip joint, the home invasion–elicit a grown. Despite this, the movie succeeds, on many levels.
The first level: the narrative and thematic spine of the piece is a recurring metaphor. (This is the kind of technique that might have made To the Wonder work–or work a little better.) The film opens with an audio excerpt of John Gielgud reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory (in the form of an extended dream sequence). Subsequent voice-overs, including one by Brian Dennehy, weave in other sources–and the themes of seduction and loss of purpose–like The Hymn of the Pearl from Acts of Thomas and A Tale of the Western Exile. Decontextualized, and spoken in soft tones, these stories, though distinct, become one, and shape our understanding Rick’s (Christian Bale) self-exploration. The core of the drama–and there is a drama in Knight of Cups, a narrative to follow–is whether a son (Rick) will repeat the life mistakes of his father (Dennehy). Unable to “assemble the pieces,” will Rick do as his father once did and lose sight of the “pearl” for which he is searching?
Which brings me to a second level: plot structure. Like all of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (1998), Knight of Cups is “erotetic.” Malick designs things narratively through the posing and attempts to resolve life’s basic questions, deliberately expressed naively (Malick once said–and here, I paraphrase–that when experiencing trauma, we revert to cliche). Note the care given to this erotetic structure. Rick asks at the end of the film’s prologue, 12 minutes in, “What got me here?” Then comes the psychological journey (and the navigation of various spaces).
Knight of Cups sees Malick experiment with structure in fresh ways. The journey is broken into eight chapters, each marked off with a title card: The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Hermit, Judgement, The Tower, The High Priestess, Death, and Freedom. All use names taken from tarot cards, with the exception of the last. More metaphors–yet to be worked out by me–are woven into the story. Knight of Cups joins the trend, now widespread in art cinema, of making experiments with structure central to the viewing experience.
Fig.1. A parametric element: strolling along the seashore.
Third: each chapter introduces a new figure in Rick’s life: his estranged brother (The Hanged Man), his ex-wife (Judgement), a stripper (The High Priestess), a new lover (Death), etc. The encounters with women in particular create conditions for “parametric” play. In each chapter, Malick rotates in a finite paradigm of stylistic elements, and varies them ever so slightly: shots of Rick and each new woman walking along the shore (Fig.1); shots of Rick and each new woman riding in a car along the freeway (the camera is usually position behind the figures, in the back seat); shots of Rick strolling behind each new woman or chasing her in a playful manner (the possibilities inherent to the following shot and circular staging–figures moving around stationary objects, often caressing them in suggestive ways–are exhaustively explored here); etc. The intensity of movement, gesture and expression within these repetition structures–how quickly figures move, how often their expressions modulate, how energetically the figures touch and firmly they hold one another–reveals much about the relationship’s fate.
Fig. 2. Extreme wide-angle lenses distort reality in striking ways.
Finally: Knight of Cups maintains interest because it perhaps suggests a new phase of visual experimentation for Malick. His style seems to be opening up. The surface texture of this films is changing, incrementally. We now have far more shots with distorting wide-angle lenses, including tiny go-pros he can plunge under water or tack onto the underside of a child’s swing (Fig. 2); he makes use, far more, of fast-motion cinematography and higher shutter speeds (I firmly believe that “fast art cinema” is as common as “slow cinema,” and can be far more rewarding, intellectually, affectively and aesthetically); and he’s no longer as committed to aesthetic unity and consistency, willing as he is to introduce isolated experiments, like the brief black-and-white montage during the prologue, where a mysterious woman, bearing a mask with eyes, dances seductively for the viewer (Fig. 3). There’s nothing remotely like this in any other Malick film. If one viewed it in isolation, one would be hard pressed to attribute it to Malick at all!
Fig. 3. The stylish, non-Malickian style of Knight of Cup‘s prologue.
I have one or two quibbles with the modern America cycle. As I’ve written in a previous entry, Malick adheres to a “fragmentist” style. He ruptures the integrity of dramatic sequences with thematically rich inserts, and denies us the comfort and predictability of scenes composed of a beginning, a middle, and an ending. In Knight of Cups, the fragmentist aesthetic has been taken to an extreme. There are almost no classic scenes to speak of. From the standpoint of emotional investment, I view this as a loss. In The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, conventional scenes lent the more fragmentist-collagist, thematic interludes, comprised mainly of associative editing, some narrative context and emotional weight.
What’s more, the extreme fragmentist approach seems to be encouraging Malick to take distracting liberties with motivation. The choice of setting in some sequences is at times unclear in Knight of Cups. Why, for example, did Rick, his brother, and his father choose to gather for a chat on the rooftop of a dilapidated theater in downtown LA? These un- or under-motivated settings have the effect, at certain moments, of undermining the drama, and of giving the impression that Malick could care less about where these narrative events take place.
His recent films, then, distract the viewer with a peculiar and recurrent disjunction between setting and narration–with a fracturing of a relationship (between space and subjectivity) that, as I have argued, drives his storytelling. Whether these seemingly unmotivated locations are an emerging aspect of Malick’s fragmentist or metaphorical storytelling, I cannot yet say. Perhaps he’s leaving both storytelling forms behind for something that is only now beginning to take shape.