(Written and directed by Terrence Malick) (2015)
Once upon a time, Mr. Malick produced a virtual masterpiece (Badlands). Since then, his work has unfortunately meandered from the sunlit uplands of integrity and hard work, to the marshes of wan, flatulent and overblown products redolent of the later work of Michael Cimino. Knight of Cups, a series of impressive montages of town and country interspersed with kinetic moments of glamour, following the “life-changing journey of discovery” of handsome, soulful, tortured screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale), has, sadly, the empty vibe of a music video and the emotional resonance of a fragrance commercial (Bale should hawk a perfume called ‘The Beach’ using Malick’s out-takes – there is plenty of loitering at the beach on display here).
Bale sleepwalks around diverse locations in Los Angeles, takes a left and wanders vacuously about Vegas, checks out some mountains, and moons about Hollywood backlots and offices, in the figurative shadow of bunches of suits, wheeler-dealing and pontificating.
And there’s a parlour of prognostication, where Rick suffers a Slavic pair to do a tarot-reading for him, representing the specious scheme of what we might loosely, kindly, call “the Theme” or, heaven forfend, “the Plot.”
To whispered, over-dubbed snatches of portentous ‘lines’ masquerading as conversation, Bale gets to do what actors love to do – perambulate, emote, and signal compassion (he notices beggars, he visits sweatshops, he inhabits eclectic apartments, he tries to help his Dad wash the blood off his hands after little bro kills himself) without having to learn a script off by heart. The script is ‘torpedoed,’ like Joe Gilles’ piece about okies in the dust bowl. There’s no structure, just a pretend structure, based around a pack of tarot cards. All this to haunting flute music that seems to be cherry-picked from The Godfather, which buzzes in and out, just enough to be really annoying.
Rick is disaffected by the modern zeitgeist. But although he keeps his pants on, despite his isolation, there seems to be an inordinate amount of time spent pawing various cuties in various states of undress (in go-go clubs, at The Beach, in his gruesome minimalist apartment, at fashionable parties in Xanadu-like mansions inhabited by grade A, B and Z celebrities, at various artistically-lit swimming pools, at model photo-shoots, etc., etc.).
Here we are at a gallery of dubious, trucked-in installations, a metaphor for the story in general. Then we confront a Pieta. Back to the beach. We, the wretched audience, are now reaching for significance – does this reveal the ignoble vacuum that is L.A? The empty life of art overborne by commerce? The path of a sweaty-little, lapsed bible-basher, with unresolved parent issues and guilt over a dead sibling, seeking a new Jesus?
We’re lectured at continually, with leaden bromides disguised as bus-ticket wisdom. “Get out of the big cloud of dust everybody’s kicking up….the only way out is in….breathe.”
“You gave me…what the world can’t give…Mercy…Love…Joy…” We note, without comment, that Ghandi (in the guise of Ben Kingsley) provides entirely superfluous narration.[‘But now, in this Valley of Humiliation, poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied The Beach.’ (apologies to John Bunyan).] Whilst we’re skirting about spiritually-inspired art, we might call on one of our patron pagan saints, Richard Wagner. His cruel dismissal of the operas of Meyerbeer is apposite in this context: “Effects without causes.” This emblematises Knight of Cups.
Mr. A. O. Scott, in his excellent New York Times review (3/3/16) has an equally pithy offering: “a lukewarm bath of male self-pity.” And so on.
Stupid and stupefying, with its cheapjack gravitas, meaningful glances and meaningless drivel, Knight of Cups combines the false profundity of Melancholia with the ennui of Last Year at Marienbad. Even a director who had made no films since college would have a hard time making one as bad as this.
So, that all said, let’s enter into the spirit of the director’s caprice and do a tarot-reading for his career. Having regard to the low and infuriatingly dour quality of his previous feature, Tree of Life, we won’t use that method of divination, but will instead follow the Celtic Method, slightly truncated in the interests of brevity (take note, Mr. Malick).
First, the Significator card. That’s Mr. Malick, of course. The Knight of Cups. His wingéd helmet signifies imagination that has flown. He holds a golden cup erect as the steed crosses the sward. He is a romantic but his intelligence, and the message he bears, might be full of fraud or trickery (the card, reversed). His whispered rhetorical statements or questions may be intellectually, aesthetically and philosophically bankrupt.
The hanged man turns up. He is the aura of the critical issue. Is that Dad? Or just Brian Dennehy, looking like he doesn’t know what hit him? The figure may show reversal of mind rather than body, akin to an actor who laughed off a script and showed-up on set anyway. In the film, Dad is no longer welcome at Mum’s place (we speculate), nor anywhere else, if his meagre environment and lines are anything to go on.
We prognosticate that Mr. Malick has unresolved issues with Da. A major motion picture is not the vehicle with which to progress them. Reversed, the Hanged Man means arrogance and ego. This may be a false card, considering the higher matters on show in the production. Then again…
Now we turn up the card representing the Opposing Forces. Ah, yes, the Hermit. Could be the wanting, doomed, irritating, dopey, furniture-smashing young brother. Or the other one, as dead as Caesar? We think this is reversed, since that evokes immaturity, foolishness, the Peter Pan syndrome. Rick, meanwhile, parties with nubile youngsters (mmmm, all those flavours!) and bickers with ex (Cate Blanchett) – she tells him he “changed” (as if); that “the world absorbed you…” (sigh). Cate brings all the intensity of a Giorgio Armani ad to this thankless role.
The next card represents the past. The Moon. Bad luck to loved ones. Back to an aquarium, or to The Beach. Worried Mum turns up somewhere. There’s a mugging – the men breaking in to Rick’s sparse lodgings could be goons from Dogwood Pictures, trying to find, or be put in, the picture. A tap drips into a bath. Rick can’t recall the man he wanted to be. TVC meantime, couldn’t remember the picture it wanted to see.
We must find the light…’the moon, the stars, the light in the eyes of others…they guide you on your way’. No kidding. Or might we recite to better effect: “Empty beer cans, by the road, are ugly, many say, but at night, shining bright, they safely guide the way…”
We come to the recent influences, so it is only to be expected that the Wheel of Fortune turns up.
Obviously on point in our reading: ups-and-downs; actors as Sphinxes; the carping of critics; a run of Bad Luck. A stripper (The High Priestess?) explains (in an Australian accent) existentialism. Appropriately, this exegesis takes place near the pole-dancing area, then at a diner, now in a shopping trolley whirring along at…The Beach. The wheel spins and we’re in Las Vegas, even emptier than the City of Angels, and the Director outdoes himself in making more gyrating females actually look dull. Sodom and Gomorrah could be made interesting in Christian art, once – ’tis time to move on?
Next comes the potential future influence. Uh oh. The Tower. Tower of Power, Money, Success…all the things we want. Father Brian is back, whining at his sons when he should bleat for a better script, or indeed, a script. There’s a stuffed shirt extolling the monastic life as he guides Rick about the grounds of his faux Japanese pile.
Conflict, catastrophe, failed and selfish ambition, bankruptcy. Half a star from The Varnished Culture. Well, never mind.
Next we strike an influence that will operate in future. And here she is, his latest flame, gravid and torn, uncertain whether to come away with him (after all, they are back at the beach). Is the child his? Who gives a toss? But Rick must wander again in the desert, like a naughty Moses. Dad is unwell. There’s a ruined house (representing the ashes of lil’ brother), that Rick stumbles over rather than searches, as if a soul no longer has meaning other than as an exhausted trope. Conveniently, up pops Armin Mueller-Stahl (an actor capable of clothing gobbledygook with the semblance of meaning) as a priest, delivering modest unction.
“How do I begin?” – with repeated questions, more desert scenes…a wind farm (how apt!) then…back to the beach. There’s a real baby on the deck, and a lot of girlfriends still hover. One seems to be languidly swimming at… Palm Springs? La Casa Verde? Death Valley? Who knows. And now the clouds cover the sun, and Rick is in his fancy convertible, back in the Tunnel of Humdrum, heading to…what? “Begin.” Well, we shall.
By playing the card Judgment – either a change in personal consciousness (which, in the current context, can only be to the good) or the loss of worldly goods (which may be no bad thing), we may pause and deliver Judgment:
Back in 1962, an extremely perceptive critic named Louise Corbin, had something to say about the bastard sire of Knight of Cups, namely, Last Year at Marienbad:
“Historians of the future who are concerned with the Decline the West would do well to glance a this so-called motion picture, and to ponder the reasons for the fatuous things that are being said in its praise…The simple truth..is that a not untalented young filmmaker (Resnais) has forsworn the hard work artistic creation entails and has allowed his immature and meaningless fumbling to be promoted by those who wish to convert Western culture into an irrational confusion.”
Delete the words ‘(Resnais)’ and ‘young’ from that quote and you pretty much have our Judgment on Knight of Cups.
Which may or may not mean career demise for Mr. Malick. We hope not. Having travelled through the Tunnel of Humdrum and considered the hopes, fears, dreams and expectations in the Major Arcana, via a short trip the the Beach, we come (at last) to the outcome card: Death.
After all, the Death card can mean renewal, rather than morbidity. But this self-indulgent auteur had better put some blood, tears, sweat, and brains into his next effort.
[Minor Arcana card by Bonifacio Bembo (1420-1477); cards of the Major Arcana courtesy of Oswald Wirth]