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Dialogues: Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”

At Berlin, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman discuss the American director’s wandering new film starring Christian Bale.
From the Berlin International Film Festival, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman continue our series of festival dialogues. Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups had its world premiere in the Berlinale's Competition.
DANIEL KASMAN: I must admit it's a bit difficult to begin speaking of this overwhelming film so immediately after seeing it, and especially in the atmosphere here in Berlin of almost immediate derision. I remember the boos that instantly followed the final shot of The Tree of Life's premiere in Cannes and here I'd swear I felt that negative energy going into the giant Berlinale Palast, the anticipation of yet more Malick. Whatever that means. Few still describe well his method as a filmmaker, and whatever you may think of his last film, To the Wonder, it certainly revealed more about how Terrence Malick, a very unique filmmaker, thinks about cinema as a language, and how his cinema "works"—moves, creates meaning. The shock of that film, as well as brief moments in The Tree of Life, was how this director so known for his sagas of history told as flowing visions through a technique one might associate with the flowing sensualism of impressionism, memories, nostalgia, dreams and so on; the shock was how this director sees the present, our banal spaces seemingly uncharged by history. This new film, Knight of Cups is absolutely about now, it looks like it was shot yesterday, a direct vision of a sunny, frighteningly inhuman Los Angeles.
Christian Bale stars as a famous somebody living in L.A. continually in some kind of career limbo. (The movie is vague on almost anything you could consider details of character, story or timeline, and as such invites frustration if looking for such things.) Dubbed a womanizer, the man wanders an of-the-moment city despondent and contemplative, between reveries with a series of women, including those played by Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The drama, if you can call it that, is highly abstract: Bale's character is a mere avatar for the camera's roving consciousness, its consideration of modern spaces and landscapes around the city and the wispy, improvisational and mostly dialog-free interactions between this famous person and other people.
Structured somewhat episodically through the man's interaction with those in his life, each named after a tarot card and given words mostly in voiceover (The Moon, The Hermit, The Tower, The High Priestess of the Moon, etc.), he is much the same in scene after scene. He wanders around a space looking mopey and thoughtful, and others, if they're there, do the same if they're men, and if they're women are more often flitting hither and thither.  At least a third of the film is made of depopulated shots of Los Angeles, Death Valley, the beach, and so on, and the "drama"—in the sense of conventional characters acting and interacting—if it's there at all is mostly seen rather than heard, covered by extensive voiceover spoken by the characters and others not seen, including Ben Kingsley and readings by Charles Laughton (a psalm) and John Gielgud (from The Pilgrim’s Progress). Of course, as with all Malick films from The Tree of Life on, there is also several mix-tapes worth of swelling devotional-sounding music collaged to connect all manner of footage, some clearly, fluidly related and others seemingly spur-of-the-moment occurrences.
Hopefully I've done a favor for you by laying this out so that you can dig in and tell me what you think!
ADAM COOK: One doesn’t have to like Malick, and in some ways I’m surprised that I so easily go along with what he’s been doing with his last three films—but to shrug him off so dismissively is an irksome trend in the collective critical voice. It seems, at least to me, that even if Malick is failing, he’s failing while trying radical things, not just with the image, and staging, and how to use cinema’s expressive qualities to create an experience or articulate a feeling or idea. Some say it’s naïve or foolish, but in any case it is bold, and it is experimental. I wonder if this almost aggressively asserted discomfort you hint at, which was present in the aura of the Berlinale Palast during the press screening, can tell us something about what Malick doing. Why is it making people react not just negatively, but uncomfortably? His recent films are clearly invested in people and the world, are sincerely filled with love and compassion and a fervent drive to create something… So why are people shifting in their seats, booing, walking out, scoffing in post-screening conversations? I’m not a fan of To the Wonder, but I do think there’s something absolutely incredible about it. Films made genuinely and with such utter conviction are rare, so let’s at least take them seriously. Knight of Cups, on the other hand, is quite brilliant, moving, and altogether unpredictable (and filled with wholly unexpected things: Burial & Nick Kroll in a Malick film?!).
As you say, this is a film that is so incredibly charged with “nowness.” It isn’t his first film set in the contemporary, modern world, but it is the first one to so fully inhabit it. Floating shots of the city, Vegas po-mo landscapes, and L.A. highways are all fascinated with what they capture, as if these aren’t images we’re used to seeing… But the effect is just that, to reframe the familiar, at once articulating the obvious banal connotations that come along with them, but also truly “thinking” them. What is this world, and how do we live in it? What are we surrounded by, what have we surrounded ourselves with, how do we move, and interact? More so than any previous Malick film, this is a work made of questions, not answers: Knight of Cups is an interrogation into the modern soul. Narrative formalities have had an increasingly immaterial presence in Malick’s work since The Thin Red Line’s meandering freeform-like structure, but now they are almost entirely absent, leaving us only with slight definitions of figures, characters, and spaces, which hence become tools or signifiers to juxtapose and to stream Malick’s visions through. The result is something quite explorative and spontaneous. Like the characters who unnaturally wander through Malick’s frames, the film itself is drifting, searching. What does it find? I don’t know. Maybe that’s up to the eye of the beholder, and maybe in this observation I can propose some sort of reason for the aforementioned discomfort. It’s not a matter of drinking the Malick kool-aid, it’s a question for the viewer: where do you want to go? The work is not preachy, it enables, I think, an empowering role for the spectator. 
KASMAN: I liked this movie quite a lot but I must return a statement back to you, "it enables, I think, an empowering role for the spectator." I wonder if this is true? Someone after the screening compared the film to Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au langage, and I can see why, especially in that both Malick and Godard are rare montage artists, filmmakers working with creating meaning through editing. But Godard's montage is, most often, a cerebral one: ideas created. Malick, I'm not so certain. Cutting from Christian Bale wandering in a hotel room to the camera pushing through the desert to Bale driving a car... if there are ideas in those edits they are very plain—journeys, doorways, horizons—very metaphoric and more sensual than cerebral. The impressionism of encountering a metaphor, perhaps.  
This enumeration makes Knight of Cups sound like a regular Terrence Malick movie, but again what it really is is shockingly abstract. Don't be fooled by anyone who says this character or that, this story or that; this is a film that is showing people who are metaphorical existing in states of being which are transient. There is no psychology here, no "characters". The searching you identify is a searching spawned from the dissatisfaction this famous man at the film's center has within him, and which Malick envisions by making something almost akin to a Werner Herzog film, staging fictional elements within real settings, and doing it in such a way that the fiction is as difficult to take as the real. A kind of ecstatic realism, the film's series of hotel suites, fancy apartments, Hollywood villas, corporate offices, and studio backlots are clearly all real locations and yet emanate a strange, alien quality. Malick and his adventurous cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki photograph things in front of the camera, whether cacti or Christian Bale touching hands with some petit beauty, as if no one has photographed it before, a kind of swooping, almost giddy naivety. It's a movie that radically re-orients your perspective: Knight of Cups is about seeing, not watching, and seeing as if anew.  
Now, I say "as if" because these are not rare images—exceedingly strange, often, yes, but not rare—especially as Malick's "style," or at least an unmoored version of it, is now infecting American independent cinema as well as American commercial aesthetics. Shots of dogs plunging into a pool to grab a ball—seen in the trailer—is one of the few truly gasping moments in the film, yet most of the film's wandering improvisatory quality, of happenstance and vague staging of actors in spaces, its looseness and freedom, is cinema: it expresses a sensibility and interpretation of the world in moving images. This feels almost like a journal or diary film, which for me again connects it back to Godard's Adieu au langage because you really get the sense a small handful of collaborators decided on this day to shoot something off the cuff.
COOK: Yes, but that is exactly what I meant! It's not about the film's ideas (are there any concrete ones whatsoever? ...I'm not even sure), but navigating through the film with your own agency: Malick provides the emotions, the pieces, the forum for your own experience. And yes, this far more radical than his previous work, and I fear that people will too easily group it together with Tree of Life and To the Wonder, when, while it builds on the formal approaches of those films, it is ultimately something different altogether. In Tree of Life, Malick separated the impressionistic but grounded narrative components from the abstract, unreal segments that feature Sean Penn wandering through desolate landscapes and the like, but here these distinct modes have collapsed into one. Malick is no longer showing us real people in a real world, but instead creating an aesthetic universe that is something like the protagonist's (un)conscious. We aren't watching his daily life so much as watching him experience it, on simultaneous levels of physical reality and consciousness—so yes, an "ecstatic realism" that freely blends together the material to the immaterial. Conversations with his brother, his father are these bizarrely abstracted staged scenes that never feel like real moments... More like the battles that go on in his head between his self and the forces of the people close to them that are present inside him. An aside: again the film is tinged with autobiographical details with allusions to a deceased brother who may have killed himself, and also the presence of an estranged, overly-aggressive Father figure. Watching the film is, at times, almost like watching Bale's character watch his own life. In most sequences, he wanders, discontented and aimless, but with hardly any dialogue, witnessing what's around him and rarely physically intervening, similar to the incorporeal presence of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. 
KASMAN: I said Herzog earlier and I just now remember that Christian Bale worked with him in the under-appreciated Rescue Dawn. I connect Malick's current phase to Herzog certainly, but also to Wong Kar-wai's fractured, fragrant dramas of memory and longing (Natalie Portman worked with Wong in My Blueberry Nights), and to Michael Mann, who worked with Bale in Public Enemies and Portman in Heat. (Lately the camerawork in something like Blackhat looks more like Knight of Cups than Knight of Cups looks like most other feature films.) What these filmmakers have in common for me is this sensual impressionism, the camera bringing out the feeling, the emotions, the sensations of what is in front of it. Malick's camera in Knight of Cups is essentially documentary, with vivid distortions (super wide angle lenses, some GoPro and other "inconsistent footage") that include putting Christian Bale on the street in L.A.'s skid row: because the staging of the actors is as unusual as the swooping camera and edit-this-way-and-that montage. I'm not sure I was ultimately satisfied by this film—not that it's aim is to satisfy me!—at least on first viewing, as I was mostly unable to differentiate the relationships this man had with all these women, and I found the family scenes you mention—with avatars of a brother and father—too abstract to ever get a grip on beyond conceptually. The whole film felt like a limbo to me, or a purgatory, as a friend well described it. But a purgatory perforated with outlets and suggestions, gestures not only of despair but connection, however abstract. And a sense of motion, of the journey, so many shots of tunnels and a car moving forward. The final shot is of a road, and one of the few of the myriad of voice-overs that I remembered was this, and I think it's indicative: "men and women, gods and guides in exile in a strange land."
COOK: You bring up something important and unique about the film in contrast to Malick's other work. His films typically build up to a profound emotional catharsis, affirming a sort of faith in "all things", a spiritual resolution, but here the film ends with no real epiphany or even a real conclusion. The journey of the character, and the journey enabled by the film for the viewer, ends but doesn't finish, if that makes sense. More so than with Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick is working with suggestiveness, not on-the-nose poetry or storytelling, though it flirts with both. Sounds and images push us and bring us places, and whether those places are of interest may be subjective. It isn't a film without problems. It isn't a film that I didn't question in moments (why hardly any on screen sex in a film so concerned with a man's sex life, and that otherwise quite boldly explores sexual desire). However, it is a film that finds a legendary filmmaker (who has been under fire of late) pushing past boundaries, using new tools at his disposal, trying things, taking chances. It's really like nothing I've seen or experienced before, and I'm willing to accept something along with its imperfections—especially when it challenges my very conception of what movies are, and can do.
I really respect and admire this fine conversation that stays focused on the strides taken in this work to test the boundaries of the medium as an art form, cutting past popular sneers of the moment. Thank you for being the one resource among many that deals with this film intelligently. But I can’t resist adding, even after that: everyone tiptoes upon eggshells around the “C” word so clearly at the heart of every Malick film, whether because of political correctness, human ego that yearns to look badass, damaged psyche from youth, or just lack of exposure. Christian orthodoxy (even around Malick’s vita exploring existentialism) simply explains everything in Malick’s films. And the notion that “you’ll see in art whatever you believe” is the province of community college English literature professors – we’re past that, and we can’t keep avoiding the “C” word in Malick’s oeuvre. Roger Ebert – himself a very grumpy atheist – nonetheless once wrote that “The Tree of Life” was simply a prayer, and one of his favorite films. It’s time to start calling a spade a spade (card pun intended).
Thanks for the comment! Perhaps you’d appreciate Josh Timmermann’s superb “To the Wonder” piece here on Notebook:
Ooof just noticed you already commented on it when it was published!
“Knight of Cups” is still imbued with religiosity, and includes an intermittently deployed sermon-as-narration — and yet, it is a step away from the “C”-word in comparison to the last two…I’d love to hear from you once you’ve seen the film (assuming you haven’t?)!
I’m not sure it’s quite right to shuffle Malick into an orthodox Christian—I’m assuming by this you simply mean ‘Chalcedonian’—mode. Certainly that’s part of his vocabulary, but I feel more like he’s closer to pantheism or, paradoxically, Gnosticism than anything like orthodoxy.
I do mean orthodoxy with a lower-case “o,” rather than the specific high church, only to distinguish between Malick’s directly theological world view and an emotional aimlessness that popular culture lately likes to call “spirituality” after yoga class lets out. The word wastes no time attributing those concrete principles of sanctification, justification, grace and Biblical literature found in Malick’s films, citing straight to the source as any responsible analysis does. Dilution via terminology like pantheism or gnosticism is merely part of a string cite that cannot change the primary source. I look forward to watching the film, Adam, with an intrigue toward the departure you mentioned.
It’s widely known Malick is an Episcopalian, which is the form of Christian faith I was baptised within as it happens, but I think the resistance to explaining it all that way is likely due in part to how much richness is present in each film beyond simple matters of faith. That said, I more or less agree with Ebert and, nearly four years and a handful of at-home and in-theatre revisitations later, I can say Tree of Life works much better on a big, huge screen with the volume up to eleven. Some of this is simple grandeur, the setting affording the art a holy space for a congregation of individuals, but it’s also tied to his aesthetic achievements, as Danny puts it, infecting American cinema and pop culture at large. The common complaint at Cannes in 2011 was that Tree of Life was a perfume ad. It’s a funny dig because, well, you could easily take stretches of that film and throw slightly different music on it and end the clip with “DIOR” and have an approximation of those ads. But also: so what? That’s willfully looking elsewhere, not at the screen and the images you were given. It’s akin to Kael denegrating Irene Dunne, for her toothy smile, and thereby discrediting any opinion given thereafter. (Likewise, I can’t stand Ben Affleck’s face, it makes me think of every jock I’ve hated, and I try to take myself out of the running when it comes to evaluating movies he’s in.) If all you’re going to do is confirm preconceived judgements, you’re useless as a critic. That’s why I enjoy Danny’s writing so much: he’s never settled into a predictable set of criteria and wants the movies to tell him how to read them. Taste comes in here and there, because of course it will. Recently I’ve been thinking about actors and directing actors and I’ve read Meisner’s book and a few others very sympathetic to the actor. I also read Jacques Ranciere’s latest book of film theory, The Intervals of Cinema, which got me thinking about Bresson again, so I re-read Notes on Cinematography. And though their methods of representation are maybe opposite, they share the fragmentation idea quite keenly. Bresson tried to make every image equal, the hands as powerful as the eyes, let’s say, with his unique fragmenting mise-en-scene. And I think there is something similar going on in Malick’s evolution. Obviously, I haven’t seen Knight of Cups yet, but I agree that Malick isn’t after ideas in the way JLG is for the simple fact that he’s more concerned with the flux: how meaning and emotions amplify and transform and diminish and bleed into one another, how everything is everything, yes, and part of a system created before humans and that will change again once we depart. Some of the resistance may come from recognizing a certain strain of stoner mentality, and some may simply come from taste, but it all boils down to not letting the object teach you how to treat it. So, to echo HPM, thanks guys for at least trying to deal with it as it was built, made.
Awesome dialogue here, really appreciate reading everyone’s thoughts.
Thanks for all the great comments! Quickly: this strikes me as Malick’s least directly religious movie of his last three. I’m broadly familiar with many aspects of the Christian faith and religion, but this didn’t strike me, at least upon one festival viewing, as beholden to these specific interpretations. That being said, upon revisiting and being able to parse more of the many, many fragments of words spoken in the film, it may open up more in that direction for me (and other viewers).
Well, lets hope that these inspiring discussion of you guys will be an example how to talk about Terrence Malick. Thanks a lot.
If I can just drag the conversation down a notch from high church to cable TV, it’s worth noting, in illustration of Danny’s point that “Malick’s ‘style,’ or at least an unmoored version of it, is now infecting American independent cinema as well as American commercial aesthetics,” that the mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead last Sunday was exceedingly Malickian. In fact in the after-show both the director and star, in separate interviews, specifically referenced Malick.
This is really interesting. Good post.
Much appreciated the time I've spend reading this article and the dialogue.

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