By the time you read this Knight of Cups will most likely be gone from theaters to make way for more starch filled pieces of waste such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and The Divergent Series: Allegiant. No one is surprised by our lack of intellectual interrogation, it disappoints me that the majority of existence, friends and strangers alike, would rather walk through this world with their heads down and their minds closed, but it’s a disappointment I’ve come to accept (and from time to time admire). There is sadness in looking around, the world is a shallow empty vacuum of ineffectual decisions propelling us ever increasingly towards an end of no purpose, to find comfort in the safe and the unintelligent is without a doubt cathartic, unfortunately once one steps outside of it there is no door to pass back through. Virginia Woolf said it best, “you can never go home again.”
“You don’t want to love, you want a love experience.” This line when delivered in the film is electrifying; not in a positive or negative way, but more of the Buddhist absolute empty realization sort. As with all of the dialogue in the film, it is faded below the soundtrack, an unstated yet important reminder that all of our conversations we selfishly believe important are thus trite and useless wailing. I mean here is a film with nothing but incredible actresses and actors whose entire performance is consistently minimalized and deconstructed by being forced into the ether at the precise moment it would traditionally be the force to define the film. Not only does Knight of Cups show Terrence Malick’s artistic genius coming fully into fruition, it may quite possibly be the most brilliant take on the true shallowness of our distractions put on screen in our lifetime; the sort of distractions we believe ARE life, teasing us with the question of, “what’s outside our distractions,” and the only honest answer we could ever come to never fully utter aloud being… exactly… nothing. Every cut is a new take on an idea, each idea is based in the emotional resolve which guides our lives, all laid out in a panoramic reflection, randomly juxtaposed with shots of sick and homeless placed as existential reminders of our own dualistic lives; what we value and prop up to drive our emotions while our Brave New World spins on. In a way, we could say this film would be Fight Club if it had been created for adults. I am fully aware of how dangerous it is to compare anything modern to Ingmar Bergman without acknowledging the million tiny offerings which have circled his brilliance in the nearly sixty years between then and now, Knight of Cups is as powerful and as important as The Seventh Seal making every single film that lays between the two practically insignificant.
I can’t help but think of Nietzsche at this moment, not so much of his truths, although watching this film I did find myself circling over his “I have suddenly awoke in the midst of this dream, but merely to the consciousness that I just dream and that I must dream on in order not to perish…”, but at this moment while writing it is the thought of the man himself; how he was, and continues to be, perceived as being negative when those close to him spoke openly of his humor and positive presence, which for those of us attracted to his writings find much of what is seen as bleak to be hilarious. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is one of the best comedies in the form of social commentary ever written and yet many of the great minds speak only of the dangers within his words. What I’m getting at is reading this may seem negative when the opposite is actually true, it is the realization of these negatives which brings the most fulfilling contentment one could ever feel allowing those rare moments of actual happiness we fleetingly get to indulge in to be the greatest experiences of joy and wild cosmic states of being beyond that which any other drug in the world could ever pretend to give us. What Malick really says, on a very pointed and personal level, is that everything we choose in life is a painkiller, trite and useless, yet to contemplate it, to walk around in the thoughts of “where did I go wrong” begs our memories to take all those optimistic beliefs that we once had it all, that for a period in time the world personally felt right, is in itself a painkiller of lies we use to prop up our own sense of purpose and desires to continue trudging through the mired path of time with the belief our journey has meaning. To step outside of such distractions, such desires for meaning, to see our individual journey metaphorically through the lens is the ultimate critic of ideology. It would be impossible not to imagine Zizek being thoroughly infatuated with this film.
There is a perfect scene midway through of a women standing naked on Christian Bale’s balcony with no sense of urgency, no sense of purpose, just the absolute beauty of being, cut briefly to the two having the kind of passionate intimate sex we all experience in our early twenties when sex is felt as the truest form of intimacy we can share with someone else. Cut to the two sitting in the same bed moments later, seen as complete strangers with nothing to connect them, the conversation and connection that led to this moment were lies to fulfill those empty carnal urges we continuously are blinded into believing are important. Cut to the same woman in an elevator wearing a gold dress with her makeup gaudily reapplied reminding us of just how shitty we feel and believe we appear to the world once the plasticness of the truth starts disintegrating such beautiful lies, or maybe it is meant to show just how those things we prop up as being pure and beautiful are at the core garbage. I can’t emphasize enough how this is the kind of visual experience which is interpreted and digested differently for every single one of us. Regardless of absolute interpretations the scene universally works as a striking reminder of the inner violence of sex, how two innocently perfect spirits attempting the fullness of life for the first and possibly last time more often than not leads in a few short hours to two people with more distance between them than if they had forever remained strangers once the drug of hormone fueled “us” dissipates. This is the scene where the truth of the film finally sunk in personally, although from the onset it’s already setting into one’s mind, this is not a movie, it’s not a Batman vs Superman sort of drab-popcorn-with-two-hours-to-waste sort of experience, this is the entire catalog of Carl Jung felt through a syringe of visually stimulated archetypes of one’s own experience in existence. Similar to Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Malick relies on one’s own opening up, to experience it, to understand it, you must expose your memories and allow Malick to walk around in them, treating each sentiment as trinkets in a novelty shop to disaffectedly pick up, inspect, and then haphazardly place back on the shelf. Each character aside from Christian Bale represents those chasms in our life, periods of growth and destruction. Portman reminds us of the dangers of desire, Blanchet embodies our fear of complacency and how having what we want often times drives us to push it away. There’s really only one truth in life, the people who are selflessly condemned to never find happiness are inflections of those who reject it; we’re all islands, some of us just choose to be.
I watched this film twice consecutively at the Drafthouse, the second time breaking it down as a film while the first time I was completely enthralled in self-indulgence, barely catching what was on screen while remaining distracted by this onslaught of personal experience flashing not only as black and white memories of time stamps the way we remember our past, but with the piercing way we remember our relationships over the passing days shortly after they end. There is a scene with Natalie Portman which felt as though Malick shook me out of my drudging to say, “hey this isn’t just a reflection piece, this is you, this is now”, he stuck his lens directly into a wound I hadn’t even known was laying open as she says, “I see how you look at me, you think I could make you crazy, make you come out of your shell, make you suffer… I think you’re weak.” Suddenly these powerful crushes I barely even acknowledge existing around me flashed and with an almost epileptic paralyzation this demon of fear and truth I ignore on my good days was directly before me taunting every insecurity, every terrifying truth that the desires I need to bring me to life will ultimately destroy me worse than had they never been pursued at all, and just like that I’m questioning whether I have lived my entire life as Dostoyevsky’s mouse where in my mind I’ve always thought I was the elephant. Then through visual guidance, Malick takes on the role of therapist for the next five minutes working perfectly to not so much teach us to change this reality but to accept it; bathe in desire as long as you want but the fallibility of life and meekness of our own souls will own us in the end regardless; sadly to pacify such truths only makes their return all that more violent. To dig around a little more, to point out how ridiculous we are, there is a scene where we see dogs chasing balls thrown into water (obviously inspired by Seth Casteel), wanting something so unimportant, with such thirst, pushing themselves to nearly drowned in the excitement of almost attaining one’s desire which remain just out of reach, to have our desires compared in such a direct fashion would be offensive if it wasn’t so spot on.
The most powerful, yet almost unnoticed in the face of Blanchet and Portman’s perfect delivery (as usual), tangent comes in the vignettes of father/brother scenes, played by Brian Dennehy and Wes Bentley, where we see the balance each of us cross in life from the stupidity of headfast self-destructive youth to the blind arrogant all-knowing age and how we all pass from one end of the spectrum to the other believing we are above and outside both extremes; it is clearly seen how we once embodied one and are doomed to become the other. The underlying question at the heart of this film is “can we avoid it,” Malick believes, and rightfully so, that we cannot; we’re not condemned to a fate yet time guides us just the same.
I understand completely how many people have walked out mid-film on Knight of Cups, I blame the viewer for their unwillingness to experience art rather than needing to feel coddled, if you don’t enjoy self-examination, if you aren’t reliant upon being spoon fed a plot, or if you consider Michael Bay films exciting, you are going to hate Knight of Cups. This is my favorite film of the year by far and it currently has a 47% on Rotten Tomatoes clearly reminding me of what Kobat-Zinn once wrote, “so when people say they can’t meditate, what they really mean is that they won’t make time for it, or that when they try, they don’t like what happens. It isn’t what they are looking for or hoping for, it doesn’t fulfill their expectations, so maybe they should try again, this time letting go of their expectations and just watching.”
Jay Armstrong is one of our regular contributors at ANON Magazine. He writes with an honest and knowledgeable voice and runs Heycoolkid!, a means of changing and highlighting good dudes creating unpretentious incredible art that perpetually go unnoticed.