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All words: Alan Pyke

  1. You are a romantic, but given to over-emoting and under-thinking. Supporters call you imaginative, while detractors scoff about your wishful thinking. You know how to bring beauty into people’s lives. A change looms in your near future, an exciting one! Perhaps even, a new romance? These are some of the things the Knight of Cups can mean in a tarot card reading.
  1. Tarot card readings are, of course, horseshit. A simple enough con, whereby a person with sufficient knowledge of both the cards and human insecurity can convert their mark’s desire for destiny into cold cash.
  1. Knight of Cups is the perfect title for Terrence Malick’s latest film.
  1. The two-hour journey is a masterwork of cinematography, a triumph of film editing, and littered with evidence of brilliant work by the costumers, craftspeople, and sound designers who are as essential to filmmaking as they are overlooked. But Malick has located all that busy artistic brilliance inside a pile of horseshit. As gorgeous as it is, as accomplished the artistic mind behind the oblique-angled camera work and gradually-building thematic substance of the film are, Knight of Cups devotes all its energy to the plight of rich, sad, lonely white men in Hollywood.
  1. Did you know wealthy men, the ones miserable about their purposelessness, sometimes turn to womanizing and mysticism, yet remain miserable? Did you? It’s true! They do! It, like, totally happens. It’s sad.
  1. Knight of Cupsfollows a successful, driftless screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale) through a series of affairs, some dingy, some grand, some not-quite-requited. The sections are set apart with the titles of different tarot cards, and sequenced in thematic rather than chronological order. Gradually we learn of a dissolved marriage to a willowy blonde doctor (Cate Blanchett), as well as a long-running affair with a married woman (Natalie Portman) that her and Rick to art museums, beaches, and more debauched dalliances. Then there’s an Australian stripper (Teresa Palmer), a drugged-out waif (Imogen Poots), and a recalcitrant model (Freida Pinto), who are all a succession of more anonymous, fleeting party animals.
  1. Is tarot bullshit, though? If the con provides the mark with meaning, has she been defrauded? Is a sense of purpose, of connectedness to a grander level than what our senses can show, not a thing of value? Something a person can sell to others and still call themselves moral?
  1. Malick introduces to Rick’s living brother, who mentions their dead brother. Their father, played by Brian Dennehy to electrifying yet ambivalent effect, is seen and almost never heard. Malick prefers to either silence his audio, or turn it down and then off midway through a sentence, leaving the viewer to project and interpret Dennehy’s emotive work throughout the film. The living brother is angry at the father, while Rick is conciliatory. The father seems to struggle to accept a life where one son died, another thrived, and the third spun off hurricane-like into destitution.
  1. Real life intrudes. Rick passes through skid row’s homeless and hopeless, drifts through the sewing floor in what may well be a sweatshop, and paws at the broken shells of desert houses long since abandoned. The scenes offer a counterpoint to Rick’s self-indulgent seeking, and provide something that can give him purpose and comfort. They also save Malick’s self-indulgent seeking from losing all grip on the tactile reality of human experience. They do not quite ground the film. They stake it into the earth loosely, as a tent hastily erected by a drunken camper.
  1. Malick’s film is resplendent to the eye, but entirely naked of the narrative clothing and conversational clarity that movies generally bother to wear. The director’s obsession with the natural world is so deep that the actors he works with joke their boss was more interested in watching ducks paddle than his employees ply their trade. Here Malick seems eager to find the same depth of meaning and abstracted thematic value in cityscapes and urban blight that he previously sought out in a duck’s contour feathers.
  1. He just about succeeds, too! Have I mentioned the film is gorgeous to look at? Malick is forever cramming the viewer into alleys and pointing his face skyward at some off-kilter angle, letting buildings and fire escapes trap and release the sky onto your retinas in ways that feelengaging. He brings the same whirling-dervish sense of wonder and not-quite-grasped meaning to numerous underwater shots of people playing in oceans and pools. He finds ways to look at familiar sights and make them seem alien. Like a well-made, very difficult puzzle, it is endlessly engaging. And then you’re done with it, and your life is right there waiting for you. Emails to answer. Calendars to check. Buses to wait for.
  1. Knight of Cupsis the kind of movie that makes it embarrassing to talk to your friends about cinematography. Like you’re some kind of snob, instead of someone who embraces filmmaking as a technical enterprise, who recognizes the absurdity of trying to render three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional medium and wants to applaud the effort.
  1. At least twenty-five people walked out of the screening I attended. Perhaps they missed out. Perhaps I did.
  1. Knight of Cups can’t tell you anything you don’t already know about life. But it can make you feel things – namely frustration, but not limited to it – about how human beings pursue a sense of permanence and belonging in order to stave off death. Malick seeds the screen with many different modes of religious iconography. In the hour or so of movie beyond Rick’s tarot reading, he whirls you past the pre-fab Roman gods of Caesar’s Palace casino, past the droning sermon of a Christian minister, past an elderly Hollywood success’s Buddhist compound. Rick grows no more content at any of these stops, no less aimless in his quest for the quasi-titular Grail of Understanding.
  1. “The Seeker” by The Who is a short rock and roll song. You can listen to it for free on the Internet. You will learn exactly as much about what you mean and who you are from the song as you would from watching Knight of Cups. It won’t make you as mad, either, but you also probably won’t have as much fun.
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