The further you go the less you know
Cold hearted but with a desire for something more, and Malick’s most deliberately unresolved in the way of answering that call. The Romantics two centuries ago flew terrified from the Industrial Revolution and advocated the nourishing qualities of the natural world as a necessary antidote to the Boschian nightmare of technological advancement and dehumanising capital. Malick’s cinema is often characterised as a cinematic continuation of this Romantic spirit, but he has always problematised this relationship with humans rejecting or even abusing Eden, going blind or finding this nightmare wherever they go. Knight of Cups might be his most complicated take on this yet.
Both complimenting and criticising the film for its ethereal prettiness ignore the way that it interrogates its own imagery. I could barely watch To the Wonder as it felt so similar to the bank and insurance advertisements that had already begun to mimic the voiceovers and low splendour of The Tree of Life. With that earlier film Malick had inadvertently set the template for the New Old Aesthetic; a pseudo-rustic evocation of a pre-modern past that conceals its technologies while looking technically pristine. It is not strictly used in bank ads- some images in The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups are strikingly similar to ‘soul searching’ travel photography. Knight of Cups is bold because it recognises this as an aesthetics of domination, of cynicism, and of kitsch. Its ‘natural’ images are strictly relegated to psychological spaces and not representations of the outside world. A question that has persisted in the field of landscape for as long as landscape has been a field is whether humans can ever experience the world without arranging it according to an aesthetics of domination (hence repetitive visual tropes making their way into centuries of painting and photography). Malick in Knight of Cups argues for the first time Possibly not.
The New Old Aesthetic’s more subdued images, which do not feature the proxy of experiencer with their back turned to the viewer (to indicate worldliness), appear like wallpapers selected through a Google algorithm for pleasant but vacuous representations of the natural world. Technically accomplished, aesthetically conservative, kitsch. The link between travel and information technologies is that both allow certain individuals (and certainly not those for whom borders mean death), to transcend borders- they promise physical transience through physical contact, and that the individual has the world’s cultures and peoples and vistas right at their fingertips. They have the cash and the belief in freedom to be liberated from home, they become fragmented as moments of ‘experience’ facilitated by the world as Other. In Knight of Cups, Malick lets them have vistas and then shuts them off- these ‘natural’ spaces are just reflections of ego. Things have never been simple in his films, but have we ever before looked out to the hills or the ocean and felt so empty? This Malickian beauty is hollowed out- it’s dead appearing in front of us.
Conversely the ‘party’ and ‘modernity’ sequences use the language of the ‘Malick algorithm’ which suggests that there is something that we aren’t noticing. The cameras roam and speed and slow time as if trying to break away from us. They leer with the eye of a predator, they celebrate, and they grow bored. These are less explicitly interior than the ego-spaces of the natural world, because they run into the issue of there being other bodies and other egos in the same space. Whenever the narcissistic voiceovers fall away, we return to the story of the knight of cups, and we are told that everything is a sign of what you are looking for. It’s not about ‘going’ anywhere but realising what’s already been sent for you. The cameras pay no attention, and want to elope. Rick is told to look for the light in others, and that there is beauty in everything, but he corrupts this sentiment and soaks up the light of others to leave them extinguished. He is a vampire who leaves the world cold and blue. Because the film is Rick it has an alienating attitude towards women which it does not advocate (in fact it criticises it), but offers no alternative to. Because Malick sets himself, and us, the task of empathising with the vampire who would say What do you mean? I love women if confronted, he threatens to lose his audience in the hand-holding. In his films we are taught to look for haptic moments, where people run their hands through grass and collect mud up to their ankles, but in Knight of Cups all of the touch is in Rick smothering women’s faces.
Malick defended himself in 1973 against critics suggesting that Badlands condescended Kit and Holly, by saying that our sincerest utterances often come across as cliches. Knight of Cups is laden with cliched imagery, but it also recognises that some aesthetic tropes don’t carry universal sincerity (they are rather culturally-learned ways of seeing and arranging the world around us). Which leads us to the question of what the world would look like without this teleological will. Rick is criticised for neither wanting to be in a marriage (the world) or outside of it, which in an exchange embodies the film’s existential and aesthetic predicament (it’s Malick so they’re the same thing). Knight of Cups suggests avenues in both specificity (to break the cliche) and spontaneous hyper-cliche. When the director breaks from the Malick algorithm (now equated with Rick’s flightiness) he does so with essay studies of architectural spaces and sudden bursts of ungraded digital family video. In the former the world’s impressionistic strokes suddenly clarify into something with a sense of permanence, and in the latter we see the ‘moment’ as it might actually be- too immediate for the experiencer to begin breaking down and shaping.
For Malick since The Tree of Life there has been a belief in the emancipatory potential of time-imagery and of material specificity, which is in direct contrast to the broad strokes of conventional cinematic languages. Memory is favoured over action-experience, and the individual rememberer over the relatable heroic agent. In Knight of Cups the director (rather than the character) exists wherever the cinematic spell is broken. Although the film makes sense as a system of conflicting cinematic languages, a lot of it remains visible as sketches and transient data. Favouring process over product is markedly contemporary, as for example The Life of Pablo and Blonde stand by a similar ethos. I am all for this new ugly digital Malick and essay film Malick, and wonder how long it will be before he tries a Pablo and uses a streaming service to roll out an ever-changing mess of edits, re-edits, and retakes. I am hoping that soon he will also have the confidence to dismiss the ‘womanising asshole’ from their role at the centre of these films (which should in turn liberate the female characters from abstractions to be worshipped by said assholes?).
I thought while watching To the Wonder that the director had already achieved everything he needed to with The New World and The Tree of Life, but having seen Knight of Cups this is blatantly not the case- we are now a long way from 20th century Malick. Those who have said that Knight of Cups, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder are a trilogy have me thinking that I at some stage should revisit To the Wonder, but also I am more intuitively drawn to the pre-trilogy Malick for his genre subversions and directly sensual film language. With these pre-trilogy works all the viewer needed was their eyes- a very basic knowledge of cinema was an added bonus. These new ones are at once surface-heavy and densely academic, which means that I always feel like I lack the tools to properly see them. Knight of Cupsthough leaves me cold in a good way- it is chilling and haunting and it calls for us to come back and find what we lost there.