Despite a fairly recent increase in output it’s still quite a rare cinematic occasion when Terence Malick releases a film, they’re a bit like comet sightings and usually come with some of that same celestial awe and majesty. He’s only released seven films in a career spanning over forty five years. After his academy award winning second feature ‘Days of Heaven’ in 1978 the world waited twenty years for his next film ‘The Thin Red Line’. This of course garnered no less than seven academy nominations. It’s not all about baubles and trinkets I know but his films are very, very good. Malick is a very special film maker. Much like his films, he’s a very elusive man and rarely gives interviews which of course only serves to add more mystery to these rare cinematic occasions and provides his audiences with less of an insight perhaps into how to read the works of this visionary film maker. I know that word is used a lot when it comes to describing film directors (especially men sadly) but in Malick’s case I believe it’s genuinely deserved. If you haven’t seen any of his films you must. You’re really in for a treat, from the visceral beauty and effortless cool of ‘Badlands’ (1973) to ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) whatever you think of Malick as a story teller (and it seems he is a bit like Marmite in that respect) you won’t be disappointed at the levels of technical artistry involved. Broadly speaking a Malick film is what might be called these days ‘experiential’, they are often fragmented and transcendental, as he said about his 2005 film ‘The New World’, “I leave you to fend for yourself, figure things out yourself” (Maher, 2012). As stories they are very much concerned with the ‘substance’, the experience of his characters rather than the ‘form’ or narrative and that can put a lot of people off. Perhaps as an editor, I instinctively like his films and the process by which he makes them. They are an exploration, a journey into a subject he does not completely understand before he starts shooting. In this way they are almost born in the edit from a very loose directorial style that ‘feels’ it’s way. He shoots a lot, keeps the camera rolling on what interests him and then edits. According to Wikipedia, Malick spent two years editing ‘Days of Heaven’:
“Malick spent two years editing, during which they experimented with unconventional editing and voice-over techniques once they realised the picture they set out to make was not working”. (Wikipedia.2016)
‘Knight of Cups’ sees Malick in something of a purple patch with three films having been released in the last decade: ‘The New World’ in 2005,‘The Tree of Life’ in 2011 and ‘To The Wonder’ in 2012 and with two more apparently in pre-production this is definitely a heightened level of output and for my money it feels as if Malick has very much found more confidence in his voice despite what some critics think. According to the Telegraph writer Tim Robey, “Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick running on empty” (Robey, 2016). I’m confused by this. A car running on empty is likely to stop, Malick on the other hand is more productive than ever in his career with his films exploring more questions and ideas than ever before it would seem. Perhaps it’s simply a testament to how challenging his films are that he can split critics and audiences in such a way?
In truth I was a bit sceptical before seeing ‘Knight of Cups’. It was a friend who alerted me that it was even in the cinema. If there had been any marketing or press i’d missed it and I hadn’t seen a Malick film in the cinema since ‘The Tree of Life’, which despite garnering much critical acclaim including the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011 left me teetering on the edge. Overall my experience of the film had been good, it’s astonishingly ambitious and in moments breathtaking – in others it made me cringe. As with all of Malick’s films it’s approach to the audience is serious and it therefore demands a kind of rigour and attention that many (including me at times) are unable or unwilling to give. I remember people left the cinema. I remember I almost did the same.‘The Tree of Life’, explored deep existential questions, the internal journey and is at times both poetic and philosophical. It’s a meditation on life on love and the universe but for many its nothing more than a pretentious feature length insurance commercial. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw wrote:
“At the premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I reviewed at the Cannes film festival in May, the movie’s final moments were almost drowned out by the booing, jeering and giggling in the auditorium, a response widely developed into a note of balanced and wearily tolerant dismissal in print. People would repeatedly reproach me for my own laudatory notice; this film, they said, was pretentious, boring and – most culpably of all – Christian. Didn’t I realise, they asked, that Malick was a Christian.” (Bradshaw, 2011)
I’d forgotten until I started writing this blog that Malick is Christian. Does it matter? Well perhaps some of the derision his films receive make sense in this light, we generally don’t like a spiritual dimension to our hollywood cinema (or our art in general) and this without a shadow of a doubt is what interests Malick (and me) and what his films explore although his films are in no way ABOUT Christianity or religion and that is key to my understanding and enjoyment of his films. I suppose my experience had sat uncomfortably between awe and ridicule BUT and it’s a big but, understanding the artistry, technical skill and courage to even try to make a film of such depth (with A-list Hollywood cast members within the studio system) surely makes it deserving of the critical acclaim. So waiting for the BBFC title card for ‘Knight of Cups’ I was apprehensive. I knew nothing about the film. I’m not particularly a ‘fan’ of Christian Bale and had no more information about the cast or even the story. Would people walk out, would I walk out?
Despite being intrigued by a quote that I recognised but couldn’t place that turned out to be from The Pilgrims Progress (a book I had read as a child at school) the first few minutes didn’t bode well, visually speaking it was Malick very much doing Malick. Christian Bale was in a desert (lost) and there was voice over. We could have been in an Armani advert for all I cared. His films have always been fresh stylistically and have been copied by the advertising industry for years so perhaps one can’t blame him for that but Malick has always understood the psychological need we have of cinema, our need to be seduced. Slowly and surely i’m drawn in by the space in the film by the mysterious fragments of image and sound and soon (after some initial resistance) he has my complete and undivided attention. After all, philosophical discourse and poetry have no meaning if they are not engaging. So captivated as I was by the Bunyan quote (Medieval Christian allegory in a Hollywood film anyone?) and the almost whispering voice over which recalls a story told by a father of a quest…I know Rick (our main character played by Christian Bale) is on a journey, a journey by implication that is perhaps to lead to his redemption or salvation, “All those years living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” Rick confesses to us.
The film goes on to explore the existential story of a Hollywood writer searching for meaning in life (Rick) as he hits what we could probably call ‘rock bottom’. The setting is Hollywood (and Las vegas) so on one hand we have the perfect backdrop for a story which seems to be about illusion and fantasy versus inner truth whilst at the same time providing a tantalising (and seductive) behind the scenes look at a Hollywood which is rarely or ever seen. All of it’s light, it’s flora and it’s architecture are superbly rendered by Emmanuel “Birdman” Lubeezki who somehow manages to avoid the clichés despite how many times we have seen Hollywood on film. Although we never see the protagonist write a single word this doesn’t seem to matter. Malick is most interested in the space around words…at one point in the film this even becomes a stylistic device as we are unable to hear what is being said by the characters on screen and at another moment we cut into a heated conversation half way through, here again what Malick delivers with breathtaking beauty and assuredness is the experience or essence of living (and remembering) rather than the form and what would simply be technical mistakes for the uninitiated take us to a much more interesting place in the hands of a master film maker like Malick.
“No less important than the images is the freedom with which Malick edits them. Recognizing that the memorable things that people say aren’t necessarily memorable moments of life, Malick separates the image and the sound, including snippets of synchronized dialogue along with snippets of voice-overs, turning the words themselves into images. He separates scenes into nodules of dramas that unleash their implications in flashes packed with imaginative potential.” (Brody, 2016)
As the film moves forward our protagonist’s life is invoked piece by piece like fragments of a dream. At one point he even says he is not whole but ‘pieces of a man’ possibly referencing Gil Scott Heron’s sublime album of the same title. Whatever, the effect is of witnessing a remembering as if what Rick is trying to get right most in his life is his relationships and that what is lacking is perhaps what we all find hardest of all; connection. Connection to the people in his life, to the environment he inhabits and above all to himself. Layered into the episodes of Rick’s downward spiral are memories or feelings from his past and family life and although I’m not at all connected to the main character emotionally or his family and acquaintances I’m somehow stirred and moved by the poetry which inhabits the film and it’s sublime beauty. It’s a spiritual journey as the opening quote from Bunyan informs us and is therefore at once honest and sincere. We can feel both the vacuity and seductive ease of that Hollywood world dreamworld as well as the nostalgic warmth of deeper moments in Rick’s life and it’s precisely because of its fragmented form and structure that the film works on so many levels:
“It’s an instant classic in several genres—the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama—because the protagonist’s life, like most people’s lives, involves intertwined strains of activity that don’t just overlap but are inseparable from each other.” (Brody, 2016)
Here I want to comment briefly on the use of voice over and flash back. These are two devices all novice film makers are advised very strongly to avoid because they are deemed lazy and lacking creativity (or something) but in Malick’s hands they become our cinematic reality, that essence of cinema which is perhaps closest to dreaming or to memory or consciousness and as an editor I think that’s why I admire and enjoy his films so much. He endows each shot, each word each piece of music with metaphysical meaning creating a mystery and splendour which keeps an audience engaged and processing (for the most part). For many though this lack of a linear narrative drive is too much and his films are simply pretentious and shallow. I suppose this is why I like his films though, precisely because they are free and playful. He is not restricted by the norms of film grammar and the performances of his cast are somehow liberated as a result. I can’t think of one establishing wide or two shot conventional set up in the whole film and as I mentioned before he really plays with the edits to render something more like the essential truth of a moment or memory. As Richard Brody goes on to say:
“Yet, in another sublime paradox, this very dramatic compression and abstraction renders the remarkable cast’s performances all the more powerful. Malick moves them into a middle ground between the theatrical and the existential. The actors are neither leached of expression in undefined situations nor composing continuously psychological characterizations. Rather, Malick creates an acting style that’s in between, filled with dramatic power but rooted in how they move, how they talk, how their glances flash. Malick’s incisively fragmented and recomposed editing emphasizes the actors’ strongest and most emblematic moments. He turns the fluid frames into mnemonic spaces of movement, gesture, and inflection that burn them into consciousness exactly as they’re burned into Rick’s, and into Malick’s own.” (Brody, 2016)
Malick’s approach to post production overall is quite unique and the crew of editors that worked on ‘The Thin Red Line’ recall the process and how the director never wanted to see the whole film, how they worked together and cut each others work (which they found humbling and challenging) and how it was mainly a process of taking away like sculpting, rather than of adding. They describe getting the film to a place where voice over could be added to provide another dimension (the director’s own philosophical commentary perhaps) and above all the silence that’s in the film…great expanses of it pulling you in to the human drama(s) unfolding. Although I don’t know anything about the post production process on ‘Knight of Cups’ the same fluidity and silence can be felt running through it. Editing, after all, is as much about what is left out than what is left in and in Malick’s films you definitely feel that to be true.
If I had one criticism at all, it would be that at times his style is so fluid it seems to do more than seduce but to become distracting. When every image is imbued with such power and mystery it’s also surely rendered artificial and meaningless at the same time? At times I was distracted by the half naked girls that wondered into the scene nameless and model thin and Rick’s selfish self obsessed existence, I didn’t care about his life one way or the other, but this I have to concur was entirely the point. This is the illusory material world in which Rick is trapped. After all the prologue tells us he has forgotten his quest after drinking something that makes him forget. In Hinduism this is Maya or the magic power with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion; this is precisely the shallow existence that he has lost himself in (that Malick creates before our eyes) and perhaps the implication is that it’s humanity itself (via it’s obsession with Hollywood) that has forgotten it’s quest? This ‘distraction’ is certainly not a consistent trend in any of Malick’s other films where I would argue he avoids anything that might be considered gratuitous for example. For once perhaps the stylish and objectified images of women we are served up are given depth precisely because of our male protagonist’s journey? As Tim Robey puts it, “Bit by bit, his view of women has become problematic, if not actively alarming.” This is not a view that could include Malick himself however, although the same critic goes on to say:
“Knight of Cups” settles into a lukewarm bath of male self-pity, a condition perhaps more deserving of satire than sanctification. Rick mopes and mutters through an elegantly appointed malaise, wandering the desert in an Armani jacket and driving aimlessly in his midnight-blue vintage convertible. In the room, the women come and go. It’s all very poetic and rarely boring, except maybe to Rick himself. But it’s hard to trust his anguish and hard not to suspect that what is being solicited is not your empathy but your envy.”
BUT and it’s a big ‘but’ the film offers so much more. This is not just a story about Rick but about Hollywood itself and our (Western societies) relationship to it. As the New York Times Critic Chris Lee puts it:
“Which is why Mr. Malick’s experimental drama “Knight of Cups” (in theaters March 4) arrives as something of a shock. The movie provides a privileged glimpse inside Hollywood’s corridors of power, featuring cameos by real-life super agents, TV showrunners and industry players in addition to a small constellation of A-list stars. And in the process, “Knight of Cups” obliterates the notion of Mr Malick, 72 as an outsider. Given its roll-call of boldfaced names and sly winks at showbiz dealmaking. “Cups” could only have been made by a consummate insider.”
So for me, in ‘Knight of Cups’ Malick provides what Hollywood cannot, a contemporary commentary on itself:
“But be honest about your experiences, about your failings—and about your enduring intimations of beauty even in places and situations that you’d hesitate to call beautiful, because the production of beauty in a world of suffering, and from your own suffering, is the closest thing to a higher calling that an artist has, the closest thing to the religious experience that art has to offer.” (Brody, 2016)
The film ends as it begins with our protagonist isolated in nature with the words ‘begin’, begin’ being spoken, not only bringing us neatly to the end of our character’s journey and to the beginning of his newly awakened ‘life’ but perhaps also encouraging us (and Hollywood itself) to see beyond it’s own ongoing seduction and love affair with the material and go deeper into the human experience? As E.M. Forster puts it in Howards End:
“She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
As Peter Bradshaw concludes nicely in his review of ‘The Tree of Life’ and which is just as apt for ‘Knight of Cups’:
“This film may not be for everyone, but it makes other movies and other movie-makers look timid and feeble.” (Bradshaw, 2011)
- Bradshaw, Peter. (2011). ‘The Tree of Life Review’. The Guardian. July. Online version accessed June 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/jul/07/the-tree-of-life-review
- Brody, Richard. (2016). ‘Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ challenges Hollywood to do better’. The New Yorker. March. Online version accessed June 2016: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/terrence-malicks-knight-of-cups-challenges-hollywood-to-do-better
- Forster, Edward Morgan. (1910). Howards End. UK. Edward Arnold
- Lee, Chris. (2016). ‘Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ Is an Insider’s Tale’.The New York Times. March. Online version accessed June 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/movies/terrence-malicks-knight-of-cups-is-an-insiders-tale.html?_r=0
- Maher Jr, Paul. (2012). One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick. 3rd Edition. USA, Lulu
- Robey, Tim. (2016).’Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick running on empty’. The Telegraph. May. Online version accessed June 2016: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/05/05/knight-of-cups-is-terrence-malick-running-on-empty—review/
- Editing The Thin Red Line, Shaping a Terence Malick Film. Vimeo from Isabel Sadurni
- Wikipedia. (2016). ‘Terrence Malick’. Online recourse accessed June 2016: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_Malick