Knight Of Cups

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Dir. Terrence Malick (2015)

 

Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths, music amongst other traits and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitionary return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a complete shift in style: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is lost, spiritually empty and in a state of longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness, particularly Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father, who while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  aware of.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.  There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title and first lines being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion, burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Freida Pinto at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.  Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find subjects, methods and shot to be similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, his is such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence.

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(Dir. Roy Andersson. 2015)

Roy Andersson is a 72 year old Swedish director who has carved a unique niche in cinema with his style of remote, black, humour.  In a career that has spanned from 1970’s “A Swedish Love Story” through to this year’s equally self explanatorily titled film.  The title, by the way, comes from Pieter Bruegel’s 1565 painting “Hunters in the Snow”, which contains a rural winter scene including various birds perched on branches.  Andersson wondered what the birds would think of the people below and saw his film as “a different way of saying ‘what are we actually doing?’”.  But Andersson is not a dramatist in the conventional sense.  Some might call him a surrealist, others a (rather deadpan and bleak, admittedly) humorist or even satirist.  The Village Voice once described him as a “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”, and while slapstick might be a (comedic?) exaggeration, it gives a good indication of the themes and contradictions contained in his films.

This film (even the acronym, APSOABROE is something of a mouthful) is a collection of short vignettes, mostly unconnected though some feature returning characters in later scenes.  They are all set in a bizarrely perfect yet utterly drab stylised Swedish city, with floors and streets immaculately swept and wiped clean, all in varying tones of khaki, olive and pine.  Furnishings are sparse – empty spaces are more predominant than any distracting detail – and seem to come from a certain Swedish furniture store, if it were locked in an impoverished 1970s.  The characters, likewise, seem to be timeless: men are mostly in dark grey suits and/or off-white shirts, with women in a style locked somewhere in a 1970s remembering the 1940s apparel.  The scenes range from a cafe in a ship, an underground bar, a medical laboratory, a school hall, a dance class, a street outside a restaurant, a hospital room, a flop house reception, corridor and a room, an executive office, a living room, a museum and a handful of joke shops where the two most frequent characters appear failing to sell outdated and absurd “joke” items.  All are lit universally so that almost no shadows are cast, creating a sense of studio-based unreality to the otherwise hyper-real mundanity of the production.

Within a couple of the scenes, one realises that there is one unifying device throughout the film – the camera is fixed  and does not move, zoom or cut at all during each scene.  Everything is as if watching a scene from a play from one vantage point, an unflinching stare at a scenario that unfolds at a pace as discomforting as the setting itself.  Not all scenes are confined to, somewhat claustrophobic, interiors but even when outside, the colours are drawn from the same palette, the lighting the same blanket shallow white, and no change in the pacing and placid absurdity.  Whether it is on a beach or a park beside a pond, there is no indication of where this city is, but we do see a grim industrial landscape on the horizon in some scenes.

What are these scenes, then?  If there were “main” characters to this extended sketch show, it would be Jonathan and Sam, a pair of travelling salesmen who produce from a case three ridiculous comedy items – long vampire teeth, a laughing cushion and an “uncle one tooth” rubber mask causes more fear than laughter.  The pair, like a Laurel and Hardy on ketamine, run through the same routine when trying unsuccessfully to sell these items, with perhaps unsurprising lack of success.  We also see them in a flop house, with a scene where one of them sits at a table listening to the same few seconds of a song on a portable record player again and again.  In another scene they demand payment from a shop owner hiding in the back room while his wife placates them at the front desk.  We understand that Jonathan and Sam are under pressure to sell their items and pay their bosses, as if there is a crap comedy mafia pressing its dark influence over this bland Scandinavian society. In another scene we jump back in time to 1943 but stay in place, in the bar below street level, as if the patrons memories are recorded in the exact same style as the film reality they live in.  Half populated by sailors and soldiers, an older barmaid with an outrageous limp begins a song about shots for those without pennies, instead in exchange for a kiss.  As the sailors and soldiers partake in the song, they line up to get their shot and give her increasingly amorous kisses.  Like in other scenes that have bystanders, they sit and watch impassively.

The role of  bystanders only becomes significant in one of the most memorable, and bizarre, scenes.  At a bar with a wide front window, when soldiers on horseback ride up from the 1708 Swedish invasion of Russia.  A cavalryman rides into the bar, first ordering the music from the jukebox be turned off, then the women to leave – which they do in fear while the men remain, impassive.  Then to some fanfare and absurdity King Charles XII rides in.  Three of his men kneel down before him to provide a human staircase and carpet (they remain so for the rest of the 16 minute scene) and the young king is seated at the bar and his order relayed via his servant – a glass of sparkling water.  The King decides he likes the young bar tender and has him join his march to the Russian front.  Then the King mounts up and rides out, all the while dozens of uniformed soldiers march or ride by in full 18th century uniform.  We return to this scene, to the same bar, as the army returns, bloodied and defeated.  The wounded King is led back in and this time, the women of the bar break down into howling and weeping.  A scene that would normally be moving becomes utterly bizarre, a dislocation of time that confounds the emotion into something that one can do little but laugh at.

This is the emotional timbre of the whole film.  When a passenger on a ferry dies from a heart attack after ordering a meal and drink at the cafe, the concern of the staff turns to what will happen to the beer and food.  They turn to the typically passive bystanders, and an agonising silence grows until an even more agonising character raises a hand, stands, and moves forth to collect the prize.  The bleakness is thrown into sharp relief, not punctured or dispelled, by the awkward absurdity.  Throughout, the dark sense of futility and desperation is as universal as the unflinching, shadowless, light – with exception.  Sprinkled amidst the Bergmanesque slapstick are respites, interludes even, of light.  They are simple, wordless, isolated scenes: a young couple laid on a blanket on a sandy dune, a woman with a pram sat on a park bench, a couple leaning on a balcony sharing a (post-coital) cigarette.  But these breaks in the cloud are bracketed by scenes that go beyond the absurd and touch deeply discomforting nerves.  Foremost of these comes toward the end, where men dressed in pith helmets and khaki of an old African colonial soldier unit are whipping and prodding black Africans  into a giant copper barrel suspended above a fire pit like a barbecue.  Once in, the door is sealed, the first lit, and it begins to rotate.  In the first and only cut of the film, we go to a wide shot of  a patio door above  row of low steps.  The rotating copper barrel is seen in reflection until the door opens and a group of elderly and decrepit (white) men and women  in what looks like evening wear hobble out and watch the spectacle, impassively.  This scene encapsulates the wider question viewers may have as to if the darkness, the absurdity and (bleak) comedy have any actual purpose or meaning.  Andersson has given no further insight beyond that it is looking at how life is lived and what we do.  The director’s style is persistent and rigorous, a singular method of representation and tone of voice and is far from regular in terms of tone, style, narrative (not that there is one) and character.  But what is there within the perfectly familiar yet alien locations and quite desperate and somewhat disturbed characters is capable of being quite affecting.

Knight Of Cups

knight-of-cups-poster

 

 

 

 

(Dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, one could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths and music, amongst other traits, and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitional return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a huge leap in style, marked by is collaboration with the brilliant Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is empty, lost, spiritually empty and longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness.  In particular is Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father who, while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) he is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are also pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  familiar with.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.

There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion (the rock peak in the desert at the end?), burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

Rick’s father recites this tale in voice over, over low-res video footage of a childhood, presumably memories of Rick’s.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games in utterly different ways, turning this oh so familiar simulacrum into a non-euclidean city of nightmares.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Helen (Freida Pinto) at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.

Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find the subjects, methods and shots to be too similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision, deserves applause.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.