My head is still spinning from having just watched Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. Already, I feel as if it is going to be a very precious film for me, for a whole host of reasons. At the same time, my mind is full of superlatives, so maybe it’s just best to get them out of the way in one go, and then move on to a more detailed discussion of the film. First, I think that this is Malick’s best film. Of course, singling out the best work in a director’s canon is always a bit of a mug’s game, and often clouded with quite antiquated ideas about auteurism and canonicity. In the case of Knight of Cups, however, I feel like stressing that supremacy, just because virtually all reviews have been middling at best, and patronising at worst. By extension, I also think that Malick’s best films have been the last three he has released, culminating with Knight of Cups, and if there was ever any doubt about whether these three films constituted a renaissance, this most recent and perfect instalment puts it to rest. Everything that was breathtaking about The Tree of Life and To The Wonder is consummated here, while all the sententious, sanctimonious tendencies to Malick’s worldview are whittled away as well, making what I’m temped to call a perfect film, or about the closest to perfection I’m likely to see in a film. At the same time, I hesitate to even use the word “film” either, since there is an emphatically post-cinematic register than connects all three of these films, and perhaps explains why they have been repeatedly considered “lesser” than Malick’s earlier works, or as flawed, compromised, “minor” residues of that earlier genius.
In fact, the muted reception of Knight of Cups is perhaps something of an object lesson in the residual hostility to anything approaching a genuine post-cinematic exploration on the part of directors once renowned for their cinematic prowess. The Canyons, The Bling Ring, Inland Empire, Maps to the Stars – these are all films in which cinematic visionaries have turned their hands to the post-cinematic, and all films that have been met with critical disdain, contempt or disinterest. In the case of Malick, that situation is perhaps enhanced by the venerable isolationism of his earlier work, and the vast, auteurist tract of time that lapsed between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Although I was only in Year 9 at the time and just starting to formulate my love for cinema in a systematic way, I nevertheless clearly remember the breathtaking sense of eventfulness that accompanied the release of Malick’s first film in over two decades. When The New World was released, there was a similar, if more subdued eventfulness, but since The Tree of Life a new, insatiable, prolific quality has entered Malick’s practice that seems to entirely undo the stubborn auteurism of the first half of his career, which is perhaps why critics have seemed to feel it necessary to reduce these last three films to a kind of experimental footnote and, in some cases, an unfortunate experimental footnotes. However, I would contend that Malick’s auteurism has actually strengthened, but has strengthened precisely by embracing a wider post-cinematic aesthetic. In fact, I’d go one step further and suggest that precisely what is so startling – and confronting – about Malick’s late work is the way in which he retrospectively rewrites his filmography as that of a post-cinematic auteur who was simply waiting for technology, opportunity and sensibility to catch up with those last few moments of Badlands when we’re jettisoned from all human agency to hover, motionless, above the clouds. According to this new narrative, Malick was always prolific, but just didn’t have the milieu within which to embrace it, which is subtly – if importantly – different from the vision of Malick as a director who was totally in keeping with his time, but chose to instead shroud himself in solipsistic aesthetic perfectionism.
Among other things, that means that Malick’s new films have an eager, excited, experimental quality that is quite different from the slow cinema he promulgated in the 70s, as well as an enhanced urbanity that has gravitated this great director of plains, badlands and tropical jungles back towards cities, culminating with Knight of Cups, which is set in its entirety in Los Angeles, with the exception of a brief foray to Las Vegas, which is figured as a remote outpost of the Los Angeles sprawl anyway. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much to argue that Knight of Cups is more emphatically about place than any of Malick’s other films, to the point where it feels like a docudrama, or a city symphony, or a sequel to Los Angeles Plays Itself, more than a feature-length film. That makes sense to me, since virtually every other post-cinematic manifesto of note over the last ten years has tended to take Los Angeles as its canvas, presumably because there’s no other city that is so inextricable from cinema, and so aligned with cinema. Conjecturing as to how Los Angeles might look, feel or exist “after” cinema, then, is to contemplate the post-cinematic in a peculiarly experiential, embodied and evocative manner, and in many ways it feels as if that is Malick’s purpose here, with what putative narrative occurs revolving around an actor, played by Christian Bale, as he drifts in and out of one Hollywood party and backlot after another, all the while ruminating, reminiscing and reflecting upon his relationship with his father, played by Brian Dennehy, his brother, played by Wes Bentley, and a host of real and imagined lovers, played by Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, among others.
However, even to use the term narrative in a qualified sense is to do violence to the nature of Malick’s project, which is more of an abstract film in the vein of Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, with the critical difference that in this case that abstraction comes at the hands of a director who has also mastered feature-length narrative and come out the other side. First and foremost, the narrative aspirations of The Tree of Life and To The Wonder are no longer here in any kind of sustained way, with virtually the entire film taking place as a series of cryptic, fragmented abstractions and ruminations that might count as a kind of atomised interior monologue were traditional interiority still a possibility in Malick’s lifeworld. For one of the great strengths of Knight of Cups is the way in which it perfects the odd wandering momentum of The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, evoking a world in which everyone is interpersonally alienated but more globally connected. Of course, that’s simply the premise of late capitalism, and something we hear about ad nauseum, but there’s something utterly unique about Malick’s vision that clarifies how often directors opt for the alienation without really generating the proportionate sense of connection at the same time. At the end of the day, perhaps that combination requires a mystic vocabulary, and Knight of Cups is also the film in which Malick’s mysticism feels most perfectly modulated. Obviously, Malick is not a secular director, but orthodox Christianity doesn’t feel commensurate to his vision either, at least not at this stage in his career and in Knight of Cups he splits the difference to come up with something akin to a continuation of those various mystical, occult and visionary fringes of Christianity that managed to find a heterodoxy in orthodoxy in much the same that his post-cinematic vision manages to discover something radically heterodox about the traditional cinematic lifeworld, a post-cinematic potentiality that was always there even if we weren’t fully aware of its existence.
In “Urban Mobility and Cinematic Visuality: The Screens of Los Angeles,” Anne Friedberg uses the term automobility to refer to this post-cinematic potentiality, connecting it to the peculiar fusion of cinematic and automotive infrastructure peculiar to Los Angeles. More specifically, Friedberg suggests that the unfolding of the Los Angeles freeway system beyond the windscreen addresses the driver in much the same way that the unfolding of film on a cinema screen addresses the spectator, leading to what might perhaps best be described as a total-cinematic potentiality more than a post-cinematic potentiality, a dissociation of cinematic experience from any specifically cinematic infrastructure and a corresponding dispersal of cinematic experience across every urban infrastructure. Writing in the early 2000s – and building upon her seminal study of Los Angeles, Window Shopping, released in the early 1990s – Friedberg frequently gestures towards the suburban mall, drive-in cinema and multiplex as the spectacular infrastructures that most clearly consummated this fusion of cinematic and automotive registers. Since the early 2000s, however, cinema has been dissociated from cinematic infrastructure to a greater extent than anybody could have predicted, with the result that this post-cinematic or total-cinematic version of Los Angeles has more or less come to pass. In that sense, Los Angeles has been denuded but also consummated by the emergence of post-cinematic technologies, which perhaps explains why the typical post-cinematic Los Angeles mode tends to involve an oscillation between banality and epiphany, as the classically cinematic spectacles of this most cinematic of cities are subsumed into a post-cinematic flux that may denude individual structures, spectacles and icons, but also cinematises the city itself in a totalising way that allows for new kinds of epiphanic rapture. In “Emotion Capture: Affect in Digital Film,” Steven Shaviro cautions us not to read this as any kind of consummation of Andre Bazin’s “myth of total cinema,” since “Bazin thought that movies were trying to reproduce a real world that already existed independently of them [that] today this seems hopelessly naïve. Images are themselves a constituent part of “the real world”. They are as real as anything else, more real, perhaps…Film and video don’t reflect a prior reality, they instead make the world over in their own images.” However, I would argue that Knight of Cups is one of the few films – perhaps the first film – that manages to bridge the gap between Bazin’s totality and Shaviro’s totality, offering up a reality that is neither entirely independent of the camera, nor entirely remade in the camera’s image, but a kind of totalising collaboration with and continuation of it.
In large part, that comes down to Malick’s mysticism, and the various ways in which it percolates through his vision. First and foremost, the film is driven by tarot imagery, taking its title from a particular card, the “Knight of Cups.” Appropriately, this card is part of what is known as the “Minor Arcana,” a subsection of cards that flesh out the prophetic potential of the major cards – or “Major Arcana” – with detail about quotidian happenings, events and situations. As with all tarot cards, the Knight of Cups can have two meanings – if positioned upright, it refers to a character who is visionary, artistic and the harbinger of new ways of being, but also restless, spontaneous and in need of stimulation; if reversed, it can refer to a character who promises this visionary horizon but in a reckless, irresponsible or deceptive manner, often by neglecting the quotidian ramifications that make the Minor Arcana so distinctive. In its totality, then, the Knight of Cups encapsulates the ambiguity of visionary experience, as well as the struggle to attain genuinely new ways of being in the world., while as part of the Minor Arcana, it speaks to the way in which visionary experience can involve envisaging the quotidian totality of life in a new and unprecedented way. Drawing on the Knight of Cups as a kind of riposte to the critical dismissal of his late work as minor – and drawing on the Minor Arcana as a kind of object lesson in the necessity of crafting far-range visionary modifications through what often appear to be minor or arcane strategies – Malick organises the film around a series of episodes loosely related to the progression of the tarot game, creating an escalating sense of epiphany that nevertheless remains sufficiently mystical – and sufficiently indebted to the Knight of Cups and the Minor Arcana – to prevent epiphany ever seemed like a transparent experience either.
At the same time, the film takes its cues from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Process, which is read over the opening credits, but in Malick’s hands is somewhat decanonised, released from its status as a classic work of religious literature, as well as an unofficial supplement to the Protestant Bible, and instead subsumed back into a tradition of mystical protest, dissent and speculation that jettisons its specific allegory in favour of a more general allegorical space, affect and sensibility, described in Bunyan’s unabridged title as “the similitude of a dream.” Combined with the focus on the Knight of Cups, that creates a unique, visionary and mystical sense of space, partly allegorical, partly pictographic and partly drawn from the way space is transformed over the course of the tarot game itself, as the transitional, transitory zones between a collection of players gradually becomes both more impersonal and more connected, subsuming them into a cartomantic communion that somewhat detaches them from each other interpersonally but also reattaches them mystically by way of the entire universe that has been disclosed by way of their game. In his appraisal of another post-cinematic masterpiece – Paranormal Activity – Shaviro pays tribute to the way in which Oren Peli’s camera performs a kind of “demonstration” of its own abilities, but in Knight of Cups, Malick’s camera goes one step further, performing a kind of divination of the post-cinematic world from the cinematic world. Rather than passively recording this post-cinematic world, or simply remaking the cinematic world in its own image, Malick’s camera seems to call upon the world to reveal and consummate itself, resulting in a topology of disclosure that converges on a series of vast, still, empty spaces – deserts, beaches, empty lots – that feel like the blank canvas for a new wave of creation, not unlike the most primordial landscapes in The Tree of Life.
Less any-space-whatevers than every-space-whatevers, these zones split the difference between the most prophetic and ancient versions of Los Angeles, recapitulating the foundational mythology of the metropolis – that it emerged, fully-formed, out of the desert, as if by a miracle – as a kind of retro-futurist parable whereby every advancement of the city is simultaneously a reiteration of the original desert ground that makes those advancements so miraculous. If, as some critics have claimed, the emergence of post-cinematic, twenty-first-century media are the first harbingers of a post-Anthropocene world, then Malick heralds their arrival with something of a pre-Anthropocene vision of Los Angeles, as if this most drastic of the city’s transformations were somehow an even more emphatic reiteration of the blank void from which it originally sprung. What makes the film so beautiful, then, is a kind of feedback loop whereby the proliferation of post-cinematic spaces and spectacles seems to actually bring the characters closer and closer to the cinematic and pre-cinematic ground beneath the city, just as an increasingly complex, unmappable and unknowable urban topography increasing discloses a mythical topology, with all the standard icons of Los Angeles urbanism – advertisements, signage and above all freeways – left to shimmer and float in a transitional zone between topography and topology, flattened, denuded and subsumed back into the Los Angeles desert, but simultaneously also remediated and reimagined as a prototype of the next sensory expansion of the city as well. In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham identified the highways as the fifth in a long line of “transportation diagrams” that have defined the city, and speculates on what the next diagram might entail, finally discarding superfreeways, urban helicopters and rapid rail to identify the urban airbus as the most likely candidate, a form of small-scale rural aircraft typically inhabiting the limited strip of airspace between the highways and the strata used for large-scale air transit. While this hasn’t come to pass in any direct way, it is also true that the freeways have retained their hegemony – at least in the popular imagination – for much longer than Banham would have expected. Nevertheless, one of the characteristics of post-cinematic Los Angeles is the tendency to tentatively sketch out this sixth transportation space by way of drone cinematography, which typically inhabits just this stratum between freeway and regular airspace, something I discuss a bit in my upcoming post on the second season of True Detective. For now, however, it suffices to say that Knight of Cups sketches out a version of Los Angeles in which each new transportation diagram involves a radical reiteration of and contraction to the underlying topology of the city followed by a vast new expansion of infrastructural topography, while the drone camera doesn’t represent a new form of transportation so much as an image for the extent to which post-cinematic technologies have transformed the very concept of transportation itself in ways that Banham could not have possibly predicted while writing about Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
In that sense, it often feels as if Knight of Cups elaborates three distinct zones – a desert topology, typically suffused with a traditional cinematic affect (if not cinematic technologies), an entirely new sensory topography, generally shot from the perspective of drones (or emulating the perspective of drones) and a veritable panorama of canonical Los Angeles urbanism that floats somewhere between the two, alternately flattened back into the cinematic desert or extended into an incipient post-cinematic future. Critical to this continuity between topology and topography are Malick’s extended POV shots from windscreens and car windows, which frequently recall the remediation of silent cinema’s “phantom rides” that have cropped up on YouTube, digital exercises in which the camera is placed on a dashboard or car window and left to impassively record the highway (it is usually a highway) as it flickers by, after which the director often superimposes digital data over the image that retrospectively folds the camera into the navigational apparatus of the car itself. In some ways, these digital phantom rides – and all phantom rides, really – are so many nascent versions of the drone cinematography that pervades Knight of Cups and the second season of True Detective, although the use of the drone camera is very different here from in True Detective, in which James Wan and Nick Pizzolatto fully embrace the paradox of drone cinematography – namely, that the more seamless it is, the less mobile it feels, disembodying and relativising all motion until it is entirely devoid of the frisson of a regular tracking-shot. While taking that to its logical conclusion is fascinating in some ways – the second season of True Detective is nothing if not a consummation of post-cinematic drone – my sense is that directors will increasingly aim to tap into uncanny mobility of drone cinematography without completely capitulating to the banality of drone relativity at the same time.
One of the more drastic examples I have seen of that balance is in Werner Herzog’s latest film, Queen of the Desert, which employs drone cinematography at critical junctures to capture vast desert landscapes, but in such an amateurist, jolted and jarring way that it effectively undoes the kind of seamless mobility-relativity that would seem to make the desert its natural subject matter. Given the aesthetic perfectionism – and digital fluidity – of both Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? I can’t believe that this is mere ineptitude, and in fact one result of this imperfect dronescape is that it paradoxically feels truer to the soaring aerial panoramas of such previous Herzog films as, say, Fata Morgana by refusing to consummate the very seamless fluidity that they were clearly yearning to impart. However, while Herzog’s cultivated drone amateurism is a striking gesture – especially against the lush backdrop of the rest of Queen of the Desert – Malick offers something more like a drone philosophy in Knight of Cups, or at least a more philosophical manifesto for how to employ drone cameras without succumbing to the deadening moroseness of the second season of True Detective. Most immediately, his strategy is to cut rapidly – very rapidly at times – between different drone perspectives, forestalling their movement and distributing it across different spaces and situations. While these shots – which make up the bulk of the film – are nearly always vistas of places, spaces and landscapes, they are too frequent, discontinuous and associative to count as establishing shots. Similarly, while they are nearly always mobile, they are too dissociated from any single object to count as tracking shots either. Instead, collectively, they seem to conjure up a world in which establishing and tracking shots no longer make sense, just because everything and everybody is in the process of converging on a single sensory augmentation, apprehension and awareness. For that reason, it also feels as if editing doesn’t really exist in the film, or at least as if it speaks to a world in which editing is no longer a dominant paradigm. If the classical editing process spoke to a phase of capitalism in which the navigation of everyday life required a linear, teleological and narrative-based organisation of sensory experience, then Malick’s vision instead speaks to a world in which linearity is no longer an option at any level, and the best chance we have is to embrace the cognates – especially the visual cognates – that form such an incredible bridge between Malick’s shots – they are utterly breathtaking – and suffuse every frame of the film with a miraculous serendipity that has to be seen, or filmed, to be believed.
At one level, then, it is tempting to say that Malick promulgates something like an aesthetic of simultaneity, but that is also inadequate, since it discounts the collective momentum of these drone fragments. Instead, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Malick envisages something like a simultaneous yearning, movement and ascension that makes it feel that while each character’s story may be different, they are nonetheless striving for revelation with a collectivity that somehow makes it more imminent for all at the same time. In Cinema 1, Gilles Deleuze speculates that a great director’s body of work, or even a single film from a great director, can sometimes disclose a single pattern, schema or motif beneath all its complexities – or, alternatively, a topology underlying its various topographies. While that doesn’t work for all directors, it is very much true for Malick’s late work, which is preoccupied, in one way or another, with the curve as the image both of some great revelatory ascension but also as the best image for a horizon that has contracted so rapidly in the wake of globalisation that the curvature of the earth can be felt at any point on the planet. And in many ways, Knight of Cups is a consummation of that curve, a film in which we are made to feel the curvature of the earth in every frame, as well as all the little borealic fringes that prevent this totalising experience being homogenising in any ways as well. I think the closest I’ve ever come to this kind of cinematic experience was Alexander Sokurov’s incredible adaptation of Faust, which is shot as if reflected in the corner of a mildewy convex mirror, gradually converging every character, space and object into a single liquid curve. However, whereas Sokurov favours long shots that cement, solidify and reify that curve as a kind of image for the fatalistic closure that drives the Faustian parable, Malick is desperate, at all costs, to keep the curve open, which is presumably why he jumps from dronescape to dronescape so rapidly, as if to prevent us ascending too quickly in any one shot, but also to capture the curve in its sheer collectivity, which is perhaps why the movement from shot to shot, and the corresponding cognates, are so often driven by mobility – the movement of a car on a highway translates into the elevation of a lift – but also why Malick’s movement from shot to shot feels vertical rather than lateral, a gathering of the entire tissue of the film into a rapturous, religious upwards curvature that defies any kind of regular editing.
As might be expected, that curvature is most visible, in some ways, during the moments when Malick pares things back to a topology, since what is most critical about these parking lots, beaches, empty fields and other iterations of the desert is the way that they turn that curvature into a kind of medium in which the audience and characters can bask and commune. Of course, that runs the risk of the fatalism of Faust, but Malick compensates with a sense of blocking, tableau and body language that is entirely his own, populating these spaces with characters wandering, wondering and weaving around each other, effectively offsetting the splendid nakedness of the curve with their own individual contributions to it, like filigree pattens spiralling around a single brilliant line. This sense of movement, and the way Malick positions his actors in space, is one of the most difficult things to describe about the film, and yet one of the most instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen The Tree of Life and To The Wonder. At these moments, it truly feels as if Malick has found a visual vocabulary for the way in which we all inhabit and shape history – or, rather, the way in which history works through us, in the form of a collective grasping to overcome the blindness of any one individual stance or perspective. To me, that very much feels like a kind of Marxist historical affect, but it is perhaps truer to the film to say that this is where Malick manages to craft a mise-en-scene of truly biblical proportions, a wandering in the wilderness in which each character seems to be simultaneously seeking out the still voice at the heart of the storm in their own individual way, reminding me a little of the fragments of mentalese overheard by the angels in Wings of Desire. In Malick’s universe, however, there are no angels, while even the camera doesn’t assume that omniscience, but instead immerses itself in this collective communion in ways that make it feel like a participant, but also conversely make each participant feel like a witness, as if a post-cinematic milieu were one in which we were all witnesses to history in a new way that is at once more opaque but also more immediate as well, caught in a great upwards gaze that seems to turn the sheer act of looking into a new way of both receiving and contributing to collective revelation.
If cinema was a medium, then, post-cinema – or Malick’s brand of post-cinema – is more like a strategy for subsuming the camera in a medium that subsumes every gaze as well. In fact, part of what is striking about the film is that it is neither cinematic nor post-cinematic in terms of the origin, quality and affect of its images, which range from classically framed shots to fragments of digital home movies, but instead possessed of a voracious syncretism whereby any kind of recorded image is subsumed into this billowing, oceanic circumambience, with the result that contemplating any individual shot is a bit like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean. In the ascent from shot to shot, Malick seems to capture the waves of the world crashing, receding, and crashing again, even if the tide itself is steadily receding, leaving a strange new landscape in its wake. From that perspective, one of my favourite little touches is that Malick shoots the Los Angeles River in full flow, filling the entire concrete channel rather than the tiny groove in the middle. In dozens of films, the spectacle of this empty channel has become a kind of synecdoche for the city itself, and in particular for the synergy between desert and freeway ushered in by the most recent of Banham’s transportation diagrams, with films like Grease, Point Break and Gone in 60 Seconds treating it like an extension of the freeways themselves, which perhaps explains its pervasive presence within such open-world racing games as Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V. At the very most, directors will sometimes concede to film the Los Angeles River as a drainage channel – which is actually the most accurate depiction, given how much of its flow now comes from industrial runoff – so it is striking that Malick presents it as the watershed that it once was, billowing out across the channel with a momentum that’s barely contained by its concrete banks. If, as Banham has suggested, the “politics of hydrology” and the rapidly receding “hydrological frontier” played a key role in fixing the boundaries of Los Angeles, then this return of the hydrologically repressed is one of the most subtle of Malick’s own efforts to remap the frontiers of the city, and a testament to the fastidiousness with which he seeks out and makes himself open to the serendipitous, since this kind of flow only takes place a couple of times a year, at the very most.
If the Los Angeles River is startling though, the most surprising cameo may be the Bonaventure Hotel, slipping in and out of the texture of the film as uneventfully as the brief excursion to Vegas, which is never really explained or contextualised. Obviously, a great deal has changed since Robert Venturi and Fredric Jameson wrote respectively about these two spaces as pinnacles of postmodernism, but there is nevertheless something startling about how categorically they have been naturalised in Malick’s vision, where they form just another of the many porous, liquid spaces through which Bale and the other actors move, concatenations of air, sky and light that seem to suspend us between the city and the ground. One consequence of the movement from high postmodernism to late postmodernism in Los Angeles and Las Vegas has been a gradual fusion of the two into a kind of continuous urban sprawl that I’d like to tentatively term San Andreas, not merely because of the amalgam of California and Nevada envisaged by the fictional state of the same name in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but because the rupture of the San Andreas fault speaks eloquently to the way in which this merging is really more of a rupture than a confluence, albeit a rupture of each city from itself in the wake of the digital colonisation of physical space that makes cities ramify less and less as discrete entities. In Malick’s vision, both Los Angeles and Las Vegas are, by virtue of being two of the most cinematic cities in the United States, also spaces where the post-cinematic devolution of cityscape has hit hardest, gelling them into a nascent post-cityscape that is as remarkable, in it way, as the spectacle of the Los Angeles River in full flood, but only because of how unremarkable it renders the Bonaventure Hotel, Caesar’s Place, or any other previously iconic urban site or structure. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis decries what he regards as the 90s “Culture Boom,” an effort to “sell” a homogenised, putatively homegrown Los Angeles culture that draws, variously, from corporate multiculturalism, the influx of Asian capital and the accompanying movement towards a syncretic “Pacific Rim Consciousness,” the entertainment architecture of Frank Gehry and, above all, the various descendants of the “Southern California Dream” promulgated by Kevin Starr, in which the history of the city is rewritten to elide “any historical causality other than seminal individuals attempting to materialize their dreams.” Filming some twenty-five years later, Malick envisages a city sprawl in which all of these culture flagships have lost their brand power precisely by being naturalised, to the point where it often feels as if they have managed to create some real revolutionary potential – especially the “Southern California Dream” – almost despite themselves, with each of the characters seeming to harken back to some formative moment of Southern California only to try and reformulate the city and region in such a way as to render those very formative mythologies redundant. If Malick returns to Los Angeles’ mythological desert, it’s only in the name of a new mythology that will eventually preclude the impulse to return in the first place, in a vision of history – and of the relationship between cinematic nostalgia and post-cinematic futurity – that feels genuinely dialectic in its opposition to the models of linear self-determination promulgated by Starr and his successors, as well as the teleological mythology of Los Angeles itself, in a kind of visualisation of Lenin’s cautionary observation that “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes).”
In that sense, it feels right that the film is set largely amongst the ruling classes, which in Los Angeles means the nexus of cinematic and corporate interests that occupy Downtown and Hollywood, which is where most of the film takes place. In fact, part of what is so powerful about the film is the way in which it frames Los Angeles’ ruling elite as an increasingly insular, irrelevant and insidious cinematic enclave in the midst of a cityscape that has moved beyond them, with Downtown and Hollywood appearing to have been chosen precisely because they are the least characteristic, symptomatic or expressive of Los Angeles at this point in time. Drifting from one party to another, Bale’s character is continually visited by apprehensions of the rest of the city operating outside of these narrow confines, whether in the form of half-glimpsed vistas from hotel rooms, elevators, limousines and other modes of passage from one cloister of wealth to another, or in the radical discontinuity that Malick gradually injects into even the most local, contained and minimal episodes, with the result that it always feels as if Bale’s character’s mind is elsewhere, apprehending a city that he isn’t always directly experiencing. In many ways, music is a critical part of that apprehension, disclosing a radical new continuity on the other side of post-continuity by way of a seamless fusion of classical, post-classical and contemporary ambient electronica. In Post Cinematic Affect, Shaviro observes that the fusion of visual and auditory recording technologies into a single device renders post-cinematic media peculiarly susceptible to audiovisual flux, and there is not a single scene in Knight of Cups that doesn’t bask in this elastic spectrum of continuous classicism and post-continuous ambience, to the point where sound and image don’t exist independently anymore but are instead collapsed into a single synaesthetic texture in which every shot is as inchoate and as far beyond language as the most sublime music. Watching it, I was reminded of the way in which Godard seems to excise everything from his films that might belong to any other medium, since there is something about the scrupulousness with which Malick excises anything that could belong to mere cinema, or mere music, that feels similar in its discipline – and if there’s any other body of work that compares to late Malick, it’s late Godard, with Goodbye to Language, especially, forming a complement and companion piece to Knight of Cups.
It makes sense, then, that Malick’s next film is a musical drama film set in and around the Austin music scene, since the fusion of sound and music is so pronounced here that there is little left for Malick to do other than to simply make a film about music. Originally titled Lawless, this adumbration of Malick’s lifeworld – it feels increasingly wrong to talk about Malick’s films sequentially – has since been changed to Weightless in the wake of John Hillcoat’s 2012 release of the same name, although even the title is still speculative at this stage, with Malick’s new promiscuity seeming to preclude much being released about his films until the very last minute. While Lawless perfectly captured Malick’s experimentalism at this particular moment, there is something even more apt about the way in which Weightless captures the peculiar inchoateness of Malick’s new vision, as well as the contribution of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked with him since The Thin Red Line and is a critical part of his late work as well. In part, that’s because this new audiovisual flux recalibrates the role of cinematographer as much as it recalibrates the role of soundtrack artist, and given the relatively little amount time dedicated to Hanan Townshend’s compositions for the film – which are admittedly beautiful – there is a sense in which Lubezki scores the film with his images as well, or at least effects a fusion of cinematography and music that makes this one of the most remarkable films in his career as well. In fact, insofar as a cinematographic auteurism can be discerned across Lubezki’s work, it often lies in a unique capacity to evoke the rapturous upward gaze so precious to Malick as a synaesthetic experience, or at least a synaesthetic aspiration, the point at which cinema, cinematography and visuality yearn to commune with something beyond their narrow sensory ambit. While there has been a massive backlash against Birdman, I’m still as attached to it as when I first saw it, and Knight of Cups has clarified for me the extent to which Lubezki performed a similar kind of service for Inarritu, suffusing his mise-en-scenes with a vertical momentum that required the lateral discipline of the extended tracking-shot to prevent it ascending too quickly at any one moment, or rising too rapidly to prevent the film playing out in its entirety. In that sense, the tracking-shots of Birdman feel, to me, like nascent drone perspectives, just as their ceaseless, labyrinthine mapping was simply a way of keeping this rapturous upward movement in check until the very last scene, where it seemed to break through the parameters of the cinematic image with a bracing sensory thrust that, like so much of Knight of Cups, seemed to usher in a radically new notion of reality, a sense of “being there” in the freshness of the moment that regular cinema seems to have discarded decades ago. Given how integral that upwards momentum is to the superhero genre – and yet how scrupulously superhero films tend to avoid its actual import – there was something about the way that Inarritu managed to gather and poise the whole film around this rapturous gaze that made it feel like a utopian reprieve from the capitalist realism that has characterised the superhero genre in the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the increasing subsumption of cinema into the MCE itself.
In Knight of Cups, that synergy between Lubezki and his material is even greater, possibly because there is a more radical continuity between sound and image here than occurred in Birdman, or in any of Lubezki’s previous films, even those that he has collaborated upon with Malick. If the distinction between image and soundtrack is often figured as one between sapience and sentience – images tell us how and what to think, soundtracks tell us how and what to feel – then this radical collapse of cinematography and score ensures that Malick’s world ultimately feels like one in which sapience has collapsed back into sentience as well, suffusing his mise-en-scenes with a vast, free-floating sentience that is disconnected from any single act of cognition, but also imbuing each individual shot with the sentience previously ascribed to music. It is no coincidence that the most ponderous, cognitive and “thoughtful” moments of the film are the most disposable, nor that they coincide with Bale’s character’s dual linear trajectories from party to party and back through his own genealogy to confront the father-son issues that have haunted Malick’s latter-day work but are entirely peremptory here, a mere skeleton and point of departure for a vision that exceeds and subsumes that kind of linearity altogether. As a result, I often found myself wondering whether there was an accelerationist manifesto buried somewhere in here, a sense that this post-continuous, post-cinematic, post-postmodern cityscape can only discovered by drenching oneself in the most excessive cinematic capitalism, as Bale’s character does over the course of the film. At the end of the day, though, I don’t think that what’s occurring here is accelerationism, partly because accelerationism is itself an eminently linear program of escalation and intensification, but also because it is programmatic in a way that is at odds with Malick’s mysticism. Rather, Knight of Cups feels like an effort to demonstrate how redemption or revelation can occur in the midst of everything that would seem to preclude it – or, rather to divine redemption and revelation from everything that would seem to preclude it. And in that sense it is a utopian vision, a will to conjure up utopia, that feels like a breath of fresh air in a cinematic milieu that is all too often driven by drab nihilism. Admittedly, Malick’s utopia may sometimes feel like a speculation more than a place, but sometimes, in these times, questions can be even more powerful than answers. In my day-to-day life, scored more or less continuously to much the same combination of ambience that pervades this film, I increasingly find all my gazes moving upwards, not exactly searching for something but driven by a collective buoyancy, restlessness and curiosity that seems to subsist, somehow, despite all the ways in which digital technology alienate me in the very midst of that curiosity. And it is that curiosity that pervades Knight of Cups as well, a will to know, change and collectivise, as every character finds themselves wondering, and enlivened by wondering: “Real life is so hard to find. What is it? How do you get there?”