Sunday, October 02, 2016

197. US director Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2016) (USA): A personal and intense theological statement pushing the envelope of theism

Not many films would end with the enigmatic word “Begin.” Knight of Cups ends that way. That gives one a clue of the feature film.

Terrence Malick is amazingly well read and spiritual. He expects his viewers to be able to comprehend his personal views distilled in his films, laced with stunning visuals and an amazing choice of music.  Knight of Cups will be fascinating for those with an inclination to scurry to the nearest library and read up on the nuggets of  literary works spread over centuries that the film refers to—but how many will do that? This is why this beautiful, intriguing work-- perhaps Malick’s most audacious work to date--is likely to be dismissed by the lazy viewer as an indulgent, pointless exercise in filmmaking. Yet, this work is one of the most rewarding films of 2016 for those who would care to read the literary sources after seeing the movie.  Knight of Cups reveals much of the views of the director’s mind that was not so evident in his earlier works.

The brooding Rick (Christian Bale) and one of his female distractions

There are several keys to unlock the treasure chest of theological ideas packed into Knight of Cups. The opening lines of the film (and opening shots are important for any Malick film) provide the clue that the film is related to Paul Bunyan’s 1678 literary allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (from This World to That Which is to Come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream) though the film has directly very few but important overt connections to that literary work. But if you have read it, the personal spiritual  ”progress” of the Hollywood scriptwriter, Rick (Christian Bale) is akin to the travels of Christian, the lead character, in Bunyan’s work. As the character Christian in Paul Bunyan’s work loses the load on his back that he was carrying on his journey towards the end of the book, so too does Rick seem to get over his meaningless life as a womanizing and successful Hollywood screen-writer. The entire film is a dream of Rick, where he is talking to several people in his life—his father, his brother, his former wife, his sexual interests, et al., as was Christian dreaming in Bunyan’s work.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has and buys that pearl" Gospel of St  Matthew 13;45 in the Holy Bible
If you have figured that much of Knight of Cups, you would assume the film to be an intensely Christian treatise on the lines of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two earlier Malick films. The well-read Malick introduces in Knight of Cups ideas that would upset some of the traditional Christian believers—passages from the apocrypha Acts of Thomas, which is not part of the Holy Bible. Apocryphal texts are some 60 odd books that ought to have been included in the New Testament of the Bible, but were excluded from the “public use of the Church.” Acts of Thomas is one of those 60 odd books that are not considered as part of the Bible. In the Knight of Cups the tale of a son sent by his father to Egypt to retrieve a pearl is narrated in the early part of the film and again towards the end of the film. This tale comes from a section called the “Hymn of the Pearl” in Acts of Thomas. The purists among Christians would wonder what Malick is up to.  Knight of Cups is the first work of Malick since he made The Thin Red Line, which quoted from non-Christian scriptures such as the Hindu scriptures of Bhagavad Gita. (Ref: Paper titled Rhetorical Transcendence Revisited: “The Thin Red Line” as Perennial Philosophy; Education Resources Information Center [ERIC] ED458649.) Malick goes beyond apocryphas in Knight of Cups. The quest for the pearl could also be a part of A Tale of the Western Exile by the Iranian mystic Suhrawardi (1154-91), the founder of Illuminationism, a school of Islamic philosophy. Then if you look closely at the end credits the film, Malick uses Charles Laughton’s renditions of Psalm 104 from the Old Testament and Plato’s Phaedrus.  Malick’s literary and theological cosmos is simply mind boggling. This is literally casting pearls (pun intended) before the swine. It is not surprising that many found this work of cinema to be below average when it actually offers cinema of a quality that transcends the conventional Hollywood or American cinema.

Two brothers--men are important in this Malick film

Unlike The Tree of Life, where Malick underscored the role of the mother in the “graceful” development of the son, The Tree of Life flips to decode the role of the father (Brian Dennehy), exasperated by his lack of influence in the spiritual growth of his son.  The characters are different; however, the relationships mirror each film. A careful viewer will pick up the brief sequence of the Texas childhood shot from The Tree of Life in Knight of Cups. There are two fathers in Knight of Cups—a theological one you never see and a physical one. Rick even calls his physical father “an old fool” during a soliloquy.  The physical father says “I stumbled down the road like a clown..That doesn’t mean that it is a wrong one. I turned you upside down. Womanizer. Cut off...I gave up my life for you kids. ” In contrast, the spiritual father talks of Rick’s time on Earth, reminding him of the future. “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense. Then you realize that you were as lost as before. I suppose that is what damnation is. Pieces of your life never come together.”

The physical father tries to get his son Rick back on a spiritual mode: “There is so much love inside us that never gets out. According to your unfailing love, great compassion, blot out my transgressions. My son, I know you. I know you have a soul. Seems you are alone. You are not. Even now he is taking your hand and guiding you. By a way you can’t see. If you are unhappy you should not see it as a mark of God’s disfavour

Who speaks the final lines of the film is ambiguous. Is it the physical father or the theological father of Rick? The words are ponderous “Find the light you know in the east. As a child. The moon. The stars. They serve you. They guide you on your way. The light in the eyes of others. The pearl. Wake up. Turn. Look. Come out. My son. Remember. Begin

The Tarot cards are a distraction unless you know a lot about that subject. Each Tarot card has one different female personality connected with Rick. Knowing Malick's wide knowledge there are definitely linkages that eludes one on the deliberate segmentation that he has made with the cards.

Unlike The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups seems to be more focussed on male relationships with Rick—his father and two brothers, including Billy, the dead brother, who never appears but is merely discussed. Much of this is autobiographical with names changed.

Visually stunning metaphors from Malick and Lubezki

The main allures of the film for those viewers who are not concerned with the theology are the visual and aural ones. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works wonders with the camera when he is with Malick. As a Malick follower, every sequence shot underwater might appear spectacular but it reminds you of late Nestor Almendros’ shot of Richard Gere falling face down on the water surface in Malick’s Days of Heaven. Almendros paved the way for Lubezki. The fluid camera movements are in tune with the dream concept of Bunyan and Malick. Interestingly, the camera of Lubezki lingers on the night sky with the moon in focus at the final word—“Begin.”

The true majesty of any Malick film lies squarely in the director’s outstanding talent to pick amazing pieces of music.  Music-wise the mainstay of Knight of Cups is Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” used with aplomb, while the works of the main composer New Zealander Hanan Townshend and the Estonian composer Arvo Part are used with considerable care and intelligence.

Do actors matter in a Terrence Malick film? Some are indeed a delight to watch—especially Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. However, the standout performance was possibly that of Armin Mueller –Stahl’s brief appearance as the priest and the narration of Ben Kingsley. Actors do not matter in a Malick film for two reasons. One, Malick does not have a screenplay cast in stone. The screenplay changes in major ways during the production stages. Two, actors rarely speak lines directly for the camera. Perhaps, the director gives more importance to dogs—the credits mentions “Accounting Dog—Stevie.” That’s Malick.

A minor point that nags me—why are the colored people in Malick’s films always either sick or possible criminals?

A wife (Cate Blanchett) who leaves Rick

Malick is slowly being recognized as one of the best living directors on the planet. This slow recognition is partly due to Malick’s depth of knowledge that eludes a majority of his films’ viewers. These often require a critic to explain and point out the not-so-obvious details to flummoxed viewers. Now, consider this, how many films end with the audacious end word/sentence: “Begin’? Malick is constantly raising the bar of quality cinema.

P.S. Knight of Cups is included in the author’s best 10 films of 2016. Reviews of Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, TheTree of Life and To the Wonder have appeared on this blog earlier. Mr Malick is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.

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