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Berlin 2015: Come On, Pilgrim: Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

    They climbed until they reached another canyon. This one was sterile, but its bare ground and jagged rocks were even more brilliantly colored than the flowers of the first. The path was silver, grained with streaks of rose-gray, and the walls of the canyon were turquoise, mauve, chocolate and lavender. The air itself was vibrant pink.
    They stopped to watch a humming bird chase a blue jay. The jay flashed by squawking with its tiny enemy on its tail like a ruby bullet. The gaudy birds burst the colored air into a thousand glittering particles like metal confetti.

Nathanael West, “The Day of the Locust“ (1939)

A soul, indeed. With “Knight of Cups”, his most satisfying film since “The Thin Red Line” (1999), Terrence Malick joins the lineage of artists who have sought to depict—and transcend—the treacherously complex surfaces of California, Los Angeles and Hollywood. But Malick’s refined, hyper-cinematic prism yields visions and impressions which set his vision far apart from those of Nathanael West, Maya Deren, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Tolkin, Charles Bukowski, Robert Altman, David Lynch, Mike Davis, James Benning, Thom Andersen, Joan Didion, Bruce Wagner, David Cronenberg, and all the others who have found teemingly rich material—psychological, socio-economic, psycho-geographic—in these palm-fringed, perpetually sun-bleached, economically unequal, seismically volatile zones.

(Presumably) completing his spiritual-quest trilogy which began with the cosmogonic, bewilderingly diffuse Palme d’Or winner “The Tree of Life” (2011) and continued with the more overtly (and detrimentally) evangelical “To The Wonder” (2012), Malick has delivered an exasperating, exhilarating magnum opus, a film with unapologetic, vaulting ambition that is to be prized, even cherished.

That said, those who found “Tree” and “Wonder” too elliptical, too whispery, too grandiose, too “Malicky” will want to steer well clear of this elliptical, whispery, grandiose enterprise, which conjures sharp shards of narrative and assembles them not into a coherent, conventional narrative, rather a glittering kaleido-mosaic. It’s held together by a loose Tarot-inspired structure (prologue and eight chapters, each of the latter named for a particular card); by a haunting score (original compositions by Hanan Townshend intermingle with a slew of classical samplings); by Emmanuel Lubezki’s swooping, prowling, never-resting camerawork (widescreen images run the gamut from crystal-def to GoPro, including a handful of near-subliminal glitches presumably left in on purpose ); and by the central figure of Rick, a mega-successful Hollywood screenwriter played by Christian Bale (returning to the Malickverse a decade after “The New World”).

Rick seemingly has it all: wealth, money, beautiful women—Knight can be parsed as Malick’s “8 ½”, with Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman flitting in and out. His is a hedonistic lifestyle among the glitterati. The lofty perch of worldly success, however, affords Rick the time and space to contemplate just how far he has strayed from true contentment, real knowledge, a proper understanding of his place in the scheme of things. His road from perdition begins when he survives a powerful earthquake that quite literally jolts him awake and knocks him from his bed. But the journey upon which he embarks is as much about mental realignments as it is physical wandering.

Malick follows Rick and various subsidiary characters—including Brian Dennehy as his Christian father, Joseph (!) and Wes Bentley as his fallen-angel brother, Barry—around an exhaustive range of Los Angeles locales, with spells of contemplation in the desert and a fleeting detour to Las Vegas. We criss-cross social strata from a hideously opulent mansion-garden party, where Antonio Banderas’ Tonio is Rabelaisian ringmaster-in-chief (“treat this world as it deserves—there are no principles, just circumstances”), to Skid Row. Los Angeles plays itself, and so do its residents—from partygoer Bruce Wagner to the physically mutilated, mentally fried underclass of the city’s horrible, irresistible Downtown, “Knight of Cups”’ equivalents of the impoverished Texan marginals glimpsed in “To the Wonder”.

And while Rick, for all his torments, never makes for a particularly engaging or sympathetic protagonist—arguably never even really registers as much of a character (what kind of films does he write? When does he ever do any work?)—Malick places him in the center of such a vast and complex web that the hollow at the film’s core can with effort be overlooked, forgiven. “Knight of Cups” has a propulsive flow and a strange coherence which “Tree” and “Wonder” never quite sustained—coincidence that Malick only credits three main editors this time, a trimming of the team from his last couple of outings? In retrospect, the two predecessors now look like hugely elaborate sketches, groping towards a profundity which this film makes a much more plausible stab at grasping. The final moments could be construed as Malick’s farewell to the cinematic form as he has always known it.

Crucially, there’s a strain of self-aware humor here that also feels like something new, something Malick arguably last displayed all the way back in “Badlands”. “Don’t get your head too far up your own ass,” warns Rick’s agent, an aside clearly audible in Joel Dougherty’s oceanic sound-design. “I took drugs once. I see things other people do not,” burbles an Aussie surf-babe—hallucinogenic presented as a less reliable portal to elusive grace than human love, than an appreciation of the natural world. “I only teach one thing. Pay attention to this moment. Everything is there, perfect and complete,” a serene guru-type intones, guiding Rick around his achingly Tao-minimalist pad.

Shortly after, Rick contemplates a Scalextric sculpture in an art-gallery, with tiny cars whizzing endlessly and pointless around a micro-sized representation of a city: urban life and modern capitalism as a hive of self-propelled, blind, near-inescapable kinesis. Breaking free from such systems and finding the pearl one seeks—even realizing the pearl exists—can take years, even decades (Malick is 71). And the effort can make us appear as ungainly as the California Brown Pelican glimpsed on a dockside, hoisting its bulk awkwardly along the dry boards and palpably desperate for the briny.

Malick’s choice of fowl, “Knight of Cups’” true heraldic beast, is clearly no accident. An endangered species, innocent casualty of an eco-system wrecked by myopic human greed, the California Brown is “the only pelican that is a plunge diver… a unique feeder that makes impressive dives from ten to thirty feet above the surface. They are, however, able to dive from as high as one hundred feet. The deeper the meal the higher the dive.”

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