Video Essay. No More Parties in L.A.: The Modern City in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups

An exploration of the director's impressionistic city symphony of the modern city—Los Angeles.
James Slaymaker, Jack Gracie

Since the beginning of his career, Terrence Malick has been exploring the relationship between men and their landscapes during periods of significant cultural shifts. From the threatened Rousseauian utopia of The New World to the increasingly industrialized pastures of turn-of-the-century Texas in Days of Heaven, to the homogenized suburbs of 1950s America in Badlands, Malick’s characters are shaped by their geographical surroundings. Despite too often being unfairly written off as a filmmaker who treads water, both thematically and stylistically, Malick’s filmmaking is consistently attuned to the particular rhythms of whatever place and time he chooses to set his lens on.

Knight of Cups marks a fascinating progression in Malick’s cinema, being his first to restrain its action to a contemporary city. We see recognizable motifs and aesthetic tics from Malick’s nature films—running water, roving cameras tracking across empty planes of land, interstitial shots of air bound entities soaring over the human figures, shots of the sky at magic hour—taking on different connotations when used in the context of an exploration of contemporary L.A. As in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Malick envisions the modern city as a colossal, fragmented collage of various cultures, artworks, and consumer objects which promises the individual immediate gratification at the expense of breeding narcissism and a fundamental alienation from the real. Anchoring this relentless flow of hyper-modern imagery—which at times recalls the digital bombast of Godard’s Film socialisme—is disillusioned protagonist Rick’s utopian longing for the past, for a more intimate connection with nature, a re-connection with his childhood, which itself can only be recalled in a series of abstracted flashes.

This video essay explores how Malick’s form has evolved to paint an impressionistic city symphony of the modern city as a self-perpetuating interplay of surfaces—de-familiarizing recognizable locations, radically abstracting on-screen time and space, cutting erratically between different levels of subjectivity.

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